Are We Board Yet?

I’ve always been fascinated by board games. Over the past three years I’ve acquired quite a nice collection of clever and colorful modern games. We’re not talking Parcheesi, Risk, or Monopoly, though I do have a few classic games on my shelf.

I’d love to have a weekly game night at my house. The trick is finding a few people who are keen to be there. If you’re not into board games as a hobby, you may not know what to expect. Somehow an email invitation doesn’t quite convey the essence of what awaits.

With that in mind, I’m assembling a few photos. If something here piques your interest, you know where to find me.

Let’s start with games that you could learn and enjoy pretty quickly — no massive set of rules to memorize. First up is Nova Luna.

Each turn in Nova Luna you acquire a tile, which you place on the table in front of you adjacent to one or more tiles you’ve already placed. Each tile has a few “tasks” on it, which tell you what tiles this one would like to be adjacent to. A task might be, for instance, one gold and two dark blue. When you complete a task, you put one of your markers on it to show it’s complete. The first player to place all 20 of their markers on their tile layout wins. The usual playing time is no more than 30 minutes.

Sounds almost too simple, right? But there are a couple of wrinkles. For one thing, the turn order is not fixed. The players have turn order markers on the central round, and whoever is in last place takes the next turn. Each tile has a number between 1 and 7, and the more desirable tiles have larger numbers. When you take a tile, you move your marker ahead on the round by that many spaces. So if you grab a really useful tile you may have to wait while a couple of your opponents take two turns. If you take a cheap tile, you might get to take two turns in a row.

Another of my favorites is Century Spice Road:

In Century Spice Road you’re collecting and upgrading your collection of “spices,” which are represented by the colored cubes. Saffron, turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon? It hardly matters. Each turn, you can play a card from your hand to improve your collection of spice cubes — trading in one brown for a green, a red, and a yellow, for instance. As the game goes on, you’ll acquire more powerful cards from the central row and add them to your hand. A lot of strategic thinking is involved, but the things you’re manipulating — cards and cubes — are easy to understand.

Soon you’ll be able to trade some cubes for one of the cards in the left-side row. Those are the cards that are worth points, but their value is variable. Some are easy to acquire and are worth only 6 or 8 points. Others are worth as much as 20 points, but you’ll need a hefty set of cubes to grab one of them. When someone has acquired five point-value cards, the game ends.

A recent addition to my game shelf is Momiji:

The idea in Momiji is that it’s autumn, and the leaves are falling. You’re strolling through the Imperial Garden in Japan, collecting beautiful fallen leaves. There are six types of leaves — that is, cards — and you have to add them to your collection in a certain order, following certain rules. You can also collect acorns (the little coin disks) and spend them, utilize your landscape abilities, and acquire task tokens that will be worth points if you fulfill the task. There’s a fair amount of competition for the desirable leaves in the offer pile. Very satisfying game, and not long or drawn-out.

Instead of cards, Azul uses satisfyingly chunky tiles:

In the first phase of a round, players acquire tiles from the central market and place them on the left side of their mat. In the second phase, tiles are moved over to the grid on the right side, and points are earned. The game ends, usually after five or six rounds, when someone has completed a horizontal row of five tiles on their grid — but if you’re behind in points you may want to choose different tiles from the market so as to avoid completing a horizontal row until you have a chance to catch up.

The rules for how you acquire tiles and how you place them on the grid are easily explained, but planning is essential. There’s some competition, because you can see what tiles your opponents are trying to acquire, so you may be able to pick up some tiles that will thwart their ambitions. Simple procedures, satisfying game-play.

These four games are easy to learn and not too long, but challenging and fun. In a few days I’ll put up some pictures and descriptions of games that are slightly more complicated. Stay tuned for more!

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I’ve memorized a fair amount of piano music. I can sit down at the piano and play for an hour, going through ten or fifteen pieces, without opening any of the books of sheet music that are stacked next to the piano.

What I’ve found as I get older is that the process of playing a memorized piece is becoming less secure. As I slide down the slope from 70 toward 80, the mistakes I make at the keyboard are becoming more frequent. They’re also a great deal more annoying, but that’s a separate topic.

In observing what goes wrong, I’ve learned a few things about how music is memorized.

On the page, a piece of music appears to have a straightforward linear form — or, if you want to be technical, a two-dimensional form. Time moves from left to right, and the pitches are arranged vertically, perpendicular to the time axis. However, that two-dimensional structure has very little to do with how a piece of piano music is stored and retrieved in the brain.

Several brain systems are intimately involved in the storage and retrieval process. Yes, there’s a linear component, which we might call “the music” if we’re not being too analytical, but it’s stored as audio — as a panorama of the expected sounds — not as patterns of dots on the page. The visual memory may also be involved in storing and retrieving the patterns of dots, but I find that that’s one of the least important facets of memorization.

The expected patterns of muscle movement by the fingers (and of course the forearms, because the hands don’t remain stationary) are stored in a different part of the brain from the auditory memories. The fingering memory involves and probably relies to some extent on tactile feedback — the sensations that the fingers transmit back to the brain as the keys are struck. If I hit the edge of a key rather than the center, the fingering memory can get confused.

There seem also to be short snippets — individual musical phrases — that are stored in a slightly different manner. It’s not precisely auditory memory, it’s pattern memory.

Let’s not neglect the music theory memory. If you know how chords and harmony work, and how classical pieces are constructed by the composer out of motifs and larger structures that recur and are altered in certain systematic ways, your brain will be retrieving some or all of that information as you play the piece.

Event memory is yet another system: If I have trouble with a particular spot (such as, let’s say, an awkward trill followed by a leap of the hand in a Haydn sonata movement), as that spot in the music approaches I’ll be aware that it’s approaching, and I’ll be reminding myself, perhaps even sub-verbally, to devote special attention to it.

Above all this is what I would call the manager. The manager — perhaps we should call it the conductor — has neural connections to all of those other memory systems, and calls them up in an appropriate order, so that the piece is executed.

As I get older, I’m finding that all sorts of bad things can happen during this process, any of which will result in a mistake in performance. I become aware of the various systems by observing how they go wrong.

Any of the brain regions described above can decide to take a little nap. Often it will be the fingering memory that falters: For a second or two the neurons that store the finger movements will become unavailable. What happens at that point can vary. The auditory memory may still be perfectly aware of what’s supposed to be happening, in which case the manager will try to improvise a fingering. This effort may even succeed, but it will more likely fail.

Sometimes the fingering memory will just do the wrong thing, in which case the music may be fine for half a second or so, after which the mistake will cause a train wreck. Wiring things up correctly (shift to the fourth finger here, not to the third) enlists the event memory to help the fingering memory.

When the fingering fails, the manager can get lost. If this happens, the whole production grinds to a halt. The manager is not simply sending out commands to the various subsystems — it’s also getting moment-to-moment feedback from the other systems. If the feedback from another system fails, the manager loses track of how to spool the various oncoming events. The only solution is to stop and go back to a known starting point, which may be the beginning of the piece or a distinctive spot within the piece, and start the manager again.

Sometimes the short-phrase pattern memory gets things a little jumbled. My fingers will occasionally skip a note in a phrase. This can happen because the pattern memory thinks one of the notes has already been played, or perhaps several of the notes.

On rare occasions the auditory memory or the manager will take a two-second snooze but the fingering memory will continue flawlessly, in which case the piece is not interrupted. “My fingers knew what to do!” I cry triumphantly (though usually not out loud).

I’m starting to see mistakes in the fingering system that seem to be due to declining precision in proprioception. Proprioception is such a new field of study that the spell-checker in the online editing software I’m using to write this doesn’t even know the word! It’s one of our senses, just like taste and hearing, but it was unknown until just a few years ago, because it’s so obvious. Proprioception is your sense of where your body parts (arms, legs, etc.) are in space. In rare cases due to a brain lesion, the proprioception can fail. If this happens, the sufferer can’t even sit up in bed, because they literally don’t know where their arms and legs are, even though the sensory nerves in their skin are still working just fine.

If I need to reach, let’s say, an octave down with the fifth finger of my left hand, but my sense of proprioception isn’t focusing well, I may reach too far or not far enough. The fingering memory was operating correctly, but it wasn’t getting enough input, so the muscles didn’t take the finger to the right spot.

It’s likely that proprioception can dim as we get older. That’s why old people trip and fall down, run into doors, and spill things. Not that young people never do that stuff; maybe it’s just that old people don’t recover when they stumble because their reflexes are slower. That would apply to piano playing too, I suppose. But because my eyes and ears are not what they used to be, I’m a bit suspicious that my proprioception may be dimming too.

Sometimes the fingers and the auditory memory both falter, and the music theory steps in to try to fill the gap. Instead of the root of the chord, my left hand might land on the fifth of the chord.

Often in classical music, two passages will be very similar in auditory terms, but they’re in different keys. Because of the layout of the keyboard, this may require a different fingering.If the manager consults the auditory memory but not the music theory memory before sending instructions to the fingers, the fingers may try to play the wrong pattern.

There are also moments, fortunately not frequent, when my improvisation module decides to get in on the act. I may find that my eye is looking at a wrong note and then the finger plays the wrong note, or starts in that direction, just because the improviser thought it might be an interesting note.

And then we get to the distractions. A noise outside in the street can throw the manager completely off the trail. Or I might be thinking about something I read on Facebook (and got pissed off about). Again, the playback system grinds to a halt.

The music theory monitor will sometimes distract the manager/conductor. This can happen when I play one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for instance, because the Goldbergs have a complex theoretical basis. The pattern memory is producing a melodic snippet, and the theory module says, “Hey, is that the main theme coming back in an inversion?” Trying to work out whether it is or isn’t involves musical analysis, and musical analysis forces the manager to do something different from conducting.

I don’t know whether all this detail is covered in the scientific literature on piano playing. I don’t even know if there is any scientific literature on piano playing. (Surely there must be!) I just think it’s worth documenting, because I happen to be paying attention. Sometimes I shout at myself, or stamp my feet and swear, because it gets pretty damn frustrating. I know the piece, I’ve played it a hundred times, but today I can’t get through the first eight bars without something going haywire.

Maybe getting old would be easier if I wasn’t paying attention.

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Call Me Irresponsible

The fourth of Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Three years ago, several hundred UU ministers signed on (literally) in a thuggish attack against one of their fellow ministers, Todd Eklof, who had had the unspeakable temerity to publish and distribute a book. The book, The Gadfly Papers, made some observations and raised some questions about the direction in which UU leadership has been taking the denomination.

Not only did those hundreds of other ministers violate their own covenant by criticizing a fellow minister publicly rather than raising their concerns in private, they plainly wanted nothing to do with a free and responsible search for truth. We can judge this by the fact that the open letter that they all signed unequivocally refused to enter into debate with any of the points Eklof had raised in his book. The responsible thing to do would have been to quote the passages in the book that they found objectionable and to explain the manner in which they were convinced Eklof had erred.

They did nothing of the kind. And really they had little choice, since there was not a word in the book that was actually objectionable. (If you think I’m wrong about this, then please — cite specific sentences in the book, and explain your objection to those sentences. If you try to take me to task for defending the book without being specific in your dissent, I will delete your comments.)

A responsible search for truth requires free and respectful debate over ideas. Attacking a book and claiming that it caused “harm” while refusing to debate the ideas in the book or demonstrate the alleged harm just makes you an asshole. One has, then, no alternative but to conclude that quite a lot of the ministers in Unitarian Universalism are assholes.

When I discussed this with the former minister of my local congregation (without, I should add, calling her an asshole), she placed some emphasis on the word responsible. She plainly felt that Eklof’s criticisms were not responsible. I don’t recall that she was able to articulate the manner in which they were irresponsible, but I’ve continued to mull it over.

Without wading too deep into the swamps of postmodern anti-racism and identity politics, I think we can guess that the problem with the book was that it hurt some people’s feelings. It raised questions that made some people uncomfortable. Just reading the table of contents was enough for some of them to become uncomfortable; it’s pretty well established that quite a lot of the original signers of the open letter savaging the book had not read the book.

What puzzles me, I confess, is how I would identify an irresponsible search for truth and meaning. What would such a search look like? If it were irresponsible, how would I know?

In a search for truth and meaning, observations may sometimes be voiced or questions raised that make some people uncomfortable. They may make the person who is doing the searching uncomfortable, or they may make other people uncomfortable. I take it as axiomatic — axiomatic, damn it! — that the mere presence of this sort of discomfort cannot possibly be an indication that the search is irresponsible. A search for truth and meaning will sometimes make people uncomfortable, perhaps deservedly so. If it never makes anybody uncomfortable, it’s not an effective search, it’s just pablum.

Okay, I think I can give one example of an irresponsible search for truth. It’s generally accepted (and I would certainly agree) that asking a male-to-female transsexual about her genital surgery is extremely rude. If you’re genuinely in search of the truth about this type of surgery, go look it up on the internet. Asking someone a personal question about their genitals, unless you’re dating them and in a rapidly advancing phase of mutual ardor, is irresponsible, and you don’t get to defend yourself by saying you were just searching for truth.

Maybe there are other examples. Maybe asking someone why they decided to have their dog euthanized is an irresponsible search for truth. It’s none of your business. But raising difficult questions about the direction your religious denomination is headed? No. That can’t possibly be irresponsible, even if you’re dead wrong.

A guy I used to know was fond of quoting — well, he claimed he was quoting — André Gide: “Follow those who seek the truth, and flee from those who have found it.” The UU ministers who felt it was their mission to bully Todd Eklof into silence were, I’m quite sure, convinced that they had found and were in possession of The Truth.

Be that as it may, my question remains unanswered. If I’m to have any hope of following the Fourth Principle, I need to know: What would an irresponsible search for truth and meaning look like?

In fact, the question is deeper than that, because the Fourth Principle enshrines “a free and responsible search.” A searcher who tiptoes around in an effort to be responsible is not searching freely. A free search may, once in a while, transgress into irresponsibility. Potentially, at least, the two terms contradict one another. How are they to be reconciled?

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Artificial, yes. Intelligence, no.

This morning I had an interesting 90-minute Zoom discussion about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in producing works of art. I expect it to be uploaded soon to the Synth & Software website.

Music has always been a collaborative art. Even in the 18th century, few musicians built their own instruments. Orchestral and chamber musicians seldom play their own compositions; they’re collaborating with composers. In the pop music world today, you can buy and use beats (drum loops, with or without other instruments) and craft your own songs by collaborating with musicians you’ve never met and whose names you don’t even know.

In that sense, the use of software to generate musical ideas is not a radical departure. I could dissect some of the details, but I want to look at a different field.

Can AI software generate reasonable approximations of fiction, or even ideas that you can use as springboards for your own fiction? No, it can’t. Whether it will ever be able to is, I would say, very doubtful.

An AI can be fed ten thousand works of fiction, and can analyze the input searching for patterns. That’s what AI does: It searches for patterns. In the case of prose paragraphs, the patterns consist of groups of words. But an AI does not know what any of the words mean.

I did a search for AI services that generate prose, and shortly found myself on a site called sasswords. This site invites you to enter a “prompt” of 15 to 30 words, after which, at the touch of a button, the AI will generate a paragraph or two. Calling the output a story would be stretching the term until it twangs like a rubber band. It’s just word hash.

Let’s look at what sasswords wrote. The prompt I dreamed up was this: “The sun rose over the steaming jungle. The shrill cries of brilliantly colored birds assaulted our ears as we lay trembling in the mud.” I had no particular idea in mind for this, it just popped up out of my unconscious.

Here’s what the AI produced:

The sun rose over the steaming jungle. The shrill cries of brilliantly colored birds assaulted our ears as we lay trembling in the mud. The first creature that we saw stood on the banks of a stream, looking towards the sea as the sun set behind it, the birds flapping in its wake, singing to it in response to the rising sun. At the sight of its reflection, I began to laugh. In the first few seconds, its head turned towards us. Its eyes were two large, empty black pits. We were its eyes, we thought, then turned back to our task. Our eyes had been turned by an enormous creature who stood a kilometer away, a hundred times bigger than the gargantuan fish we were.

We had seen the creature before. A few days earlier, when it had taken over a planet, our very first encounter with it occurred when the planet had already been transformed. When it took over, an underground city had fallen to its claws. Before the day was out, all life disappeared. A single moment of human life had disappeared in that city. Now, in this hour, every living creature on our planet was gone. No, not gone, just gone.

We had come too late, he said. He smiled. My father had told him about my father, my grandfather, as they called him. What had my Grandfather done to him? My grandfather had not done anything. Not anything at all. None of them had done any of it to me! I realized that my laughter was not directed at him, or the others.

Wow! Here’s another AI-generated story opener, starting from the same prompt:

The sun rose over the steaming jungle. The shrill cries of brilliantly colored birds assaulted our ears as we lay trembling in the mud. It was late morning, the sun was going down. We had heard the sounds of crickets earlier, when we had first awoken, from the woods. So it seemed that we were not entirely alone and that the jungle was not so far away. Yet I knew that it still hadn’t dawned. And that, in fact, we would not see the rest of our time here, not for a very long time. Or until we died.

I was the first to wake. There was no sign of anyone else. In fact I don’t think anyone had ever moved in. But the morning dawns over some of your fellow humans here and then they are gone for good. No one here has a pulse. Some of them are still alive, by the looks of it, while others are just skin and bones, a little slower than most. One of my fellow humans, she was an African, had been dead for just about an hour. She had a pretty good head on her, which I suspected she would want to keep. With the one we called the man. He was about 50, I guessed, tall and broad, like me a bit, a short and stout figure in his own right. His eyes were closed, one hand held the other, his eyes closed as he slept, eyes open, hands on his chest. When he opened them and saw us he was smiling. Our faces were covered in mud, just like the others. Though I hadn’t realized how muddy they were, or how thick. By the look of him I assumed he’d been drinking at least. That’s how I came to find him. Another was just a slight figure. Perhaps a girl. Her face was still covered. A man was slumped over. Again, our faces covered, as well as the woman. Where we stood was the tip of a tree, looking down at a clearing in the middle of this. Behind us were an old man, an elderly man with a cane, holding an infant in each arm, who was asleep.

I claim that these raw outputs make the principle clear. The AI cannot produce meaningful fiction, because it does not know what words mean. The sun setting as it’s rising, a man who is tall but also short, a man with his eyes closed and also open. Beyond that, no story is being told. There is nothing even faintly resembling action or a coherent scene.

Perhaps the underlying question is this: How could a team of software engineers be so utterly clueless that they would think this tripe is worth being offered to the public? I can understand how the software is failing; what I don’t understand is how the people are failing.

In real fiction, or for that matter in almost any other type of writing, the meanings of sentences and paragraphs are not on the page at all; they’re assembled in our brains. And the wetware we use to assemble the meanings has access to enormous amounts of subconscious or semi-conscious knowledge about the real world. Nobody has to tell a human writer that a tall man can’t be short, or that people who don’t have a pulse cannot still be alive.

Music is entirely abstract, so in some sense an AI can produce an acceptable analysis of musical patterns. Music software can quite easily generate ideas that we might never think of ourselves, and a skilled musician can then take those ideas, perhaps massage them, and build on them to produce a satisfying piece of music. But prose? No. I assert confidently that software cannot write a short story, and will never be able to.

Artificial intelligence is a one-trick pony. And if you look at the sentence I just wrote, look at it carefully, you’ll notice not only that software does not know what a pony is, nor a trick, nor what it means for there to be only one of something; beyond that, the software is not likely to have access to any of the cultural references implicit in the phrase “one-trick pony.” It might have the phrase available in a database, but it cannot know what the phrase means.

Some things, such as writing fiction, will remain the domain of humans for the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing. Other observations could be made about AI-assisted creativity; I may return to this topic later, but a nice splash of cold water is a good place to start.

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Shooting Fish in a Barrel

I’ve been looking around for a writing buddy — someone who is on the same wavelength as me, preferably a novelist who has published at least one book. The idea being, we check in with one another a couple of times a week for mutual encouragement and support. In pursuit of this grand dream, I’ve joined a few online writing groups.

What I’m discovering, which I pretty much knew already, is that most of the aspiring writers out there are not operating at a professional level. Many of them couldn’t even swim up to a professional level if a shark bit them on the ass. There’s a lot of bad writing in the world.

I would not slag any of the people in any of the online groups I’ve joined. Politeness forbids it. But sometimes you have to have a little fun. While searching on Amazon to see if anyone had used the title I’m considering for my next book, I was intrigued enough to click on a book cover and open the Look Inside. I’m not going to mention this author’s name, nor the title of her novel. My purpose is not to shame her for her fulsome incompetence. I just thought maybe one of my five regular readers might enjoy seeing some of the mistakes they themselves know better than to make.

Or maybe a reminder might not be amiss.

This book is in the middle of a fantasy series. Evidently the previous volume ended with a cliffhanger. A battle (Medieval, a staple of classic fantasy) has not been going according to plan. So here’s the opening of the new book:

I do not like that woman!”

Rowan Orr spat. Turning to his left, he glared at Sur Percival. Both laid elbow- deep in the mud. Under burlap capes they shielded themselves from the relentless autumn sleet. Cursing his luck, they peered at the battle scene just feet below. Their strewn troops were divided and hacked like kindling. Ruthlessly the woman known only as the Daudur Hjarta plowed over their men. The frozen hairs of his wet mane stood on end. Within minutes his obliviated army laid in piles of mangled corpses high enough to reach the heavens, though today the Gods were not laughing. He glared at the raven of her black-on-black banner raised high against the otherwise pitch skies and spat for a second time.

Amazing, isn’t it? For starters, “laid” is used twice where “lay” would be correct. The space after the hyphen (elbow- ) is in the Kindle page, that’s not my typo. The understatement in the opening line is bad enough to be hilarious. Note the blithe skipping from “his” to “they.” Note the odd proximity of these two men lying in the mud to the gory battle “just feet below.” Something that is frozen is not wet, and apparently his hair has frozen standing upright, which suggests that perhaps someone has pinned his hair to a clothes-line. I can’t think of any other explanation.

Note the badly strained simile. Note the intrusion of the scholarly word “obliviated,” which undercuts the tone. And then we get to a black banner which is somehow visible against a black sky.

Breathtaking, isn’t it? Let’s go on just a little further.

“She has a death wish!” Rowan cursed to the damp air. He shifted his body in the muck to meet the sordid stare of Sur Percival.

Behind the woman, her minions set fire to anything in her path. He looked at the splattered faces of his startled men and then to the smoking canopy overhead. Just that morning he swore vengeance and vowed neither she nor he would leave the field alive. He cursed as they celebrated the success of a small victory earlier that day. They surrounded and pushed the Daudur and her army almost back to the river. He sneered now as he looked on in horror at the bloodbath. Wiping gore from his brow, he watched his men fall to their knees in scores for a war they had no pledge in. Anxiously he regarded the smoking pine from behind, to retreat was their only option or be caught between the bitch and the fires. Again, his strained red eyes peered down on the fierce maiden. He cracked his jaw with his palm and sneered. He would deal with her, but not this eve.

“Sound the horn,.” he regrettably said. “We retreat.”

“Lord?” He turned to his nephew.

“A wise man does not engage in a battle he cannot win,” he spat again.

Defeated, Sur Percival removed his helm and rubbed his sweaty, throbbing temples. He glared down at the bloody chaos with a frown….

Wowza! Where to start? How is it he thinks a woman who is winning a battle has a death wish? What would a sordid stare look like? Bad choice of adjective. Is the whole battle taking place under a smoking canopy? That’s a small battle, I’d guess. And where are the poles that must be holding up the canopy? Okay, I’m kidding. I know the author meant “canopy” to be a reference to the sky. But in that case, “smoking” is wrong. The sky is not smoking; it’s smoke-filled.

The Daudur’s minions are behind her, yet they seem to be setting fire to what’s in her path, which would of necessity be ahead of her. Yes, “her path” could be the path she has just traversed, but if that’s what the author meant, it should have been written differently. And since nothing has been mentioned other than the bodies of the hacked-apart defeated army, it’s hard to see what the minions were setting fire to. Recently dead bodies don’t burn well unless you splash gasoline on them, and we’re in a Medieval setting. No gasoline.

If his men have already been hacked to kindling, “startled faces” is kind of an ironic understatement, suitable for comedy, not for this scene. He has sworn to die by attacking the woman (an odd oath), but evidently he is in the process of forswearing his oath, as he’s not rushing to take her on in single combat, he’s just lying there in the mud.

Note the double punctuation after “horn.” I copied that directly from the Kindle file.

Then we get to the verb tense problem. When did he curse? At the earlier celebration, or now, in recalling the earlier celebration? And now he’s sneering at a bloodbath, which is surely the wrong reaction. A sneer indicates contempt. How did he get gore on his brow? Is it his own gore, or has he been splattered? And now those men who were hacked into kindling in a previous paragraph are falling to their knees.

Next, a run-on sentence — a comma-splice. Is a single pine tree smoking? If he’s behind the smoking pine, how is he able to see the battle? The word “behind” is very confusing. Describing his eyes from the outside is a viewpoint shift, and another one is coming up at the end of this passage, as suddenly we’re in Sur Percival’s point of view. “Regrettably” is either wrong, or an authorial intrusion (meaning, he shouldn’t have done it); “regretfully” would have been stiff, but correct. “He turned to his nephew” is in the wrong paragraph; evidently someone else is saying, “Lord?”, so that sentence, which is in his point of view, should start the following paragraph. And then “he spat again” is used as a dialog tag, which is just plain bad writing. You can’t spit an entire sentence.

We’re left wondering: Did this author hire a line editor? It seems not very likely. If she did, either she hired an incompetent (because she didn’t know how to identify a good one) or she chose to ignore what the editor told her. All of her clumsy mistakes are readily avoidable. The scene would still have been a dreadful cliché, but it could have been made to read smoothly.

On the other hand, she wouldn’t have needed a line editor if she knew how to write. The lesson is clear: When the other hopeless amateurs in your writing group tell you you’re doing great, you must not trust their judgment. You must learn to write!

Again, my purpose is not to attack this particular author, who I’m sure is a very nice person and sincerely committed to the furtherance of her literary endeavors. This passage is meant to serve only as a reminder to other aspiring authors: Learn about dialog tags and comma-spliced run-on sentences. Learn about verb tenses. If you aren’t certain of the meaning of a word like “sordid” or “regrettably,” look it up. The same goes for “maiden”: It seems not very likely that this evil commander has never in her life had sexual intercourse, and if that’s the implication the author intends, it should have been made explicit somehow.

If you can learn to picture the scene clearly in your own mind, you’ll avoid mistakes like having dead men fall to their knees after they’ve been set on fire. This author seems to feel it’s sufficient simply to sling onto the page whatever impassioned sentences burble up into her consciousness. To write well demands of the author a great deal more than that.

Whew! That’s quite a laundry list of problems. Surely we’ve said everything that needs to be said. Well, no. Those are the little problems. There are also some big problems.

It is a general rule of genre fiction that when writing an action scene — and a Medieval battle is certainly an action scene — you must describe the events in strict chronological sequence. It’s poor technique to jump backward and forward in your authorial time machine in order to mention something you couldn’t fit in earlier or to hint about something that’s about to happen. When you do that, it jerks the reader out of the scene for a moment, because you’re forcing the reader to assemble the sliced-up segments of the movie. In an action scene one wants the reader to be fully immersed in what’s happening. If the reader has to stop and think, you’ve made a mistake. In more relaxed scenes, this rule can be relaxed somewhat, but only if you have a solid reason for putting the events out of sequence.

In the passage I’ve quoted, there is no action sequence at all. The author has laid down a bunch of disconnected sentences. Essentially, she is giving us a motionless snapshot of a complex scene. She is telling us about the scene rather than showing us the action. Show, don’t tell. She may have thought she was showing when she added all those highly colorful words, but in the most important sense she was telling, not showing.

Last but certainly not least, her viewpoint character, who is clearly the commanding officer of this unfortunate army, is not doing anything! He has sworn to kill the Daudur, and there she is, clearly visible, slaughtering his men, but how does he respond? He lies in the mud and watches passively. This is poor characterization — a valiant commander would not have failed to act. It’s also a failure of narrative. In plotted genre fiction, the protagonist must actively attempt to overcome his or her difficulties. A passive protagonist can work very well in literature, but in plotted genre fiction the reader expects the protagonist to confront the plot difficulties by taking action.

Once upon a time, there were gatekeepers. But then the digital revolution opened the floodgates. Nowadays, anybody can publish a novel, and a lot of anybodies do. As Samuel Morse once remarked, “What hath God wrought?”

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Slinging Bullshit

Tonight on Facebook one of my friends posted some images of a thread about how a Harry Potter game has some implied anti-Jewish bigotry in it. I haven’t seen the game, but the description made it seem pretty bad. So okay, I wouldn’t have bought the game anyway. But along the way, the text in the images repeated the idea that J. K. Rowling is transphobic.

This is simply not true. It’s a vile slander. But you don’t have to believe me; you can read her own words here. What concerns me is that when I responded to the original post by saying, in essence, “Yeah, gee, that game looks pretty bad, but Rowling is not transphobic,” I immediately got piled on by three of my friend’s friends.

So I invited them, one at a time: Show me a single statement by Rowling that is transphobic. I got the entirely predictable, threadbare, and stinky response: Google it yourself. This is not just intellectually irresponsible; it’s evil. If you’re going to attack somebody, you have a moral obligation to check to make sure you have your facts straight. And if you know the facts, you’ll be able to provide links. If you have no links, you’re just following along with the crowd. You’re attacking another human being because somebody told you to attack them. Maybe you think it’s cool.

One guy said Rowling’s Twitter feed is full of transphobia, so I went over to Twitter. Nope. Her Twitter feed, like any other writer’s feed, is full of promotions for her new books. She also explains that a a tweet she uploaded and then deleted was supposedly transphobic, and that somebody supposedly took a screenshot of it and then retweeted it. Trouble is, the screenshot was a lie. Some shitwad was going out of their way to slam Rowling, and they were doing it by flagrantly lying.

One of the people who refused to back up her opinions in my Facebook conversation is a scientist. She knows how important evidence is. But when I pointed that out, she not only refused to provide evidence, she refused to change her opinion of Rowling.

What’s going on here? Is it just mass hysteria? Probably a lot of it is, yeah. Mass hysteria, media overload, and a widespread inability to take intellectual responsibility. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that.

The undergirding philosophy here (if we can dignify it by calling it a philosophy) comes from Critical Theory. Critical Theory is being used not just to analyze racial relations but in other areas as well. It’s a premise of Critical Theory that the “lived experience” of marginalized people is to be accepted as an absolute statement of truth. If you’re gay, trans, black, disabled, or whatever, any statements that you make about your experience of bigotry at the hands of white cisgendered heterosexual men are not to be questioned or analyzed. Your statements are to be accepted at face value as fact. Questioning and analyzing, you see, are supposedly tools the white cisgendered heterosexual men use to keep you marginalized. That’s what Critical Theory teaches.

It’s bullshit. Being marginalized and discriminated against does not entitle you to a presumption that your thinking is free of error. A gay black man in a wheelchair is just as likely to be confused as anybody else. One would think that would be obvious.

The position of many radical trans activists is in line with Critical Theory. If someone has genitalia Y but insists that she is really an X, or vice versa, their lived experience of their gender identity is not to be questioned. If someone with a penis says she’s a woman, you don’t get to question it. She gets to go to the ladies’ restroom.

Most trans women do not want to make trouble in restrooms! They want to take care of the necessities, wash their hands, fluff their hair, and then get on with their day. But if you think no high-school or college boy could ever conceivably claim to be trans, strictly in order to gain unfettered and unchallengeable access to women’s restrooms, I’d love to sell you some shares in a nice bridge in New York City, because that’s how gullible you are. It won’t happen very often, but it can happen.

This is one of Rowling’s concerns. She is concerned about any social movement that makes women (including trans women) less safe.

She also points out, quite rightly, that some young people, especially girls, may see claiming a trans identity as an escape from bullying or as a faulty way of coming to grips with being gay. They may choose to have surgical alterations that they later deeply regret.

Dare we assume such a thing never happens? Only an idiot would think it couldn’t happen. Fifty years ago there were gatekeepers (most of them white cisgendered heterosexual men, unfortunately) who would prescribe a careful course of transition for people who felt convinced their identity was at odds with their biological sex. That system was certainly too narrow and controlling, but today we have the opposite problem. If you say you’re trans and want surgery, nobody can tell you to hold your horses. Critical Theory assures you that you’re automatically right.

One of the ideas for which Rowling has been attacked is her insistence that biological womanhood has a meaning for biological women. It’s not a garment that you can put on. This flies in the face of the Critical Theory notion that anybody who says they’re a woman is a woman.

Rather than have a robust discussion of this topic, the woke mob goes on the attack. What does it actually mean to feel that you’re a woman even though your plumbing doesn’t agree? This is not a simple matter, because one’s sense of oneself may fluctuate from minute to minute, from day to day, or from year to year. Personal identity is not an either/or matter. But Critical Theory has birthed identity politics, and identity politics is very much an either/or concept. Either you’re in the group, or you’re not.

Also, the term “transphobic” needs to be unpacked. A phobia is a fear. Some phobias are more sensible than others; fear of heights (acrophobia), for instance, is not entirely irrational. Nothing Rowling has ever written indicates that she fears trans people. “Transphobic” is simply a label that the woke gender community slaps on anybody who dares to question their view of what’s right and proper. This is very similar to how the anti-racist zealots label any attempt to disagree with their agenda as an expression of “white supremacy.” It’s bullshit. It’s tossing a verbal hand grenade in order to show how woke you are.

There are white supremacists in the world. Pointing out that self-appointed authorities on anti-racism, such as Robin diAngelo, are full of shit does not make you a white supremacist. In the same way, pointing out some of the rough edges in the current cultural movement toward acceptance of gender variance does not make you transphobic. It’s an easy label, but it’s being misapplied by people who have nothing better to do than hate you if you don’t agree with them 100%.

There are real, painful issues in the socialization of trans women and trans men. Viable answers are difficult to come by. But if you think the right thing to do is to attack a thoughtful, compassionate woman because she had the audacity to point out some of the limitations of the current trend — if you think your attacks are going to lead to a happy future for everybody — you’re full of shit.

Telling people to shut up because you don’t like what they’re saying is what fascists do. Having a rational discussion requires that you be willing to listen and think. I’m not sure why so many people find listening and thinking distasteful, but it’s a common human failing.

Oh, and in case you think I’m just an old white guy attacking trans people … I don’t usually talk about this, but I’ve used women’s restrooms while dressed as a woman. More than once. That was years ago, and I don’t propose to talk about my gender identity, because it’s none of your business. I’m not transsexual, but I do identify as part of the trans community. And I want nothing to do with the childish ranting of these hate-filled trans activists. Some of us are more mature than that.

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How’s This for Openers?

Mark Twain once said, “Stopping smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” In a slight twist, I’ve stopped writing fiction forever, not hundreds of times, certainly, but probably at least a dozen. Sooner or later I always start up again.

I’ve been batting around some ideas for a new mystery that’s set in a fantasy world. Discarding various approaches to the project, dreaming up new angles. The lovely thing about fantasy mystery, of course, is that you don’t need to research police procedure. You can make it up as you go along.

Last night I joined a nearby critique group that’s very active, people reading from their works in progress and others then responding for a few minutes. This went on for three hours, with twelve readers given 15 minutes each. And I have nothing to read to them, so I felt I ought to write something.

This morning I started out with a handful of fuzzy ideas. I sharpened them up a bit and then wrote a very satisfactory 3,000-word opening chapter. 3,000 words is a lot, but the truth is, I’m a pro. I can write that much in one day without breaking a sweat. The hard part is figuring out what to write! So tomorrow I won’t write the next chapter. Tomorrow I’ll start developing an outline.

I’ve been mulling over this handful of ideas for months, off and on. It’s not like you hit the ground running with no foundation laid. Last week I did some fairly serious world-building. When writing fantasy, I feel it’s advisable to do the world-building before you hatch the plot. Trying to fit a world around a plot that you’ve already committed to can be difficult.

I still don’t know who the criminals are or what their twisted agenda is — all I know is what they’ve done. What they’ve done presents a vivid and difficult plot problem, one with a time limit and the prospect of mayhem if my urbane sleuth doesn’t learn the truth. In the course of introducing the story, not only did I discover a nice emotional dynamic between the sleuth and his assistant, but the nature of the plot problem took a twist that I had not remotely anticipated.

This is how it’s supposed to work. I’m happy.

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Yes, we’re gearing up yet again for one of the most pathetic hoaxes of the 21st century, National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). I don’t know who started this execrable nonsense, and I don’t want to know. It has certainly caught on, though. NaNoWriMo is such a big deal, this year Stanford (which was considered at one time to be a respectable institute of higher learning) is offering an online course for people who would like to Sha-Na-Na their NoWriMo. The cost is a mere $505.

Money burning a hole in your pocket? Go for it. Or you could just send the money to me. For that price I can do you a lot more good than Stanford will.

What’s wrong with NaNoWriMo? I thought you’d never ask.

The idea is, if you sit down and write every day throughout the month of November, at the end of the month you will have written a novel. This idea is profoundly deceptive, however. What you will have written is a thick sheaf of drivel. A useless wad of cringe-inducing verbiage.

How can I be so certain of this? It’s easy. If you’ve never written a novel before, you can have no possible idea how to proceed in order to craft an effective rough draft. And if you have written novels before, I won’t need to explain it to you. You’ll already know that writing a novel takes longer than that. Sometimes a lot longer.

If you’ve never written a novel, writing 2,000 words a day is going to be a real challenge. Either you’ll just throw anything you think of onto the page (hence the Dri in the heading above, which is short for Drivel), or you’re going to crash and burn long before November 30.

I can write 2,000 words of rough draft in a single day without breaking a sweat. But I’m a pro. Also, I’m retired. And I couldn’t do it every day for 30 days in a row, because somewhere around day 11 or 12 I’m going to realize that the story needs more thought. I will then spend the next five or six days revising my plot outline. And that’s if everything is going smoothly! I once wrote a novel in only four months. It’s the worst novel I’ve ever written. I really need to find the typescript and burn it.

So right off the top, NaNoWriMo is a con. But the reality is worse than that. Of the hundred thousand people who decide to take the challenge, maybe one in fifty will produce a complete manuscript. That’s 2,000 manuscripts. After which, they will pat themselves on the back for having written a novel, and they will decide to get it published. It will be an appalling mess, but not one aspiring novelist in a hundred will know that. Having not the faintest idea what’s involved in writing a decent novel, they will proudly send their creative effort off to one literary agent after another, clogging the arteries of the publishing industry with schlock — or else they’ll figure out how to upload it directly to Amazon and clog the digital marketplace with schlock.

The world does not need any more awful fiction. Please — don’t write anything for NaNoWriMo.

Now about that Stanford course. The web page says they’ll accept up to 160 students. That’s $80,000, and you can darn well bet Stanford will keep most of it. The instructor may get a quarter of that, if she’s lucky. And for your $505 you get a total of 18 hours of online lecture, with no personal feedback from the instructor on your work.

Also, the course description says you’ll be writing 1,500 words a day, not 2,000. This just in: A 45,000-word manuscript is not marketable as a novel, unless you’re writing Middle Grade. Somebody at Stanford needs to do a little market research.

The instructor is a woman named Samina Ali. Her debut novel won a prestigious award in France, so she’s a real writer, by golly. However, she won the award in 2005, and she hasn’t written a novel since then. She hasn’t written a novel in 17 years, but she’s going to teach you how to write one in 30 days. Yeah, right.

Gee, Jim, aren’t you being too harsh? Maybe she has written several novels since then, but they haven’t been published. Well, no. If you’ve won a prestigious award for your debut novel, any halfway decent publisher will be happy to snap up your second book. If Ali had written another novel, it would have been published. She may be a terrific instructor — I have no way of judging that. But there’s a disconnect here.

Want to write a novel? Good for you! I applaud your desire — go for it! Buy a few how-to-write books. Join a critique group. Read widely in and outside of your chosen genre. Learn the ins and outs of English grammar and prose style. In only a couple of years, you may be able to produce a decent first novel. Possibly … if you’re as smart as a whip and not too full of yourself to listen to constructive criticism. No guarantees.

But in 30 days? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

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Get It Right, and Get It Written

I’ve written two novels that are historical mysteries. One of them is unpublished, and I’ll probably never get around to revising it, because it has problems. The other, While Caesar Sang of Hercules, I think worked pretty well. You can find it on Amazon; all you have to do is spell my name right and it will pop right up.

Historical research is a bitch.

Right now I’m contemplating, with some misgivings, the idea of writing a mystery (possibly a series) set in Los Angeles in 1933. Prowling on the Internet, you can find an enormous amount of historical material on what life was like in 1933 — but finding the details you crave may be terrifyingly difficult.

Let’s suppose a scene in your story is set on a Tuesday evening in the living room of a couple of your characters. They’re listening to the radio, of course, because there were no television stations to speak of in 1933. But what broadcasts specifically would they have tuned in on? Burns & Allen? Amos ‘n’ Andy? Did those shows air on Tuesdays? At what time? Would a wild guess be good enough, or do you need to nail it down through research?

The nearer to the present day your story takes place, the more danger there is that readers will notice if you blow it. I did a lot of research while writing While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and I’m fairly confident that nobody other than a professional historian would spot any errors I may have made about Rome in the days of Nero. I first drafted that book in the early years of the Internet, so my research consisted of driving up the hill to Stanford to buy books at the campus bookstore.

The book that I don’t think can be salvaged was set in Chicago in 1885. I did a lot of research on Chicago too, but the first crime in the story took place in a lumber town in Wisconsin, and I got the Wisconsin lumber industry totally, irretrievably wrong. I’ve never been able to figure out how to start the story in a more realistic version of Wisconsin. There were other problems in that book too, so I’ll have to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Most readers probably don’t care much about historical accuracy. Throw in a gramophone and a flapper, and they’ll believe it’s 1933. And for a writer who is struggling to make a living, spending weeks or months on research may not be cost-effective. But I don’t have to make a living at it, and I want to get it right.

Plus, the research is fun! For my Chicago book I managed to find and download an actual roster of the police force in Chicago in 1885, complete with the names and short biographical descriptions of the officers. About a third of them were first-generation Irish. Not only that, but in Chicago in 1885 there was actually a “colored detective” on the force. Who would have assumed the department was integrated, even to that extent, in the 19th century?

Modern readers will bring their own assumptions to the table, of course, and that can be a danger for the writer. My Rome book deals very largely with slavery, and slavery is a sensitive topic. In ancient Rome, slavery was an essential part of the economy — but it wasn’t based on race! Modern readers can easily make bad assumptions or have bad emotional reactions when they find out some of the main characters not only are slaves but have none of the modern ideas about slavery. The Romans knew that the abuse of slaves was both common and evil, you bet they knew it — but in ancient Rome nobody ever advocated freeing the slaves. Their entire economy and social structure would have collapsed. Abolition is a purely modern concept.

Race relations were a vital, and uncomfortable, part of the U.S. culture in 1933. This morning I drafted a brief scene in which my protagonist, a young white woman, is having a casual conversation with a black elevator operator. I’m pretty sure it’s accurate and realistic as to the language the young man would have used, but that scene scares me, because I’ll bet you five dollars someone is going to read it and think I’m the most awful kind of racist for having put those words in the character’s mouth.

Another character in the story is the landlady in the boarding house where my protagonist lives, and you can darn well bet that landlady wasn’t going to rent to any Japs or kikes or spics or niggers.

Were you triggered by that? If so, I think you now understand the problem for the writer. I would never use those words in my own voice (although I just did exactly that, for rhetorical effect). But in dialog? Yes. Or in a first-person narrative by a speaker from that era, yes. Those words are how the landlady (who would have been born in about 1880) would have said it. They’re her words, not mine.

I can write around it by having my narrator say, “She used a couple of colorful terms that I’m not going to repeat.” But that’s cowardly. That’s not good writing, it’s kiss-ass writing.

Today, in our allegedly more enlightened culture, the writer of any sort of historical fiction is on the horns of a dilemma. When it comes to sensitive topics such as homosexuality and race relations, if you write it accurately you’re liable to offend people. Far too many people don’t want to know how it actually was (or, for that matter, how it actually is). What they want is for you to gently massage their feelings. If you fail to convince them that you share their view of right and wrong — not in nuts-and-bolts detail, which I probably do, but in the broad-brush feel-good manner that is all they’re capable of understanding — you’re in deep trouble.

Fortunately, I don’t have to try to make a living at it.

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Parlez-vous français?

I had a couple of quarters of German during my chaotic college days, but I’ve never properly learned a foreign language. As an older adult I’ve considered a few languages, including Chinese and Hindi. Chinese is just way too difficult. Hindi ought to be easier, because it’s an Indo-European language. It’s related to Latin, German, and English. But the consonants in Hindi are well-nigh impossible, and the writing system isn’t much easier.

A couple of years ago I settled on French. French is both easy and difficult. The vocabulary is quite a lot like English. It’s pretty much a slam-dunk, and at least French uses the Latin alphabet, albeit with half a dozen fussy accent marks. The grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, on the other hand — hoo, boy.

There are probably a dozen different websites and services that would love to help you learn a foreign language. But I have yet to find a good one.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning French on Duolingo. It’s supported by advertising, so it’s free. If you’re using a phone or tablet, you probably want to pay for your membership, as the ads will intrude, but on a desktop computer the ads are off to the side and totally ignorable.

Duolingo is great, up to a certain point, but beyond that point I’ve found it more and more annoying. The audio — the spoken French sentences — is produced by a voice synthesizer. There are no recordings of actual human speech. Of the half-dozen “personalities” the synthesizer has, three are both stupid-sounding and hard to understand. Spoken French is hard enough to understand at the best of times. But that’s how they keep the cost down.

The other problem with Duolingo is that most of the material is presented in single sentence examples. There is generally no context at all. The system does include some “stories,” which are mostly dialog between two of the synthetic voices. The stories are not worthless, but they’re kind of a side show, not the main event. And while you’re wrestling with the examples, you get no explanations. You get to see the allegedly correct answer, but if you omit a “de” after the verb, Duolingo is not going to tell you why it’s needed, or what class of verbs requires it.

A few months ago I got a cut-rate offer for Rocket French, which is part of the Rocket Languages service. So I signed up. The issues with Rocket French are entirely different. There’s a long series of 25-minute audio “stories,” which are narrated by “Paul” (mostly in English, and his pronunciation of French is rather dodgy) and “Claire” (who speaks only French). Paul and Claire are definitely human. The stories could be cut by five minutes; they’re padded out with Paul’s bad jokes. But they do give you some context. There’s seldom any explanation of verb tenses or such salient details, however. You’re just getting immersion. Also, the written text that accompanies the storylets is not free of errors — wrong gender of a French adjective, that type of thing.

The other part of the Rocket package is lessons in various points of French grammar. This is genuinely useful, but the examples are given as short phrases, not even as complete sentences, much less within a context. In these lessons there’s no actual usage of the material you’re being taught.

Rocket French has an audio input system, so you can record your own pronunciation of the French phrases, listen to the playback, and compare your voice to that of the native speaker. There’s no grading of your pronunciation, and that’s fine with me. But you don’t have to do recordings if you don’t feel like it. So in essence, nothing is required of the student in Rocket French. You can just click on a bunch of recordings and quite possibly learn not a damn thing.

Duolingo asks you to actively translate French to English and vice versa, and gives you a few extra points for success. You’re competing with other students to build up your weekly total of points, so there’s an active incentive system, complete with a chart. This is a much better system than what Rocket French offers — but those synthetic voices are just awful.

I’ve acquired a few French books, both grammar books and some stories. These are useful too, but of course books can’t do much to help you learn French pronunciation, and French pronunciation is une chienne.

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