Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pillars of Steampunk

Steampunk is a hard genre to pin down. As one of the newer subtypes of science fiction, it still has a relatively shallow literary library (both in terms of the number of books and their general quality) compared to its parent, cyberpunk. There's also no widespread agreement on what makes something steampunk versus not.

To help do a rudimentary breakdown of steampunk, let's look at the three S's: science, society, and style.

Science

This is required by the "steam" element - if you don't have the right kind of science, you're general sci-fi, not steampunk. Without the science, you become a historical piece.

What kind of science is right for steampunk? First of all, steam power. Steam needs to be the primary motive force involved, rather than fossil fuels or other fuels. Gas and oil can be present, but should be rare. A possible exception is a story set in the transition between steam and oil, where steam is in the decline. A futuristic take is steam power generated by advanced technology. For example, nuclear reactors are actually steam turbines. Many thermo-energy plants and solar energy plants also use steam.

Next, you have a whole host of mid-to-late 1800's science concepts. The aether is one of the most commonly used. Also common was the rise of logicians in math. They believed that through pure logic everything could be proved and, in turn, science could know and determine everything in the universe. The science should be derived from those early ideas, before there was quantum physics. Leave out Godel and Heisenberg and focus on a physics with hard deterministic consequences.

Society

This is required for the "punk" half of the name. There was a lot of tension in society at the time: colonialism, the rise of capitalism, the scourge of Luddites and cronyism, Social Darwinism. Money was being released from the hands of an elite few and spread to the masses. The old aristocracy fought back with claims of genetic superiority and the use of social forces to control and reign in the newcomers.

This is when a person with great ideas and abilities could earn their fortunes - but at the same time have to fend off the predators who sought to seize their momentum. The emergence of the middle class was tumultuous and is just one of the many aspects that can be present in good steampunk.

Style

Style is just a generally nice thing to have for reader interest. For example, vocabulary. Victorian era words are incredibly important for setting the tone. This doesn't have to be everywhere - a little goes a long way. Likewise, writing with a higher end vocabulary (college level minimum) reflects the writing style of that era, which was aimed at an educated audience.

And of course you have action. A rousing tale of adventure and exploration fits well within the spirit of the age. Seeking the unknown is a great theme, whether it be in the external or internal world. (After all, Freud and psychology are very Victorian.)

There are likely more elements. When it comes to style, I would say Romanticism works over Naturalism (a topic for another time). And when it comes to specific themes, they are numerous and I've only briefly mentioned a few above

Sadly, most steampunk stories have plenty of style, but very little of the science or society aspects. As a result, theycome off as vapid and shallow, having very little stand-alone value apart from being a bit cool because of their aesthetic. A truly deep steampunk novel will combine all three and be written in the romantic style to represent a clash of values of the era.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On Normative Systems

A systems breakdown of how the normative system works and how those who fall outside of norms respond to it.

1. Start with an individual who possesses a trait/behavior that could be considered unique given their local surroundings.

2. Add external tension from a collective where that unique quality is penalized through some mechanism.

3. Now provide a social mechanism for individuals with that trait previously isolated from one another to come into contact (clubs, meet-ups, etc.).

4. Through this contact, an ideology is developed to explain a) the value of the unique trait, and b) the cause of the earlier penalization. This creates a subculture.

5. If the earlier penalization was merely inconvenient, then the ideology will likely focus on spreading information or other non-violent corrections. If the penalization was a more severe form of persecution (such as physical assaults), then the resulting ideology is more likely to stress a physical response.

6. The source of external tension (often a collective) is likely to respond. Common reactions include: a) becoming more tolerant/accepting of the unique trait, b) increasing the harshness of the penalization, c) increasing the isolation of those with the trait to prevent the formation/spread of the ideology, and d) creating a competing ideology that mitigates those of the subculture.

7. The process is repeated, now with the response from step 6 as the external tension of step 2.

Note that this systems breakdown makes no value judgment about the unique trait possessed, nor of the appropriateness of the external tension. For example, if the unique behavior is "a desire to steal," then it may make sense for society to penalize that behavior. The obvious application for this is when the unique traits are in fact valuable to society - such as high intelligence - but are penalized anyway.

Two things I wanted to account for were a) the relationship between how a group responds to being treated different and what that treatment was and b) the use of isolation to discourage the formation of a subculture. We've already seen the isolation method being employed once again with current Internet regulations being considered in many countries. The use of a competing ideology is probably the most popular today, however.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tidbits

Me: "Alexander the Great was an amazing general."

Student: "Wasn't he also the first Secretary of the Treasury?"

Me: "...That's Alexander Hamilton."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Setting Goals

The statement, "Happiness is my goal" is absurd. It's no different than saying, "Having money is my goal" or, "Pleasure is my goal." Happiness, money, and pleasure are results that come from actions.

For example, when I finish a good book, I feel good about it. Happiness wasn't my goal, though - my goal was to finish the book. The joy resulted from the completion of my goal, of the satisfaction of accomplishing a task. (And, to an extent, I could anticipate that finishing the book might make me happy.)

Bad goal setting underscores many issues we see today, such as pointless careerism (to use George Carlin's phrase), mindless hedonism, and the pursuit of narcissistic "fame." All of these set a consequence - money, pleasure, popularity - as the goal, but without a specified means. As a result, people who fall into them are caught in cycles that prevent their growth and actualization.

Simply wandering through life seeking "happiness" with no specified means is one of the things that leads to directionless behavior. We see this with people who focus only on what makes them feel good in the immediate moment rather than the long term. With no end point in mind, they are unwilling to commit to doing something that might feel unpleasant in the present for the sake of satisfaction down the line.

You need to, at the very least, add a "How" to the statement. For example, "Happiness is my goal that I will pursue by being an awesome artist." There is nothing wrong with wanting to experience joy in life. The importance is knowing how you will get there. There is always the issue of whether or not your selected method will bring you happiness. That requires knowing the direction you want to pursue, the passions you feel and where they might lead. Setting a direction, even if it's not correct, is still better than no direction at all, because once you are moving forward changing the heading is just a calibration.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Six Word Stories

(Based on a concept from here.)

The grave for five had four.

Sun shining on a crewless caravan.

God is dead. He died laughing.

Roommates party while the house burns.

Your life distilled to a moment.

Touch. Breath. Heartbeat. Tingling. Panting. Quickening.

A lone noose in the wind.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tidbits

Me: "What actor played Professor Xavier in the X-Men?"

Student: "It was Jackie Chan, right?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Words To Use

Some words I want to use more in my writing:

Syzygy

Roughly means "alignment." I can probably use this whenever I want to describe things falling into place, such as a plan or an idea.

Recherche

When dealing with the Victorian era, it's good to have several words to mean opulent or refined.

Tallywhacker

Just a funny word.

Mind Palace

Sherlock has helped popularize the concept, but it's much older than that. I wonder how many other ways there are to portray this mnemonic trick?

Bildungsroman

A coming of age story. This actually captures the essence of many magical girl stories and young adult protagonist anime shows very accurately.

Pablum

A good way to insult someone's tripe. Bromide is the one I tend to use the most, but in a similar fashion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: "Constantine Affliction"

Name: Constantine Affliction
Author: Tim Pratt (writing as T. Aaron Payton)

Background:

Set in an alternate universe London in the 1800's. This is a London of mad science, where unquenchable fires rage inside some sectors, creatures emerge from the rivers, and automaton hookers are beginning to replace the real thing.

The title comes from a virus, spread like an STD, that either kills you or changes your sex. The result is societal chaos as men become women and women become men. Against this backdrop, private investigator Pimm eventually partners with intrepid reporter Skye to get to the bottom of things.

Thoughts:

I loved about 85% of this book. The pacing is solid and the world building tidbits are quite good. You get a great sense of not just London of this era, but exactly how this London is different. The mad science vibe from all the experiments gone wrong, as well as little touches to the daily items the characters carry, do a great job of conveying the "far out" nature.

The characters were all well made and stood out. This is helped by snappy and clever dialogue throughout, with good humor. You feel for Pimm as he deals with everything from a fake marriage to being hassled by goons. Skye is inquisitive and go-getter without being obnoxious, a trap that many intrepid reporter archetypes fall into.

The story focuses squarely on Victorian gender roles for its "punk" credentials. Men and women are not magically egalitarian as some games and books try to gloss over. By having a virus swap sexes, it shows how the men fight to retain their status by masking their changes while many women seem eager for the new chance and abandon their old lives entirely. The expectations for women are frequently explored - contrasted with the position of Queen Victoria as the nation's ruler.

My only complaint is that the ending seemed to mash-in a genre that didn't fit, leaving what had been a very solidly steampunk world with a weird add-on.I am a fan of steampunk that is strictly science. While the ending did try to hold to that science angle, it felt too out-of-left-field for my tastes. Still, it's better to be too ambitious than not ambitious enough, so trying to go too far is a mistake I can forgive quite readily.

I am definitely looking forward to a sequel!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Delegation

Delegation: the life saving skill of a director, con chair, or any kind of project. Outsource whatever you can, because it's never enough. Your plate will always have more on it than you can handle alone. And even if you can get it all done, it will never be as good than if you'd spread it around.

Assemble a team of people you know and can rely on, but always keep a few low priority tasks on hand for new people to test them. The people you trust will inevitably have conflicting appointments and be unavailable, so those new people are how you keep the numbers steady. Look for people who are eager and hungry - they will either be all talk or pay off. People with follow-through are worth their weight in gold. Keep them close.

Set the deadlines before you really need them, because there will be delays. Share as much big picture info as you can with those helping you, so they know what role they play and can see its value. If you think you've communicated enough, double check - you probably haven't. Confusion in the ranks is the killer of results. Write it down in steps.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tidbits

The key to Elsa controlling her powers was really easy. She just needed to make her hair a huge poofy ball and study Buddhist meditation. It's known as the art of Fro-Zen.

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Conspiracies

When my students ask me if I believe in the Illuminati and such, the answer I give them is that conspiracy theories are a bromide. They are used to hide the less palatable reality that what we have are numerous groups and interests constantly vying for power. Their dynamics shift and change constantly as interests align, diverge, and collide.

Two deer locking horns do not conspire against the grass they tear asunder with their hooves - it is simply a consequence of their power struggle. Multiply that a thousandfold, with our modern society as the grass, and you have something close to reality.

Conspiracy theorists do not over-complicate the world - they over-simplify. In their quest to find the "one main villain" they overlook that there are many and that their ranks are constantly changing.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tidbits

"I'm a high school math teacher" carries a decent amount of gravitas for introducing yourself to parents.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review: America

Saw America today for the holidays. I recommend seeing it, regardless of personal POV. It has a sufficient amount of content that even if you disagree with the central arguments, it will knock down some of the more common counters and prompt you to think of new ones. Always a good thing.

What worked:

The film has re-enactments of scenes and speeches that are performed quite well. The Abraham Lincoln they chose was very good. I'm a fan of these kinds of storytelling tools for historical pieces.

There was very nice inclusion of historical figures often lost to time, such as Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America (who was also African-American); the indentured servants of England and Ireland; and Alexis de Toqueville, one of the chroniclers of early America. As a history geek, I love seeing obscure figures pop in over low-hanging fruit.

The film does an excellent take down of Howard Zinn's arguments, ranging from Zinn's ignorance of timelines, his errors in geography, and mischaracterization of world culture of that time. The "conquest mentality" that Dinesh presents - and the way he contrasts it with a culture of consent - is argued very well. It's always nice to see the hipster poster boy of pseudo-history get taken down a notch or two. (Seriously, saying you know history by reading Zinn is the same as saying you know biology because you went to Ken Hamm's Creationist museum.)

There's a nice range of guests, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Alan Dershowitz to Rand Paul. It was great to see Dershowitz draw the parallels between Nixon's use of the IRS in the 70's to persecute his enemies, the modern cases of the IRS persecuting enemies, and the NSA spying.

Things I didn't like:

The camerawork was awful at times! Whoever was holding it needs to learn basics of framing a shot. The camera would push the main speaker to the side, wobble like a drunken sailor, cut off the tops of heads. It was annoying. Also, way too many close-ups of people and too many "over the shoulder" shots.

When Dinesh tackles the question of American foreign policy, it's pretty meh. He touches on our generous foreign aid (I remember the joke of "The Mouse That Roared," where Alec Guiness quips, "America forgives everything"), but not much else. It lacked meat.

He also has the obligatory "Look at the conspiracy happening right now!" part, which honestly he could have done without. Countering the "shame narrative" would have been feat enough and left the film a nice anti-revisionist piece. As is, it dates itself.

Thoughts:

I think a documentary that does, in fact, explore what history would have been without America's presence would be fun. I was expecting this film to have more of that alt-history flavor. Instead, it portrayed more of how America defied the mores of its time in how it behaved, often for the better. Not what I was expecting, but good nonetheless. This film is a good sight better than a lot of the garbage that gets peddled to high school students in history classes nationwide.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Big C

Here's a couple of exchanges that happened with my students. Turns out several did not know who Cthulhu was.

"Mr. Baird, who's Cthulhu? Is he like Jesus?"

"Yes, Cthulhu is exactly like Jesus. His holy text is the Necronomicon. People call it the Greatest Story Ever Told. You should ask your history teacher about the impact Cthulhu has had on western civilization."

"...Okay."

The next day:

"Mr. Baird, didn't Cthulhu teach Jesus to walk on water?"

"Not exactly. When Jesus stepped on water, he was walking on Cthulhu's tentacles. The Big C was always willing to lend Jesus a hand."

In on the joke were several students who knew what Cthulhu was and the world history teacher, who told them that Cthulhu was a major influential religious figure in tandem with Jesus.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fabulous Confabulating Gentlemen Presents: On the Repeatability of Succeeding in Making a Target Both Stationary and in Motion Act 2

On a day no less sunny or bright than the one before, Mr. Salviati and Mr. Sagredo are sitting outside, sipping cold drinks, and viewing the gardens. The earth moving automaton is presently shifting the azaleas and day lilies to different plots.

Sagredo: Thinking back to our experiment the other day. I realize that I’m not an exceptional sportsman.

Salviati: What do you mean?

Sagredo: I just think that a top notch bowler would do much better than I did.

Salviati: Let’s test that theory! It just happens that one of my servants was a world class cricket bowler in college. I’ll call him over.

After a few minutes, a gnome approaches. He is an older male servant, though with a well-mannered demeanor. He is dressed in work clothes with spots of dirt on them.

Salviati: This is Faisal. His bowling skill was remarkable. Made him incredibly qualified for his role.

Sagredo: What do you do here, Faisal?

Faisal: I’m the gardner.

Sagredo: How does that relate to bowling cricket?

Faisal pulls out a cricket ball, turns, and throws it. It bounces off a few surfaces and disappears around a corner. A sudden “whack” can be heard, followed by a whimper.

Faisal: I finally got the rabbit that’s been poaching the carrots, Mr. Salviati.

Salviati: Very good! Now, I wonder if you’d be up for helping us with our experiment.

Faisal: Of course, sir.

The parameters are explained. Faisal begins by tossing balls at the patch while it’s stationary.

Salviati: Very good! A 91.67% success rate!

Sagredo: But that’s the same as mine.

Salviati: Indeed it is. Notice that even as good as Faisal is, the wind still nudged his ball a little out of place on its way, causing him to miss. Now for the next stages. I’ll set the automaton to be equal to Faisal’s skill and then to exceed it.

Faisal repeats the tossing. He bounces and tosses the balls using every trick he knows, but the automaton adapts and is able to anticipate, making him miss. On the next run, sweat drips from Faisal’s brow as he aims and throws, finally scoring a success after many failures.

Faisal: Is that all, sir?

Salviati: Yes, Faisal. Well done. Please go back to the gardens.

Faisal departs. In the distance, the whimpering of more rabbits can be heard, preceded by hard whacks.

Sagredo: I say. Are you sure it was even? I think he missed just as much as I did!

Salviati: Indeed he did. His success rate was 54.17% for when it was even - and a mere 8.33% when the automaton’s skill exceeded his own.

Sagredo: But he was such a better bowler than myself! I would have thought that would make a difference.

Salviati: You are correct - his skill with throwing balls exceeds your own immensely. However, raw skill with targeting is not the sole determiner here. In the case of a stationary patch, random chance circumstances - your muscle spasm, the wind - interceded to prevent what should have been a perfect outcome.

Sagredo: So now matter how expert someone is, there is always at least a small chance of failure?

Salviati: Indeed.

Sagredo: Well, I suppose the way to find what that chance is would be to take our rates of success - 91.67% - and subtract it from 100%. But that gives -

Salviati: 8.33%. Correct. Your chance of failing even when success is otherwise all but assured is the same as your chance of succeeding when you have almost no hope.

Sagredo: The world is symmetrical, then! That does give credence to those who believe in a divine creator.

Salviati: However, it’s not quite symmetrical, though. Remember the chances of success when things are even.

Sagredo: 54.17%. Right. This puzzles me. I understand that random chance applies to Faisal and myself equally, so we had the same success rate for the stationary patch. And that it’s the same random chance that allowed us to succeed when the automaton out-matched us. But why was our success rate the same when evenly matched? Shouldn’t his greater talent have earned him greater victory?

Salviati: Ah, but again you focus only on a single skill. Remember, there are two sides at play.

Sagredo: I suppose I keep missing that aspect.

Salviati: ...You see the increase in the ability of the thrower. However, you miss that in being evenly matched, the automaton’s own skill at dodging also increased to match.

Sagredo: But that would mean the key factor isn’t how good a person is at making a target.

Salviati: Correct! What changes the likelihood of success is how they are relative to their target’s skill at dodging. It’s the difference in the two skills, not their base quantity.

Sagredo: Faisal and I got the same percentages because the relative differences were the same.

Salviati: Obviously, being very good at hitting your target makes it less likely that your target will have a greater skill at dodging. And having great aptitude for the sidestep makes it less likely that someone will possess a greater talent at precision strikes. But it is their difference, not their level, that matters most.

Sagredo: An amazing revelation! I wonder how much of our world is based less on sheer quantity and relative differences.

Salviati: That, my friend, is a topic for another time.