All posts for January 2019

Progress Not Guaranteed, Pt. 2

More on Steven Pinker.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/31 08:00

Last year I wrote about Steven Pinker and his naïve take on human progress, one that was not aided by a third-party dissection of a small part of the first chapter of Pinker's book Enlightenment Now. I was reminded, in a bad way, of Noam Chomsky's equally blowsy attitude towards evidence and citations.

Now The New York Review Of Books has weighed in on Pinker as well. They are not as negative as the above-linked analysis, if only because they didn't check every single citation and find most of them were in fact lacking. But this graf was what caught my attention (emphasis mine):

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Tags: Steven Pinker  science 

Words From The Wise

Very few people are qualified to give useful story advice because they think the main function of a story is to entertain them.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/30 17:00

In my local writer's group, we got to talking the other night about advice. My take was probably not very encouraging:

  • Most people are not equipped to give good feedback about one's work.
  • Very little advice given is actually worth taking.
  • it takes some trial and error on the writer's part to find people who can provide worthwhile feedback.

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Tags: advice  criticism  feedback  writers  writing 

The Future Is A One-Way Street

"The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness."

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/28 17:00

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use Of Human Beings:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be very inconvenient for our own survival. We are the slaves of our technical improvement and we can no more return a New Hampshire farm to the self-contained state in which it was maintained in 1800 than we can, by taking thought, add a cubit to our stature or, what is more to the point, diminish it. We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions. It seems almost as if progress itself and our fight against the increase of entropy intrinsically must end in the downhill path from which we are trying to escape. Yet this pessimistic sentiment is only conditional upon our blindness and inactivity, for I am convinced that once we become aware of the new needs that a new environment has imposed upon us, as well as the new means of meeting these needs that are at our disposal, it may be a long time yet before our civilization and our human race perish, though perish they will even as all of us are born to die. However, the prospect of a final death is far from a complete frustration of life and this is equally true for a civilization and for the human race as it is for any of its component individuals. May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

Emphases mine.

Tags: Norbert Wiener  wisdom 

All The Cool New Folks Are Dead

In re: "I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead."

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/25 17:00

I know it's been a bumpy ride for all of us the last couple of days. Here's something that's not about an irredeemable incompetent in a position of power:

The Disillusionist | by Madeleine Schwartz | The New York Review of Books

We live in a golden age of reissues. Every publishing season seems to bring fresh editions from a vital but ignored past: say, Clarice Lispector, who had one book come out last year, or Lucia Berlin, who had two. For readers, republication offers something rare: the possibility of reclaiming history simply by opening a book. The proper response to this is surely celebration. But I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead.

Emphasis mine.

The article in question is on Elsa Morante, another largely unsung author — Italian, whose husband was the far more famous Alberto Moravia, hopelessly overshadowed by him both during her lifetime and long after. This piece makes a fine argument for bumping her up to the top of the list; I was already working my way, slowly, through Moravia's catalog (The Conformist has never been more relevant or hair-raising), but now I want to parallel that forward march through his work with one through Morante's.

It's the bolded bit above, though, that caught my eye, because I feel the same way — except that I'm not depressed about it.

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Tags: classics  publishing  writers 

You Won't Find It Here

I sometimes feel like books about writing should be prefaced with, "You won't find any 'literature' here."

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/23 08:00

Edward Albertson, author of a book called Zen For The Millions*, recalled his first visit to the Japanese Zen Buddhist master Nyōgen Senzaki, one of the first Zen masters to reside in America. When Albertson entered Senzaki's zendō, the master said to him, "You won't find any Zen here." Exactly the kind of infuriating thing Zen has become synonymous with in the minds of the people who know little more than its pop-culture caricature, and also exactly the kind of thing that makes all the more sense once you study Zen in a more than trivial way.

I sometimes feel like books about writing should be prefaced in the same manner: "You won't find any 'literature' here." Or books about music: "You won't find any 'music' here." People who want to learn about something tend to go look for a book to tell them how to do it, or go find another person to teach them one-on-one. The latter is usually better than the former, but it's possible to make the same mistake in both cases — to expect that you'll have an encounter with Some Thing or Some One that will cause whatever it is you're looking for to be magically imparted to you.

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Tags: Buddhism  Zen  creativity 

Roads Not Taken, And All That

Musings on the guy I almost was.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/18 08:00

From the Stevinator:

A while ago I caught myself reflecting on my life choices, and my wish to have done things differently. Sure we all do that, but I found myself going over what could be, and it was distracting. There’s a point where done is done, and going over things yields no useful lessons and wastes time.

I also wanted to get this non-productive overthinking out of my system, both to stop doing it but also to see what I could learn. I quickly came up with an exercise that I want to recommend to people – because I’m sure many of you go into “what if” phases as I did.

The exercise in question is a fun one (go read the rest of it and try it). One of the difficulties I experienced with the exercise was that at any one of the juncture points I visited in my past, I was tempted to default to "I don't know" and be done with it. Not because I couldn't make up my mind, but because I've long had a terrible tendency to oversubscribe to the idea that I can't possibly know all the decisions that could be viable at any given point.

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Tags: Patrick Farley  Steven Savage Dialogues  counterfactuals 

Genji Press: Projects: Oh, Yeah, Now Where Was I?

Sorry about the silence over the last couple of days. I've officially started writing the as-yet-untitled 2019 novel.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/17 22:00

Sorry about the silence over the last couple of days. I've officially started writing the as-yet-untitled 2019 novel. The tentative title is The Fall Of The Hammer — a holdover name from a really old project, since I recycled a number of concepts from it into this one.

There isn't much to report so far — a few thousand words, a couple of hurdles cleared. I will say, without spoiling anything, that a few specific aspects of the project stand out so far:

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Tags: Untitled 2019 Novel  future projects  writing 

The Performance Index

On gauging artistic quality by way of popularity, always a bad move.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/11 08:00

Bear with me, as I try to distract all of you temporarily from the flames leaping from our collective rooftops.

Nautilus ran an excellent interview with Cesar Hidalgo of the MIT Media Lab, about the way collective memory is a fluid thing. One of the points Hidalgo made seems central to my own:

I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art, your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity.

(Note to self: find that book.)

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Tags: criticism  popular culture 

Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned: Always Outnumbered, Never Misprinted

A small printing issue has surfaced with the dead-tree edition of my new novel, 'Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.'

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/09 09:00

If you bought a paper copy of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, I have some bad news for you: The book's internal layout is not as I intended it.

Short version: The headers and footers in the book got switched. The page numbering should be at the top of the page, not the bottom. Apparently I managed to miss this through the whole of the proofing process. (I'll talk to my doctor about getting my pills changed. Promise.)

I'm going to work to make sure this is corrected and post another note, both on this post and on the blog generally, when the problem is fixed.

If you bought the paper book from Amazon and want to swap it for a fresh one, send me an email copy of your proof of purchase and I'll drop-ship you a fresh copy when it's ready, on me.

Note that this does not affect the Kindle or ebook versions of the book, just the print edition.

Tags: Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned  errata 

The Shining Prince And The Misery Index

On Kenneth Rexroth, 'The Tale Of Genji', and the notion of miserable places that can produce beautiful things.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/09 08:00

I have been reading Kenneth Rexroth, best known for his poetry, original and translated, but also for his critical writings on literature and society. Much of this I've encountered by way of a rather inauspiciously titled compilation, The Elastic Retort, available through the Open Library. There's easily a dozen posts of material to be mined out of my encounter with this man's work, but I want to focus on the implications of some of the things Rexroth has to say about The Tale Of Genji.

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The Worst Horse

"If you understand Zen as a kind of practice to be a best horse you will have a problem."

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/07 08:00

In Buddhist circles there is the parable of "the worst horse", as explained best (says I) by way of Shunryu Suzuki (copied verbatim):

In our scripture it is said that there are four kinds of horses — an excellent one, and not so good ones, and bad horse. The best horse will run before it sees the shadow of the whip. That is the best one. The second one will run just before the whip reaches his skin. The third one will run when it feels pain on his body. The fourth one will run after the pain penetrates into the marrow of his bone. That is the worst one. When we hear this story, perhaps everyone wants to be a good horse — the best horse. Even if it is impossible to be the best one we want to be the second best. That is quite usual understanding of horse. But actually when we sit you will understand whether we are the best horse or the not-so-good ones. Here we have some problem in understanding of Zen. Zen is not the practice to be the best horse. If you think so — if you understand Zen as a kind of practice to be a best horse you will have a problem — big problem. That is not the right understanding of Zen. Actually, if you practice right Zen, whether you are the best horse or worst one doesn't matter. That is not the point.

Emphasis mine.

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Tags: Buddhism  Zen  creativity 

Nowhere To Go Drinking

People need a place to go that's just a place to gather.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/04 08:00

With most every job I've ever worked, there wasn't really a culture of going out after work for a round at the local down the street. Doubly so now that I work remotely. At one previous job, there were occasional lunch outings to a Chinese place up the road, but the suburban-industrial-park environment we were in didn't have a handy local watering hole for us to repair to. Most of us didn't drink anyway; it wasn't that kind of work environment. But drinking per se has little to do with it.

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Tags: public spaces  society  sociology 

Now Gaming In A Theater Near You

On Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and interactive fiction as a video platform of the future.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/03 08:00

The concept behind Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch ought to be familiar to anyone who's ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure books, created games with Twine (or played Twine-developed games), or played anything from Zork on up.

This isn't the first time people have tried to fuse movies and interactive fiction (IF), not by a long shot. There was Mr. Payback, an "Interfilm" that used audience voting to determine how various scenes in a (very stupid) story unfold. There was I'm Your Man (apologies in advance to Leonard Cohen fans), billed as "the first interactive movie on DVD". What's different this time around is that a major, extant entertainment platform is trying to do something with the idea, specifically by making the whole IF concept into a meta-element of the story itself. The bigger implications to me are whether this will induce other video platforms to follow suit, and open the doors to a whole new kind of indie moviemaking and storytelling by way of existing video delivery platforms.

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Tags: Netflix  interactive fiction  media  video games 

Anxiety Of Influence, Once Again

You don't want to run from your influences. You want to walk away from them.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/02 17:00

Steve Savage has a post where he talks about my discussion of how influences are something to be ultimately transcended, and why that bothered him. He's worried that the need to get away from one's influences and strike out on one's own can become pathological:

  • That you can end up treating an influence as the enemy.
  • That you can treat an influence as something you can just shuck off the way you would a banana peel from the banana.
  • That you might try to move past your influences before you're ready for it.
  • That you may end up just leaving one bad influence for another.
  • That there is a dash of arrogance involved in the discussion — that "they don’t need influences (like we can get away from them)".

I agree with all this up to a point. I think any attempt to grow and reassess has to be done clear-eyed and with good intentions. The part I'm most in congruence with is the idea that you don't want to run from your influences, you want to walk away from them. If you run, you're at risk of dashing your brains out against whatever else comes in front of you, or plunging off a cliff. Running away is the behavior of the newly minted reactionary, someone who simply swaps one unquestioned set of allegiances for another. But if you walk away, you try to find good substitute paths for the one you're already taking.

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Tags: Steven Savage Dialogues  creativity  influences 

An Infinitely Receding Horizon

"...while surely there will be a time to rest, it is not now."

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/01 17:00

This, from Stephen Downes, is so good I'm just going to quote it as-is.

State of the Universe

Yes, the world probably existed before me, and it will probably continue to exist after I'm gone, but for me, my life is the universe, and vice versa. This is the state of it.

This coming year I will turn 60, which I suppose will leave me in a state of reflection for the next twelve months or more. It's hard to know how far to plan ahead. I'm as eager to start new things as I ever was, but there's a horizon there.

In The Denial of Death Ernest Becker writes that we essentially live our lives as if there is no end, because there's no alternative. This 'immortality project' is what allows us to transcend the end of our physical existence, by building a heroic and symbolic legacy that carries on no matter what.

So, yeah, everyone is the hero of their own story, and I am no different, and while surely there will be a time to rest, it is not now, and so I continue to work and learn as though that horizon is infinitely receding.

My outlook, my advice, my ambitions also.

Tags: Stephen Downes  advice  philosophy 

The True(r) Story

On the fictions of the "true story" style of moviemaking.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019/01/01 13:00

My wife and I have a tradition of watching a movie before midnight on New Years', sometimes another one after. This year's choice was Hidden Figures. I know full well the movie is a fictionalization and condensation of its story, and while I had incentive to track down the book it was based on for the full details, it didn't derail my in-the-moment enjoyment of the film. But it did make me wonder, because movies "based on true events" too often feel like someone's idealized fantasy of what happened.

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Tags: fiction  film  movies  nonfiction 

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