Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer Midpoint Update

My summer is halfway over: fewer than two months have passed since I graduated, and fewer than two months remain until NSO. It will be helpful to me to see how well I've been doing with all of my summer plans, which I described here. This is a self-indulgent post, more me taking inventory than anything, but hopefully someone else might benefit.*

*I think that is one of the "themes," so to speak, of this blog: I write about ordinary and personal things because universality of human experience &c.

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  • Read a lot.

I've read all the books that I bought/that others gave me except for the collection of Conrad stories that my sister got me for Christmas. I have to be in a certain mood to read Conrad, and that mood is, I think, easier to achieve in cooler weather.

As for other books: my reading habit fluctuates, and right now I'm in a rut where I don't make time to read. But it's good for me, so I'll keep at it.


  • Deepen my knowledge and practice of programming.

This entire month I've struggled with writing the code for a program that will back up my files for me. I think that I've got it now but I still have to run tests. Furthermore, I set up Git on my computer but I haven't used it much yet, and a few weeks ago when I tried to read other people's code on Github I got scared because of not knowing anything and stopped. At the moment, I am reading through The Hitchhiker's Guide to Python, a guide to Python best practices under a variety of scenarios. I've also hit a wall with Project Euler challenges, which is disappointing, but I think it will be to the good if I take my time and go as far as I can with the math part before letting the code do the computation work.

The more I read about programming and computer science, the more I realize how truly ignorant I am, and the more I wish I had gotten started earlier.


  • Relearn calculus and physics.

Relearning calculus is going reasonably well. I'm using online notes provided by Professor Paul Dawkins of Lamar University. Calculus I is equivalent to Calc AB, and Calculus II, which I'm working through now, is BC and then some.

As for physics: I'm typing up my old notes this week and after that will probably find some physics C resources to help me. I've heard that you're not really supposed to study for the physics placement test, but since the class was a year ago I'm shortchanging myself if I don't brush up. And I really want to do well, because a 5 on Physics B only gets you into Physics 25 while engineers want to take the Physics 40 sequence.


  • Improve languages.

I spoke a lot of Chinese in China but, to be honest, haven't touched Duolingo since the first week of summer. I'm still writing my journal in Italian and I think I did well on the written placement test this morning, so if I go back to Duolingo it'll probably be for my German.


  • Research and write a lot in Ubermadchen.

Research has been spotty, piecemeal, as-needed. I'm missing plenty of places where better research could make the story stronger. On the other hand, I don't want research time to take precedence over writing time. I've gotten into a routine in which I flail around a bit for the first few days in a new section of the story, then write down a list of scenes that I want to happen during that time, and as I write the scenes proliferate and order themselves.

Thus far, the system is working. I had a few really productive weeks after getting back from China and I'm hoping to sustain a slightly more moderate pace for the rest of the summer. I have written over 100 new pages this summer, of which I am rather proud. Not sure how many words that is, but the order of magnitude is in the tens of thousands. Just keep moving the story forward.


  • Refine social media presence.

Blog redesign--check. Story box Tumblrs--aside from the Ubermadchen one, not really kept up, but as this reflects my real story output I don't mind terribly. Case closed on this goal.


  • Practice trombone.

I hit a rut fairly early on and wasted a few weeks not being productive, but running through a bunch of (not all) Remington exercises helped get me into a more disciplined mindset, as did watching Christopher Bill tutorial videos. Next Monday I'm playing at the first day of band camp before returning the trombone, whom I think I shall name Angelique.

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It looks as though I'm doing all right. Could amp up the efforts on language, physics, programming, and reading, however. To be honest my goals do cause me some stress, and I have developed some rather bad sleeping habits. But, even though I don't enjoy being stressed in the summer, at least all these projects are of my own choosing. I can always cut back if I need to, without consequences to other people.

When I reach the halfway point in the summer, that is usually when my morale is at the lowest. And I have indeed wasted a lot of time that I could have put toward my goals. Furthermore, I admit that I feel inadequate when I think about how a lot of people have jobs and internships and volunteering to do over the summer, and I'm just at home in front of a computer most of the day. If you're unlucky then Friday I'll angst more about that.

But I've made substantial progress is writing and calc and trombone, and I'll work on the things I need to work on. What else, after all, can I do?

Seven weeks down, seven more to go. Make it count.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Good Hunting

I've accumulated a lot of links since I'm reading more articles these days (thanks HN). Many I thought worth sharing.

Some pieces provoked more thought than simply "hey, that's cool," so I pull them out for further consideration:

The Two Cultures of Mathematics: theory-builders v. problem-solvers -- essentially, theory v. practice, do you want deeper knowledge or do you want useful knowledge? I only read the first part because it is the summer and I lack the strength of will to go through theorems in fields I have only heard of. Theory is seen as more powerful but sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty--knowing more theory won't help.

The Turk Polishes His Window: greatness of a nation resides in the people's pride--having excellence, quality, conscientousness as part of the national identity

The Power of Dots: dot diagrams are powerful because they help humans understand structure, which is at a higher level of thinking than mere procedural computation. I want to learn how to use these; they seem interesting.

Ceremonies as Traffic Lights: rituals make a person's changed state common knowledge, helping a community and the individual in question come to terms with their new identity instead of waffling about in a liminal state for too long of a time

The Last Days of the Polymath: too much specialization → difficulties in crossing fields. As fields go deeper, you are more likely to get stuck; you cannot skate across the intervening earth as much.

An important comment from user AriD2385:
"Also, with the rise of specialization, we tend to have much more of a "geek culture," where young individuals in particular tie their self-identity to being the most passionate about such and such a thing irrespective of the actual contributions they are making to the discipline. Just knowing a lot about something, or at least more than most people, is enough. Subjects are viewed as extensions of the self rather than as simply a part of the wide universe of knowledge that all participate in. So people look for others with the same type of tribal affiliation, and outsiders, like Posner said, are seen as trespassers."

Finally, some physics: pilot wave suggests model for how quantum mechanical phenomena could be deterministic, but quantum mechanics may not be just an abstraction of what is "really" there. These two articles seem in opposition: quantum phenomena are a reflection of deterministic mechanisms v. probabilistic quantum mechanics is actually how things work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Introspection Engine

Over the weekend I did two things: 1) finish my eleventh journal 2) have an introspective conversation with someone important about how much band has contributed to my character development. And I realized that these two things are related.

If I were turned into a program, somewhere in the source code one would find this loop:

while True:
    introspect()

Assuming, of course, that my source code is written in Python. If one looked closer, somewhere above one would find:

def introspect():
    #lots of code, don't really want to break my metaphor so I won't show it all
    journal.writeEntry()

I have long known that when I write about my stories in my journal, the actual writing goes better. Correlation does not equal causation; it could also be that when the writing is going well, that's when I'm most engaged with the story, when it becomes a part of my life that I want to record for myself. That glorious summer four years ago when I finished The Utopia Project, I often started entries talking about what had happened in the story that day, before ever mentioning anything I had done in the real world.

But more important, perhaps, than the words I log on UM are the words I log on myself. Every day at the end of the day I sit down with my journal and I write about what I did, offering more or fewer details as time allows, thinking through whatever issues of the moment bother or worry me. Events and my feelings about them. Action and reaction. Introspection.

Our memories are malleable, unreliable, and the way we interpret events often has more impact on our future state than the events themselves. We cannot change the facts of the case, but we can change what they mean--and we only get to change what they mean if we think about them. If we look at our past (retrospect) and then interpret it (introspect).

Ryan Holiday has written about the narrative fallacy, about how making your life into a story is harmful because it ignores everything that doesn't go into the story. And while it is true that my band bildungsroman leaves out the days I was happy as a freshman and miserable as a junior, I will disagree with Holiday's statement that "stories are worthless because they’re mental creations – they are not reality." Because wow, just because a statement is strong doesn't mean it is right. Saying that stories are worthless is conceptually the same thing as saying that Newtonian mechanics are worthless.

Why? Because both are theories that imprecisely model reality, compressing the huge amount of data that exists in the world into usable forms. And that is the value of stories: helping us make sense of our lives, helping form a roadmap showing us where we've been and where we're going.
"Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful." -- George E. P. Box
Of course Holiday has a point that you shouldn't believe your own hype, that you have to remain aware that "it's just a story." And I cannot say that my constant introspection loop has not had negative effects--sometimes I do see myself as a protagonist, a larger-than-life Hero of my Story, and it's embarrassing when I have to remember that I'm human. Infusing a rather ordinary life with melodrama and import has its dangers.

On the other hand, constantly introspecting keeps me aware of my weaknesses, of my mistakes, and of how I might fix them. It keeps me sane when there is no one to whom I can complain. (I cannot honestly speak to any benefits beyond these direct ones, because I've kept a journal consistently since middle school. Thus, growing up and my natural personality are confounding variables.)

The introspection engine will run. It will take in the raw data of a life and it will churn, it will call for journal entry upon journal entry for thousands of days, it will produce a narrative. An imprecise story, perhaps, embellished by imagination when the stuff of everyday life is not enough. But a story that benefits the weaver, whether from the work of creation or from seeing the story itself, pointing a trajectory to better things.

The introspection engine will run.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ubermadchen: Personal Aesthetics

Compared to the previous two weeks, this week has been spectacularly unproductive. My self-control decided to take a vacation over the weekend and I've been fighting to get it back all week. Now I think I'm better than I was before, but I'm still not producing at 100%.

It doesn't help that I'm at a difficult patch of UM, a liminal bit that's setting up for the more action- and plot-oriented "main course." The girls are in one place gathering information, getting their bearings, and it is boring.

Which is why yesterday during my writing session I found myself looking up dresses on Tumblr.

Writing about the modern AU of Ubermadchen on Tuesday made me want to draw the girls in that setting, because I'd rather draw modern clothing than drag through pictures of 1770s dresses looking for something sane and not-overembellished. Then I began thinking about the problem of style, which, like MBTI types, is a topic to which I return frequently and then scorn and then return.

Each time I write about style I think I've said all that I wanted to say about the topic. Style is how we present ourselves to the world, and for young women especially it is vital because we're judged by our appearance and looking "like a slob" will apparently cause our worlds to end. Style as individuality, style as a component of identity.

Style is more than just clothing, of course. It just happens that clothing is the most public expression of style. One's personal aesthetic is also made of favorite music, books, mannerisms, and so on.

How is aesthetic different from other parts of one's identity? Aesthetic speaks to the surface, to the connections we make with others and how. Aesthetic is how we want to control how people see us. Perhaps aesthetic is the most public subset of identity.

I'm trying to think of something in my identity that can't be mapped to some aspect of my aesthetic. But perhaps that's the wrong avenue--because aesthetics is about how others see us, an aspect of myself that isn't reflected in my aesthetic is probably something I don't want to expose.

But that's enough about me. I wanted to talk about the Ubermadchen, and the interplay of personality and aesthetics in character development.

(NB: in Italian, carattere means character as in disposition, nature, "he's a man of character" while personaggio means character as in fictional person. Normally when I talk about character development I mean development of il carattere--in-story, how someone's character changes. Right now I mean development of il personaggio, or how I form a character.

The discussion of how a character's in-story shift in aesthetic mirrors/causes/is correlated to their shift in personality is another worthy topic to which I may return once I get over all the literary analyses I had to do in junior year.)

Marilla Rieux is the main character, the viewpoint character, and when I started writing I didn't think she would end up being my favorite, because that's cliche. Yet, she really has grown on me, despite being timid and emotional and Romantic. Or maybe because of those things.

I knew when I started thinking about the modern AU that she'd be the one who always wore dresses and cute hats and had a very feminine aesthetic. This picture is how I imagine her:
(src)

Then I realized that she would probably dye her hair blue. And I discovered that my sweet, demure dreamer has a subversive streak and that, during a very important arc later in the story, she will need to rise to the occasion, and she will.

Josefina de los Arboles has the most aggressive personality, among the five. She is the most extraverted and opinionated, and has fire as her elemental magic.

In other words, I had no idea what to do with her.

When you write a character that cliche--mouthy, literally fiery, with an attitude--it may be time to step back and think about her for a minute. So I did. And the thing that led me to a somewhat-breakthrough with Josefina was when I was in China, horrendously bored on a train, and musing about what kind of prom dresses the girls would wear. That sounds like a very shallow train of thought (pun intentional) but it led me to the realization that I had no idea what kind of prom dress Josefina would wear.

Because a part of her aesthetic was unclear to me, I discovered that my view of her identity had a similar blind spot. This led me to a productive session of character exploration. And I realized that, rather than bright colors and Boho-y things, Josefina would dress in conservative, professional clothes, a counterpoint to her personality.

I could go on, but at some point that stops being useful for other people. Main takeaways:

  • clothing style is an element of personal aesthetic is a public element of identity
  • if a character is going too far in one direction, look in the opposite direction for something to anchor them--some chiaroscuro of the temperament
  • you gotta have blue hair*


*Which reminds me that I need to write a post about how mahou shoujo anime have contributed to the concept of Ubermadchen.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

HPMoR and Character Plasticity

I had a strange weekend, by which I mean I did something I haven't done in years: I read a fanfic. Stop laughing, I found it through Hacker News and it really is good.

This is it: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The premise, which I will take from its page on Less Wrong, is thus: "the orphaned Harry Potter has been raised by a scientist stepfather and now has the equivalent rationalist skill of roughly an 18-year-old Eliezer [Eliezer Yudkowsky, the author whose pen name is LessWrong] or thereabouts, i.e., massively flawed but still pretty darned impressive. Naturally the hero's challenges have been stepped up in difficulty as well."

As I said above, I really enjoyed the parts that are up (it is on schedule to finish by the end of this year), but I did not immediately recommend it to everyone I know who has enjoyed the Harry Potter series (and some of the people I know self-identify as Potterheads). Why?

"Because it's not like the original," was my first reason. Yes, there are Harry and Dumbledore and Voldemort and the same characters, and it is set at Hogwarts, but the tone of the story and definitely the story arc are vastly different from the Harry Potter books that I grew up rereading. It is more skeptical and there's a lot of rather heavy material (see: The Stanford Prison Experiment arc). This is not a criticism, but it does mean that people who are really attached to the originals might not like some of the changes.

Some of the biggest changes, I found, were with the characterization. Most notably, Harry's: there is little of the red-blooded Gryffindor in the HPMoR Harry, though he is still an idealist who puts his friends first. And why should there be? Harry's personal storyline diverges right after the Boy-Who-Lived incident, so his entire childhood is different in HPMoR than from the original books. It would not be exaggerating to say that he is a different person.

Which, because I am a writer greedy to learn from others' craft, led to my second question: "What defines a particular character?"

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Because I am a teenager with occasional existential crises (the occasion: breathing), I think a lot about the problem of identity. See: You are You and Your, a college app essay I never used exploring what makes a person them.

Because characters are abstract models of people, the usual reasons come up: you are defined by your family, by your surroundings, by your past (because sentient creatures are not state functions). But for fictional characters, especially if you're writing them, it can be helpful to pull up one level of abstration and ask, "what key elements, if removed, will make a particular character not them anymore?"

I'm going to use HPMoR as an example, since it started me on this topic. I don't consider the Harry Potter in HPMoR as the Harry Potter of the original series, despite the name, because the canon Harry is the product not only of the prophecy and his past up to age one, but of his awful childhood and impulsiveness. Give him a stable and rational home life and he's not really the original Harry.

The Hermione Granger in HPMoR, on the other hand, is still recognizably Hermione: observant bookworm who hates failure and has got Harry's back. Even the Draco Malfoy in HPMoR is recognizably Malfoy, despite playing a somewhat different function than in the original story, because he's still a blood elitist who wants to prove himself to his father.

Now I'm going to take examples from my own work, as self-indulgent as that is, because I can at least hope to articulate the writer's choices in displacing a character from their story and setting of origin. Let us specify that this time, the question is "what attributes of a character must be true, even in a different setting/world, for that character to remain themself?"

Naturally this question lends itself best to AUs, or Alternate Universes, in which characters exist in a different universe from the original. Note the difference from the HPMoR example above.

The Utopia Project is one gigantic AU for the stuffed animals that my sister and friend and I used to play with as kids. When I wrote it, I always had to make changes--as we mentioned above, people are partially the product of their environment--but for any particular character I'd find some changes that I could not make, because if I changed that (or more likely, a combination of thats), then it wouldn't be the same character.

For example, one character in our "original storyline" was an assertive Texan girl, self-conscious about her weight, with a kind but occasionally overbearing attitude. (She was a Pikachu.) When faced with the task of transferring her to a dystopic future Europe, weight-sensitivity was out because in a time of famine, weight would not matter to that particular character. It wasn't an integral part of her, as it may be for some other character, but for this one, her insecurities had to hinge on other things. The motherliness, on the other hand, was indeed something that I couldn't change without making her someone else, so instead her attitude comes from being the de facto oldest sibling and part of a relatively wealthy family (noblesse oblige).

Ubermadchen kind of has an AU, in which the girls are participants in a pan-European fighting tournament. In the canon UM, something that is integral to each girl's character arc is their friendship with one another after being raised together in isolation from a hostile society. In the AU, where they meet one another after their formative years, that piece is removed by default.

But character arc is not the same as character, and I'm trying to think about how different sorts of environmental pressures could lead to the girls having similar personalities to their current ones (current meaning in 1777 Europe, the original storyline). This has led to some acceptance of the personal identity as black box, something intrinsic, such that I think, Marilla is a compassionate person rather than life experiences A, B, and C substitute for life experiences X, Y, and Z in making Marilla compassionate. Why? Because Marilla is compassionate, and that is such a key part of her person that I have to make her background fit that, instead of working forward.

Aside from as a thought experiment, how does this kind of thinking--creating AUs and seeing what happens when you drop your characters in them--help? In the Utopia Project, I got a novel.

But even though I don't really intend to develop the fighting-tournament-UM AU, I think it that creating the AU is useful because doing so forces you to identify which parts of the character are most important--which parts will not be left behind even in the jump to a different world. As someone whose stories are definitely character-based, I like this new perspective on the people in my stories. My approach toward UM definitely changed after I realized that Marilla would dye her hair blue.