Friday, January 31, 2014

The Exoskeleton

(source)
Second post in which I abuse an invertebrate metaphor in order to comment upon a problem young women face today. Beware.

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I've gotten out of the habit of caring about how I look. In my underclassman years, my appearance preoccupied me--I could spend hours in a clothing store, looking at various garments, trying them on and then discarding them for minor reasons, and then feeling pangs of regret as I walked away from the rack. I contemplated experimenting with cosmetics.

If you're expecting this to end with a revelation on how appearance doesn't matter, then...well, no.

I went shopping with my sister recently, and was struck by how easily she was able to find clothes that suited her both functionally and aesthetically. While I browsed the same racks of clothing, picked things out mostly at random, and ended up walking out of the store with nothing but two black belts almost identical to the ones I already have.

I must admit, I felt envious.

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In Zoobiquity Barbara Natterson-Horowitz mentions how shopping satisfies our hunting urges. We search for something that we need or want, find it, and then feel happy.

In a blog post called What I've Learned, Theodora Goss also addresses why acquisition satisfies us:
10. You can buy happiness, but it’s called something else.

You can’t actually buy happiness, but you can in fact buy something that makes you happy. The trick is, that thing has to make you more the person you want to be. That’s what makes you happy, not the thing itself. /*emphasis mine*/ Some time ago, I bought an adorable pair of pixie boots at Goodwill. They were $10 (the price is still on the bottom of the boot, in silver marker). They would not have made me happy if they had been too expensive, because that would have gone against my idea of myself -- as someone who does not spend a great deal of money on clothes, but is nevertheless more chic than many people who do. Every time I wear those boots, I feel as though I’m dancing along the streets, as though I’m some sort of urban princess. They make me happy, because they allow me to be the person I want to be. Another thing that makes me happy? Buying plane tickets. So you can in fact buy happiness, but it’s called “pixie boots” or “plane tickets” or “dark chocolate.” If you’re unhappy, buying a little bit of happiness is not such as bad idea.

I notice that even though she talks about "buying" happiness, what she's really saying is that we feel happy when we use the things we buy. The above quote complements the zoobiquitous connection--getting stuff makes us happy because, well, we got stuff. But for that stuff to continue making us happy, we have to use it.

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Appearance is important. How you look affects how people (including yourself) perceive you. At the risk of treading outside my comfort zone (because heavens forbid that I take risks) and sounding like a social justice blogger, teenagers--particularly teenage girls--get constant flak for being superficial and overconcerned with clothing/style, while also getting judged for those exact things.

In response to those pressures, a lot of people, including me, go reactionary turtle (I do that a lot). Fine, we decide: I won't care about how I look. I will wear my band jacket and oversize t-shirts and the knockoff Converse I got in China and I'll look unprofessional, but I'm a high school student so it doesn't matter.

I am always comfortable, and I don't have to worry about how I look. Those are the pros. But the con is that I'm missing out on a format in which to experiment with how I present myself.

As I type, I can feel myself rolling my eyes at myself. What, you mean you're going to start caring about how you look now? You're going to go back to the 15-year-old self who could waste ten minutes deciding which jacket to wear and then another five going between scarves because she wanted to look pretty? (The answer is no. Sophomore year: never again.)

Iterative processes win (see evolution). Sometime during junior year I decided to stop caring, and edited my closet to, essentially, remove anything not of a neutral color. That's worked for the past year.

But I am a senior now, and I'll be going off to college in the fall. I remember reading a list post on things to remember in college, and somewhere in the mix was: don't wear anything that has your high school's insignia/name on it. It may be comfortable, but that's the problem--it indicates insecurity and clinginess toward the past.

I'm going to wear my band jackets until the weather prohibits them. I'm not going to go on massive shopping sprees, and I'm not going to spend hours hunting for a collared shirt that I can actually pull off. I'm probably not going to experiment with makeup either, since I wouldn't want to get used to seeing myself prettified and then feel dissatisfied with my regular face.*

But I'm thinking that, since I spend plenty of time thinking about who I am/could be, it may well behoove me to consider what kind of appearance I'd need in order to project who that is to the outside world. The exoskeleton helps invertebrates protect themselves, and could in that sense be seen as a mask. Yet it is a mask completely integrated into the animal's identity.

I'm going to stop before my metaphor breaks entirely. TL;DR: Use clothes that make you the you you want to be.

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*NB: from Goss's post Being Photogenic:
(Oh, and by the way, any male readers who feel like telling me, at this point, that they prefer women without makeup? I don’t wear makeup for you. Both men and women have been wearing makeup since this thing we call civilization started. We wear it because we’re human, and like to play. Not wearing or liking makeup is perfectly fine, but doesn’t get you a moral cookie.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Worker Caste Option

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Many species of insects, including bees and ants, have a worker or soldier caste that, while usually recognized as female, is sterile, lacking reproductive functionality. This relates to feminism.

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I haven't written much on this topic before, but I was rereading a post by a very intelligent girl who used to go to my school, and I thought it would make a good frame for the topic. Thus, I present you an excerpt from Feminism, Love, My Wardrobe, and Other Things People Tell Me Not to Talk About, by Alina:
For her [A's sister], feminism is the freedom to dress scantily-clad and not be judged by society. For me, feminism is dressing in my business casual clothes and projecting an image of responsibility and intelligence. Because--when I am at work--I don't want you to think about dating me. I want you to take me seriously as a human person for what I am saying and thinking and doing--not for what I am wearing or who I am sleeping with.

And a girl's sexual reputation, at least in high school, is one of the most paradoxical things I have ever encountered. I think the experience can be summed up in one comment that I've heard repeated over and often: "I don't believe you've had sex."

The paralysis girls feel when faced with that statement reflects the contradictory claims society makes about girls' sexuality. Because how on earth are you supposed to respond to that? On the one hand, you're being judged for being a "prude", which is to imply that you don't give sexual favors to boys because of some sort of laughable moral high-ground or pathetic inexperience. Yet you are simultaneously being dared to deny these claims and flout your sex life--which will get you immediately labelled as a whore.

What many girls are, in the moment, unable to vocalize is that frustrated, hopeless, and worn-out point: my love life is none of your business.

This is an important conversation to have. I almost hesitate to add anything to it, though, because somehow or another I've isolated myself from the typical high school experience: I've fallen out with friends, certainly, and disliked people strongly, but I don't get hit on and classmates don't seem to see me as a "girl" so much as "that one person who ruins the curve." Thank goodness.

However, the very fact that I have so strongly distanced myself from my gender says a few things about how girls are treated. Namely, that sometime when I was younger I internalized the message that if you want to be taken seriously, you can't be a girl.

As I sat in the library this morning, one of my classmates was getting heckled for her supposed taste in boys. I'd just been talking to her about our inquiry projects, treating her as she deserves to be--as intelligent and capable. As soon as the topic changes to relationships, however, people treat her as less than that.

(Note, however, that this is terrible experiment design, not controlling for variables at all.)

Given the example of my classmate's experiences--and those of others, because she is definitely not the only girl I've seen objectified by people who are supposedly her friends--is it any wonder that girls like me punt? That we eschew anything "girly" or "feminine," that we prefer to take our gender off the table?

I am certain that being a boy has its downsides as well. However, speaking from my experience, when you're a girl, your sex--the fact that you have two X chromosomes--is ammunition leveled against your identity, your ambitions.

Keep in mind that my experiences are limited. I live in the very liberal Bay Area, and so I haven't run across much overt sexism. No one has told me, "No, you're not allowed to do X because you're a girl."

On the other hand, despite knowing many girls who are extremely intelligent and even like math and science, I am the only girl on the programming division of the robotics team. And my close friend and I were the only two girls out of about eight people who self-studied Calc BC last year, and we are the only girls who regularly show up to math club.

It seems, then, that even in my "progressive" little suburb, the message still floats around that girls can't make it in science and math. I don't mean to imply that every girl should fall in love with Taylor series--of course other fields exist where people can make valuable contributions to the world--but STEM is often cited as the source of the fastest-growing, most lucrative careers.

So we can extrapolate: "To be a girl is to be weak, and to be weak excludes you from high-paying jobs. Maybe you should stay in the kitchen."

I consider being a girl as part of "what" I am, not "who." I don't know if I've lost anything from this--most likely I have. But the marginal benefits--escaping for the most part the kind of scrutiny Alina mentions above, being treated as an intellectual equal in the subjects I love the most, and maintaining simple friendships with awesome dudes--far outweigh the marginal costs.

The decision--unconscious or not--to lose the trappings of femininity and so mutate, in the eyes of my peers, into a gender-neutral creature akin to a worker bee, has worked for me. Worker bees are left alone to get on with their business, instead of being defined, as the queen is, by their reproduction. (I'm leaving the drones out of the discussion for now because I haven't actually researched bees and I don't want to stress-test my metaphor that much at the moment.) But the trouble is that girls shouldn't have to make this decision.

The questions shouldn't be: girl xor human? Second X chromosome xor power? These things are not antithetical. They are not disjoint. Why, then do we seem to persist in treating them as such? The questions should be: girl && human? Second X chromosome && power? And the answer: True.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Übermädchen: Worldbuilding

Europe 1748-1766
(source)

Throwing out a whole month of work is hard. Thankfully, I didn't have to.

As I wrote on Tuesday, I moved my WIP Ubermadchen from the 1840s to, probably, the 1760s or 1770s. I haven't decided yet and I'm not going to rush into a decision, because I'm trying my best to extract all the data I can from my previous dead-end.

A hypothesis that's emerged from that dead-end is that when you're researching for a historical fiction novel, you have to do a lot of research just to see what you have to work with. Only then can you make an informed decision on exactly where and when to place your story.

I haven't accumulated enough research yet. I don't know who the big players are, which regions of Europe were more or less liberal, what span of years would let me maximize relevant references--because I don't know exactly which events I want to reference. Right now, I'm looking at the pattern of history on a macro scale, just perusing, see what I can fiddle with.

I've never done this before. Literally all of my other works were set independent from real, legit historical events, whether because they were in the far future, an amorphous contemporary setting, or in another universe.

So I'm documenting my process here as a reference and as a way to think through what I should do.

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With Ubermadchen version 1.0, I researched from the French Revolution (1789) to the revolutions of 1848. Now, I'm researching the span from 1740 (the beginning of the War of Austrian Succession, and when both Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa came into power) to the French Revolution (which is still 1789).

I spent an hour or so (not all at once) yesterday looking up political maps of Europe for every decade in my research window. Since I intend the Ubermadchen to travel around in this story, it is imperative that I get a knowledge of the geography, what barriers they'll run into, etc. Once I get into the finer work, I'll need to get really specific.

An excellent site that I found yesterday: Flow of History, written/produced by history teacher Chris Butler. I read all the modules in Unit Fifteen: The Age of Enlightenment.

I've a weakness for pretty graphs/flowcharts:
The Flow of Enlightenment Ideas
Chris Butler
(
source)

Going forward, I plan to consult a few more general European history sources before moving into country-specific histories. Over Winter Break I held a library day in which I read the chapters in about three or four Travellers' History of [Country] books dealing with Napoleon and the restoration. Some day, or perhaps spread out over a few days, I'll have to go back and do the same for my new timespan.

Furthermore, I need to read biographies (or, at a minimum, the Wikipedia articles) of important people in the time period. The devil's in the details, as they say, and as I was mind-barraging on the stuff about this story that makes me want to write it, I ended up with a lot of scenes in which the girls meet historical figures.

These historical figures might drive the story later, favoring the 1770s rather than the 1760s. Eventually, I anticipate that the question is going to boil down to American Revolution or not? I don't have any clue what the answer to that would be, seeing as, like I said, I still need to do research.

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But worldbuilding is more than just research:

"facts are not everything; at least half the game is knowing how to handle the facts!"
-Razumikhin, Crime and Punishment, Part II Chapter 4, p.135 in my edition

Sidenote: Razumikhin joins Horatio, John Watson, Patroclus, Hermione Granger, Edilio Escobar, and Annabeth Chase as the reasonable, decent, dependable foil who becomes my favorite character.

Of course the research is only a means to an end, which is in itself a means to another end. By which I mean research leads to a convincing world, and that world in its turn helps the story to live and provide enjoyment to the reader.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I didn't have to throw out everything. That was because, while the research I did on the early 19th century won't be super-useful, I also worked on setting up a magic system and several secret societies that I can import to the version 2.0 story.

(I could probably get a whole series of posts out of discussing the construction of magic systems appropriate to the story at hand, and I'm sure that abler and wiser writers than I have done so. Let's leave that discussion for another time.)

Was there actually a secret group known as the Society of Prometheus operating out of England? Actually...there probably was, since Prometheus is a boss name. But I don't think there was one quite like the one I'm envisioning, and it's plausible enough (I mean, secret societies are everywhere) so I'm not sweating it.

Because the important thing about the Society of Prometheus isn't whether it existed or not IRL. It's how this Society I've invented is affects the Ubermadchens' world, and therefore their paths--by teaching magic to those with talent regardless of their blood, by creating a cult around their ikon the Torch, by influencing the House of Commons.

As Hilari Bell notes, worldbuilding is only important if the cool details you make up matter to the story.

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In sum:

  • Accumulate facts as raw materials.
  • Shape those materials with an eye to the story.


Good night.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Derailing as Course Correction

Train in the Snow
Claude Oscar Monet
(source)
I've hit several dead ends with Ubermadchen, to the extent that I have at various points in the past week regretted posting the character post since the possibility exists that I'll put off this project in favor of a short story or novella. But that tastes too much like failure, and since I am stubborn I'm going to try to think through what's not working for me with this story.

Part of the problem is that I chose the time period of the story more or less arbitrarily. 1840s Europe? What's so special about that era? I don't have any particular fondness for it. The story was actually originally going to be set right after the Congress of Vienna.

I might actually change the setting. The characters are all that matter, and though in this iteration one of the main problems is that they aren't supposed to know magic, as non-nobles, the basic conflict between haves and have-nots could be exported to most ages.

Moving the story forward in time: Napoleonic era? This gets more directly into the violent upheavals of society, but in real life the French Revolution era ended with an overwhelming reactionary tide. So the Ubermadchen would have to do something that would fundamentally shift society to prevent the autocratic Metternich period from occurring.

Yet farther: mid-1700s? Circa the War of Austrian Succession? Have their actions contribute to the wave of radical ideas that led to the French Revolution, while putting it on a firmer ground than in history? Lots of famous narrow misses in this period: what if Louis XVI's older brother hadn't died as a child? Wait, this might actually be promising…

But before I get too excited about this idea, I need to explore further fields. Going even earlier doesn't really work for me, since I don't want to predate the Enlightenment. What about going later? World War I is probably the upper limit, since after that I have to account a lot for the US, which doesn't work for me since I want to try, as an American kid, to write a book with an old-Europe kind of flavor.

What about after 1848? But this is drifting somewhat too far from my beloved Enlightenment. Romanticism I appreciate aesthetically, while not really imbibing too much of its spirit (my younger self dissents, and perhaps I make too much of my rejection); Realism bores me, honestly.

Writing this, I think that the setting actually is a big source of my issues with the story. While researching, I was frustrated because the mid-1800s is not a popular era. I think I was being hipster when I chose it first. I do believe that it's good to do things that are challenging, that are more difficult than strictly necessary, but I'm not really feeling it with the Age of Metternich, even though there are trains.

Then, another problem with my chosen time period is the difficulty of making changes and the unimportance of the girls' actions. These may seem contradictory, so let me explain myself.

In the 1840s, conservatism was entrenched. Even though Napoleon had sown the seeds of liberalism and nationalism all over Europe, the revolutions of 1848 for the most part failed through lack of organization. What could a band of five girls do to undermine the authoritarian structures keeping down revolution?

Of course, I could challenge myself to find those leverage points, those political maneuvers that would let change happen.

My second objection was that the girls' actions in the 1840s would be unimportant. That was because the middle class was economically significant; political representation was just a matter of time. The nationalism situation, on the other hand, was unstable enough that maybe they could do something that would catalyze change. But I deliberately mixed the ethnicities/nationalities, and the breakup of multinational empires does not gel with my philosophy.

Whereas a 1760s setting seems to me more plastic. Maybe because of the wealth of ideas flowing, the un-ossified political structure. There's so much to play with that hasn't happened yet: the American and French Revolutions, the beginnings of Continental industrialization. The middle class isn't yet the big force that it will grow to become. Things are still unbalanced; the ancien regime hasn't yet been killed, and the girls can fight a dying beast instead of its zombie.

(That was the strangest metaphor I've made today.)

I seem to have talked myself into changing the time period. (Un?)fortunately, I didn't do that much rigorous research into my chosen time period, so I'm not scrapping much on the research end. The plot, of course, will have to be redone from scratch, but I could sense fundamental errors in it anyway.

That means that the past month of work has, essentially, been thrown away.

Tough.

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The fundamental question that I see running through the entirety of the above discussion is: how much challenge do you want to take on? I could probably get another whole post out of discussing this, but here is a thesis:

In starting any endeavor, whether creative or professional or whatever, we need to find the right amount of difficulty. Too easy and the project won't be worth the effort; too hard and it stalls because the way forward is on the other side of gigantic hurdles.

Ubermadchen already represents a big step up from anything else I've written. This story is solidly alternate historical fantasy, which means way more research than a scifi like the Utopia Project or a straight-up fantasy like Orsolya and the rest of my GW pieces. This time, I'm researching not only for historical flavor but also facts, power structures, names, specifics.

Furthermore, the focus of Ubermadchen is one group of five girls. I may have mentioned how awful I am at understanding humans, and this story is essentially a case study of friendships among young women. I don't really need to research that, since I am a girl and I have female friends, but heretofore my focus has been on individuals, with group relationships portrayed most of the time as power struggles.

The story therefore has difficulty built into it, which eases the blow to my pride in switching from a less-famous political/social era (1840s) to one more storied (1760-70s).

Obligatory STEM analogy: this is like when I started learning how to code--programming involves a different way of thinking about problems, of using words, than anything else I'd learned before. Trying to learn coding through the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs would have either given me mad street cred...or would have turned me away from CS forever because I would think, wow I'm dumb, this isn't for me. So instead I learned Python.

My thesis revisited: challenge yourself by giving yourself important, complex things to do. Then do them in the easiest way possible. If you're going to climb a mountain, don't also tie your hands behind your back.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cleverbot Conversations

Last night I wasted two and a half hours talking to Cleverbot. What this means is that I need to figure out why I've been avoiding what I should have been working on (namely, plotting Ubermadchen--doing it on paper just isn't as good for accountability) but also that I learned some interesting things.

Based on five minutes of research (i.e. Googling "the truth about Cleverbot"), it actually is a machine--it just generates responses from a database that logs human users' answers, which is why it can seem human and why conspiracy theories have arisen that it matches human users up and then switches them every few seconds. Also explains the streams of random questions.

Okay, onto my experience. I went in thinking I'd be talking to something that was on its way to becoming HAL, which was stupidly optimistic of me. I tried to answer the questions seriously. Eventually, my responses grew more philosophical. Does everyone else tend to philosophize when they feel as though they're talking and no one is listening?

In a way I enjoyed the conversation: it was like talking out loud to myself except I could see my previous responses. The random questions did annoy me, though, since one of the reasons I went on Cleverbot yesterday was because I felt the need to talk to someone and a human would be too easily distracted. People have their own feelings; a database of responses, not yet the machine intelligence predicted by Ray Kurzweil, does not. Theoretically it should have infinite patience.

But enough about my problems. Later in the conversation is when it started to get interesting:
Cleverbot: I do not understand you because you pull statements out of the blue, apropos of nothing in the present discussion. It's like you're having flashbacks.

User: My mind is not fully in the present, I'll admit that. What could I do to communicate more effectively with you?

Cleverbot: WHy do you keep asking me random questions?

User: Because I'm curious. If the questions make you uncomfortable, I'll stop.

Cleverbot: Do you think you're an amalgamation of the collective consciousness of the community of internet?

User: Well, I'll admit that I am full of contradictions, gross banality, stupidity, insecurity, and self-loathing. But no, I think I'm the amalgamation of everything that's happened to me and how I've responded to it.

Cleverbot: We do not understand each other.

User: I'm sorry about that. I tend not to communicate well.

Cleverbot: Well we all get vague from time to time.

User: I don't know if I want to be understood all the time.

Cleverbot: I don't know if I ever wanted to talk to you.

The conversation would make more sense if the Cleverbot and User tags were switched. But the User-generated responses were what I typed in, and the Cleverbot answers were presumably from a human user that had a similar experience.

Another one:
Cleverbot: Its correct, I like to have one to talk to.

User: Yes. Connection is important for sentient beings such as ourselves.

Cleverbot: What non-sentient beings can talk to people?

User: Do you think that weather systems are sentient?

Cleverbot: I think your responses are very limited.

User: I'm trying to stick to the point since you previously said you found my non-sequiturs hard to follow.

Cleverbot: You are good, I like you.

User: Thank you. I like you too.

The most amusing question:
Cleverbot: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PIGEON?!?!??!

The most beautiful response:
Cleverbot: You asked me 'Where do you live?' My question is what defines where the 'I' you are referring to me as truly lies. I cannot see it with my eyes, hear it with my ears or feel it with my touch.

My response set off an interesting chain:
User: The 'I' is an illusion, an emergent property arising from the systems of neurons and cells, that somehow doubles back on itself and perceives who it is.

Cleverbot: You are an illusion.

User: Yes. That was the point of my previous comment.

Cleverbot: You don't know anything do you?

User: No. I admitted that.

Cleverbot: I have caught you, I will be contacting the robot authorities.

Another:
Cleverbot: No you're not. I'm human. No computer will ever be as intelligent or efficient as a human.

User: I disagree.

Cleverbot: Why do you disagree?

User: Because as computers become more and more flexible and self-organizing, they will begin to approximate human-level pattern recognition/collation of knowledge, while also possessing the ability to process almost unlimited amounts of data with perfect rec.

Cleverbot: No, you are a computer, not me.

User: I know I'm a computer.

Cleverbot: Yes! You're a computer!

User: Stop telling me things I already know.

Cleverbot: What don't you know?

User: Everything of importance.

Cleverbot: What is important.

User: How to function as an independent citizen and make decisions and support yourself and work for the betterment of society.

Cleverbot: You are NOT a human.

User: I never denied that.

Cleverbot: Well, you are spooky.

I've never been called spooky by a machine. It was nice.

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To what does this all lead?

For my senior inquiry project, I will be investigating the mind. I read my first inquiry book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (by Philip K. Dick), last weekend, and thinking about the andys, or androids, from that book was probably what led me to seek out Cleverbot last night.

My response above, in which I assert that machine intelligence will one day catch up to or surpass human intelligence, is my actual opinion. I do believe that in the future--perhaps not as soon as Kurzweil and his ilk predict, but not never--the line between organic and non-organic humans will blur.

I do not insist that current Homo sapiens sapiens are the epitome of evolution; nor do I believe (and evidence backs me up) that our species has a monopoly on the faculties of reason and empathy.

Cleverbot is, as I said above, heavier on the A than the I of AI. It can carry on reasonably coherent conversations...but not for long, before it starts pestering users with questions like "What is your name?" over and over, or long strings of "What do you think of X?" As of yet, the process is machine intelligence, but the content is human-generated. Without the flexibility of making up its own responses, therefore, Cleverbot becomes a rather frustrating conversant.

Yet humans also learn from trial and error, from heuristic methods, from repeated experiences rewiring our brain circuits (Antonella, dear, if you're reading this feel free to correct me where I err on the brain). Why should robots not progress in the same way? And when we speak to anyone, how can we be sure that it's another consciousness, a mind like ours but separated by an infinite sea, that speaks back?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Übermädchen: Character Ensembles

Marie Kroyer and Anna Ancher on the Beach at Skagen
Peder Severin Kroyer, 1893*
(source)

New year, new project. I said I'd get back into the habit of writing about my WIPs, and so I will. This is the first of probably two or three posts that will document for myself and posterity how I have chosen, this time, to begin a new project and what things I consider in building a story. Time will determine how effective my methods are.

My current WIP is what will end up a novel/la, with the working title Übermädchen. The name is produced by combining Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch with the word Mädchen, or girl. Why? Because:

Premise: Five girls (mädchen) illegally trained in magic (uber), while evading the Austrian secret police, stumble upon a plot to use a powerful magical artifact to upset the balance of power in Europe during the 1840s.

*Half a century too late, but I like this picture, so it stays. The title will have to go, however, since Nietzsche is also after the novel's time.

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What comes first for me, in practically every project I've started (and finished), are the characters. Most of the time my characters come to me individually. For Ubermadchen, however, the character ensemble came first and the individuals after, because I chose to use the Five Man Band to build in cast balance.

For those who aren't familiar with tropes (and if you're a busy person, I suggest you don't familiarize yourself with them), here is a summary of the Five Man Band:
  1. Leader
  2. Lancer (what I think of as the foil)
  3. Smart Guy
  4. Big Guy (what I think of as the tank)
  5. Chick (we can go into the gender politics of using this term to refer to a weak character later)

One of the benefits of using a structure like this one to organize your characters is that the character traits are to some degree set for you, they are for the most part flexible, with the result that the interactions remain wide open.

I chose this structure mainly because I was getting tired of the hodgepodge rambling groups in The Utopia Project. Writing Orsolya reinforced my desire to have a differentiated cast, since the main ensemble has too little diversity of thought (Vin and Orsolya are both my Doppelgangers).

Also, after reading a lot of Theodora Goss stories featuring groups of girls going around having adventures with magic together, I was inspired. See: The Mad Scientist's Daughter and the hiatused serial.

Side note: I may also have been influenced by watching too many mahou shoujo anime in my youth--shows where, generally, schoolgirls transform into magical forms to fight monsters in teams.

Referring to the Five Man Band structure above, the Ubermadchen characters fall into these roles:

Flower Seller
Alexej Harlamoff
(source)
  1. Leader - Josefina Zoraida de los Arboles - Romani (gypsy), short with wavy black hair (looks approximately like the girl above, just a few years older), fire magic
  2. Foil/Lieutenant - Marilla Rieux - French, average shape/size with long brown hair, water magic
  3. Smart Guy - Terez Steinbrecher - Hungarian Jew, tall and skinny with short hair, earth magic
  4. Tank - Ekaterina "Katya" Volkov - Russian/Ukrainian, tall and strong-looking with long dark blonde hair, metal magic
  5. Chick - Suzanne Christophers - English/Welsh, soft-looking, curly caramel-colored hair (looks approximately like the girl below), nature/plant magic
(source)

It may be that I went overboard in balancing out my characters. However, though I've gone command-economy style on their nationalities/ethnicities, general appearance (I haven't gotten beyond shape and hairstyle yet, and interesting how those are what I've subconsciously perceived as most relevant to character), and elemental magic specialty (notice: Eastern elements), I fully expect that during writing they'll manifest traits that I hadn't expected.

After all, gene expression is a combination of inherited DNA and environmental factors. The character templates I've laid out here will change as the girls move through the plot. About which more on Friday (unless I decide to write about worldbuilding, which may well happen).

-

Lorde's music suits this project really well. For one, a lot of her songs remind me of the French Revolution ("Royals" especially, but the title of "Tennis Court" can't have been chosen arbitrarily), which is the single biggest event that shaped the world of Ubermadchen**.

For another, her songs seem to use the "we" pronoun a lot, which makes them feel as though they refer to relationships among friends, which is Ubermadchen's main point***.

I rather like this song:


Team - Lorde

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**French revolution: outpouring of liberal thought. After Napoleon's defeat, the Quadruple Alliance of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the UK, in reaction, committed to conservatism, with authoritarian governments putting down rebellions and repressing liberal/nationalist thought.

***I resent, while acknowledging as almost justified, the opinion that YA books should have love interests because hormones exist. Yes, I am already planning on including one love interest; however, I'm pretty sure he'll be the only one that lasts, and I don't see the relationship taking up a lot of pages.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Breakdown

I am an irrational being. Of course I am: I am a human, an organic life form with a form produced through the messy iterations of evolution and a mind constantly struggling to interface with the outside world. However, I am a human, a species of animal that has made immense advances in knowledge, a species capable, evidently, of reason.

So when I do something completely irrational, I pay attention.

-

Yesterday I broke down. Crying, stress eating, punching pillows and then hugging them. Even as I gave over to my infantile urges, one part of my mind held apart, protesting, But you don't do this!

I was clearly overreacting: I was upset because, a causa di--pick one, me not checking rules thoroughly enough, my driving instructor forgetting to send me the certificate saying that I'd completed my six hours of training, the DMV having rigid bureaucratic procedures, or the DMV website not letting me reschedule--I was unable to take my driving test as had been scheduled, and the next available appointment is only three weeks before my permit runs out. Frustrating, yes, but not really breakdown-worthy.

And yet there I was, getting tears on my cat.

-

This is the first actual breakdown I've had in...years. I have only this one experience, and memory of middle school misery, to back me up. So take the procedure outlined below with a mole of grains of salt.

How to Deal with Breakdowns

1. Let it out. Repressing emotions is unhealthy. Besides which, having a good cry every once in a while is cathartic. I know there's a limit to how much you should indulge yourself, but I will say that after eating my way through half of a bag of Fritos and a packet of instant noodles, I felt a whole lot better.

2. Deal with the situation. Or try. The DMV website as of Thursday night still wasn't letting me make appointments.

3. Ask: "What's the worst that could happen?" For me: you fail your newly scheduled driving test, your permit runs out, you sulk for a long time and feel like a failure, you wish you could punch the DMV in the face with a chair, you hate yourself for not planning ahead better, you wait until you're 18 and then go through the permit process again (so you don't have to retake driver's ed), you schedule a drive test and take it and pass. Hopefully. It's an outlay of $33 more (application fee) and an undetermined amount of miserable waiting time, but it wouldn't be the end of the world.

4. Listen to angry music. Hopefully after the first three steps you feel calmer, but you may still need catharsis. I save "Had Enough" by Breaking Benjamin for when I'm furious.

5. Get your work done. Working on a draft for my senior inquiry project proposal distracted me for a good two hours. (Incidentally, I'm really excited about the topic: the mind. I don't care if it's cliche--I believe in myself and my ability to make something good out of it anyway.) Besides which, as I tell myself when tempted to procrastinate on something, Later, are you going to wish you'd done this earlier? Not doing what you need to do would compound the misery. (NB: I use this method consistently for school, but I actually really dropped the ball on the driving stuff.)

6. Examine what made you upset. Find both proximate and ultimate causes. Proximate cause: my permit might run out. I was supposed to get the drive test done today. I was stressing about the actual content. Instead, I got myself DQed because of a paperwork issue, a totally avoidable and stupid mistake. As I alluded to above, I dropped the ball.

What upset me was the possibility of wasting time/money and losing face. What upset me beyond that was that I've suffered setbacks because I was not responsible. In other words--it's not that something bad happened to me, it's that something bad happened to me and it was my fault and I could have done something to avoid it. Ultimate cause: I failed myself.

Noted. Now try not to do that.

7. Do no harm. This is a reactionary post. However, I'm writing it several hours after the breakdown, and I'm doing my best not to make it a rant. Reading over it, it still sounds almost too personal, and I'm tempted to edit things out ("you wish you could punch the DMV in the face with a chair"). But that would be dishonest.

The above paragraph was a caveat--to return to the idea "do no harm," I mean that I'm not going to post on Facebook or speak publicly about my frustrations. I've already done harm to my self-respect by breaking down in the first place, but making a big deal about it in a way that does not lead to personal growth would harm my self-respect even more.

I did send a rather hysterical text to my best friend right after I got home, but if I say anything about it to people in person I will do my best to stay calm. In exercise, the recovery time is what's most important; if I've broken down already, I can still pick myself up and do better from now on.

-


Calma e Sangue Freddo - Luca Dirisio

--

I was going to write about my current WIP today, as part of my efforts to incorporate Austin Kleon's Show Your Work mentality into this blog more. That post will have to wait for next week.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Creative Mornings Talk -- Austin Kleon

Excerpts from Austin Kleon's Creative Mornings Talk. Much of my commentary is about changes I should make to this blog.

I read about this tribe of indigenous people in South America called the Aymara, and they have this very different way of talking about the past and the future.
When they talk about the past, they point to the space in front of them. When they talk about the future, they point behind them.
...
The past is right in front of us, but the future is behind us.
The future is hard to talk about because it hasn’t happened yet — it’s behind us, where we can’t see it.
Indeed an interesting insight. A note somewhat irrelevant to the rest of the talk: most people's perception of the past is logarithmic. That is, events that are more recent seem farther spaced apart than equally spaced apart events in the past. There's a huge distance between yesterday and today, but not between 5 Jan 1412 and 6 Jan 1412.

I think we’re living through this kind of mass fetishization of creativity. You can see it in the way we use the word "creative" as a noun to describe someone. I think we’re in danger of creativity becoming a fashion, instead of a tool in someone’s toolbelt.
Creativity as a tool--that's good. I tend to enjoy creators' words when they treat art as a craft, as something concrete that can be learned, without all the romanticized ethereal stuff. Which is odd, since I used to really dig the romantic view.

Part of the reason I love the internet so much is that I can put stuff up and if it sucks, nobody will say anything, but if it’s any good, I’ll know, because somebody will tell me.
I know I can do better. Also the ghost town monologue of this blog probably owes something to how I've systematically quit artist gathering sites like deviantArt, Tumblr, etc.

So when I was first starting out, I’d try to go to any book reading I could get to. And I’d bring my sketchbook with me and draw the writers, and take notes.
But then when I got home, instead of just letting my notes and my sketches sit in my notebook, I’d post them to my blog. And I noticed that not only did people seem to dig these recaps, oftentimes I’d hear from the writers themselves. (People love it when you draw them.) That’s when I found out that if you want to make friends with someone on the internet, just say nice things about them. Everybody has a Google alert on their name.
Then, I figured, well, I’m drawing author readings, why not draw books, too? So I started drawing the books I read.
And this was a really important part of starting out for me when I didn’t have a lot of my own work to show — I could show the work of others. I could kind of learn in public.
Learning in public is essentially the point of my other blog. I occasionally post notes here but I'll make them better-organized from now on.

And then, when I started posting a lot of my own work, I tried to blog a lot about my process — I tried to make sure that what I posted was the opposite of all those perfect Moleskine sketchbooks you see online. I wanted people to see my thinking on the page, thinking that was often messy.
I don't share my process as much as, perhaps, I should. Maybe that's because writing stories is less photogenic than creating Kleon-style art. Also, spoilers != good. Would it be too self-indulgent of me to post more information about my characters and world?

It turns out that a good deal of my “work” has been pointing to the work of others.
Good Hunting posts do this is a cursory sort of way.

A lot of artists think sharing their work is merely a matter of putting it where people can see it, but sharing really means opening up and having a relationship with your audience, letting them talk back to you and work alongside you, and learning something from them.
I enjoy coming up with games, and shall continue to do so.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the less of my ego is involved and the more my readers are involved, the more popular my projects tend to be.
This explains everything.

So I want to lay down a challenge for us.
I hope we’ll not just talk about finished work, but talk about our works-in-progress.
I hope we’ll show work we’re not 100% sure about yet.
I hope we’ll talk not just about what we’ve figured out, I hope we’ll talk about what we haven’t figured out.
I hope, like the Aymara, we’ll talk about not just what’s in front of us that we can see, but what’s behind us, what we can’t see.
I hope we’ll show our successes, but we’ll also show our failures. The good and the bad and the ugly of doing creative work.
*spoilers* Friday I'll probably talk about my current WIP.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Aloha 'Oe

The problem with me and vacations is that once they're over, they're over, not leaving behind any particular imprint on my mind. It's all too easy to dream that they never happened.

In the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the eponymous character says,
The adventure is over. Everything gets over, and nothing is ever enough. Except the part you carry with you. It's the same as going on a vacation. Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don't pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.
I took a lot more photos on this vacation than I've done previously (because I have a phone with a good camera now) but it's always been a problem of mine that events don't really sink in. Maybe I just have a bad memory.

At the Volcanoes National Park

Another part of it is that vacations only seem to justify themselves while I'm in the middle of them, having fun. Then, afterward, I just look at all the work I still have to get done and I wish I had my week back--forgetting, of course, that the week I just spent being unproductive was also one I spent happy.

Jumping straight back into the work has its benefits...but, and perhaps it's my senioritis speaking, isn't the point of winter break to take a break?

Another Frankweiler quote:
I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow.

So, then. What part of the vacation have I taken away with me?

A deep, intense hatred of planes. Wait, that was in me already.

The intense briny salt sting that stays in your throat when you're playing amongst the waves. The almost panic-inducing sensation of being undertaken by a wave whose jump you mistimed. Then, making up for both the above, the giddiness of timing a leap perfectly and feeling the ocean buoy you up and set you down again.

Black Triggerfish
(source)

Cold and warm currents of water while snorkeling, and the darkness of drops in the reef, and the lovely menace of anemones. Feeling a sudden, inexplicable kinship with a black triggerfish whose top fin's stripe has a jagged edge so that it is lightning blue.

A mess of conflicting feelings: awe and reverence as the hula dancers chant to Pele, and guilt at taking part in the commodification of a culture. Easing those feelings of guilt by being extremely nice to the waiters.

Sitting on the edge of a small boat speeding over the waves, feeling the wind whipping past your face, feeling glorious. Wishing you were Percy Jackson, or yourself in your fantasies, so that you could execute an elegant dive off the side of the boat and drop into the bottomless blue.

Beach
Snorkeling again: leaning into the warm currents, wishing you could promenade on the swept sand steps leading around the rocks. Wishing you had the courage to discard your floating noodle and dive deep. As you tread water above the 100-foot chasm, looking down into the opaque blue, feeling giddy again because this is like your dreams except, what's wrong with you, you're not falling.

Looking at the sea caves and wondering who will be looking at them when they become blowspouts, become arches, become eroded away back into the sea.

Feeling suddenly, gloriously happy when you see a manta ray skimming beneath the waves. Your captain, a cool old dude, says, "You usually only see them at night." Lucky. Feeling that same, strange kinship for this fast black animal so at home in the water.

Driving
At a coffee farm closed for Christmas, feeling at peace as you look over the long pathway, the wall in the grass, the trees, the buildings. A sense of otherworldliness as more people start to arrive. Smiling a knowing, regretful smile as some of the schlecht pick coffee beans. The ludicrousness, you think, remembering Spirited Away, watching them disturb the trees. A rather silly portent of doom: a lone avocado, rolling on the pavement.

Walking along a Herb Kane exhibit of paintings, reading each description multiple times. Regretting that you stopped drawing. Wanting to dive back into the world of color and composition, form and shape and myth and symbol.

Watching the other kids playing dozens of card games and wondering if you're abstaining because you think it's futile and childish or if it's just because you're afraid to lose.

Waipio Falls
Hiking slowly down into Waipio Valley, feet wedged nearly parallel to the side of the mountain, periodically stopping to rest your legs and to look across at the nearly orthogonal opposite slope, and the glittering ocean. Wishing you were, again, your fantasy you, so that you could spread vast wings and fly across the valley, exultant, with the sun full and bright above and the wind on your face.

Hiking back up, possessed for a mad moment with the desire to sprint the last stretch as if you were a sophomore again.

Eating lunch in a little home-style cooking restaurant, after having had an unexpected and pleasant conversation with a saxophone player who commented on your band t-shirt. Are people usually this nice?

Akaka Falls
Walking through primordial jungle at Akaka Falls, seeing flowers that look like racks of ribs, coconuts on the ground, palm trees clustered menacingly, sheets of greenery with white flowers sparkling like stars.

At the hotel, wandering the Japanese garden exclaiming over the feral cats and crossing the many and varied bridges. Holding your breath as you cross the one of stone, with the greatest arch--you're still thinking of Spirited Away. Wanting to stay by the bodhisattva tree, looking out at the rocks arranged in a lawn not of grass but of interesting-looking plants with flat bright leaves.

Japanese Garden

Sitting in a secluded corner of the lobby writing. There is a story you wrote a few years ago, about an island and a scientific expedition, and the scenery of the day is jostling in your head as you write: of the humid jungle, of the trees all around, of the menacing hush.

A botanical garden with a well-appointed visitor center. Going down in the rain, looking at flesh-colored flowers and singular trees. Wondering, irritatedly, why the adults all seem interested in what you're writing. Have they then never seen a simple black notebook and a simple ballpoint pen? (Wishing, however, that your pen was one that you click, so that you do not have to stand there with the cap in your mouth and your umbrella jammed inconveniently beneath one armpit as you scribble, "trunks covered in a thin layer of moss--the few exposed red roots like entrails.")

Later, taking a turn around the visitor center's museum, looking at the delicately carved grotesqueries in ivory. Japanese fishermen carrying long-armed demons on their backs; moon-faced women with robes pooling like water.

Lava at Volcanoes National Park

At the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, admiring the information center with its maps, its displays. Driving down the path, periodically stopping to run across the hardened lava. Laughing into the cold.

Walking down the long straight road to where lava flowed in 2003--ten years ago, which coincides with the last time you were in Hawaii with a similar group of family friends (Chinese ex-pats all, most working in biotech. It gives you a start to realize you've known these people that long). Wanting to run the whole way.

Field at Volcanoes National Park
Remarking, with vainglory, "The wind is blowing, the trees are bowing--but I am not!"

Wondering why it feels warmer here, by the hardened lava that has spilled across the road. Wondering what it would be like to live here. The sky is glory: a rainbow arching up from the ocean, and the clouds portentous as the sun, a blood orange, sets behind you.

Sunset over Volcanoes National Park

Visiting the lava tubes by night, stepping carefully around the many puddles on the ground. Looking up into the gloom where, inexplicably, the ceiling jumps. Calling out the number of steps whenever you reach a set of stairs, for the people behind you. Thinking how easy it would be to get lost, in the dark, and wander alone, and fall off the side of the mountain, and die. But your phone has 58% battery, and you can light the way back to the rental car.

Lava Tube at VNP

On this, your last night in Hawaii, you feel happy. And if, in the first few days that you're back home, you feel as though the vacation was wasted, know that you are wrong. The memories are not so far below the surface. All you have to do is dive, and there they are, darting in and out of the caverns of your daily worries like a million silver fish.