Month: September 2017

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

In fandom, at least the fandoms which I am on the fringes of, people talk about canon. Something is canon if it is in the official work, but not all official work is necessarily canon. For example, the events in the Star Wars Holiday Special are not canon because they’re not part of the main story1.

Fan fiction is definitively not canon. Fanfic is writing using someone else’s world, and often their characters. It’s actually a really good way to start writing, even though it’s almost never publishable2, because the characters and the setting are already established. I’ve written a little bit myself, although I originally conceived it as an idea for a script I would send in to the Star Trek producers.

The inevitable combination of these is called head canon, your personal interpretation of the story incorporating fan fiction elements.

All of which is to say that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is fan fiction, an alternative version of the Harry Potter story with an adjusted premise, which enriches my head canon version of original the Harry Potter stories.

The adjusted premise3 is that Petunia Evans did not marry Vernon Dursley but instead took someone sensible as her husband: Michael Verres, a University professor and rationalist. Harry grows up as an only child, having been adopted and loved by his adoptive parents. This means that Harry is well read and already a well-developed intellect when it comes to science and logic.

The magical world is not prepared.

I would probably have read this fanfic even if it hadn’t turned into a mesmerising story because of its origins as an interesting pedagogical conceit: teach the principles of rational decision-making in a (frankly) irrational context; and investigate how someone possessed of deep critical faculties and a mysterious dark side would analyse the structure of magic and magical Britain.

But then it did turn into a good story, and many of the concepts it explores are embedded in my head canon because they make the Potterverse a great deal more sophisticated. Things like Harry and Hermione being sorted into Ravenclaw obviously aren’t compatible with the original work, but some of the other ideas improve the canonical story:

  1. Slytherin is not a house of cartoon villains, but where the most cunning are sorted. It’s not about power so much as control and manipulation, skills which can be turned to evil but then so can any of the other virtues celebrated by the houses.
  2. evil is not limited to Slytherin. In particular, bullies come from Gryffindor just as much as Slytherin.
  3. self-consistent explanations for magical artifacts and creatures. From the invisibility cloak to Dementors to the Mirror of Erised, magical things are explored and defined coherently. I particularly like the Philosopher’s Stone, but the examination of horcrux technology is impressive too.
  4. a plausible analysis of the Dark Mark.

The story can be a little dark sometimes but not gratuitously so, to the point where anyone who was comfortable with the goings on in books six or seven should be fine with the events here.

It is long, though. It took me about two weeks to work through it, and there are a lot of scenes with characters arguing: there are intense action sequences, but a lot of talking in between.

But as I say, this fanfic improves my appreciation of the original work, and that is something to celebrate.

[1] and canons can be changed. To use another Star Wars example, the Star Wars Extended Universe used to be canon, but after the Disney acquisition it was deprecated. Presumably they didn’t want to be weighed down by thirty years of continuity with the new stories they wanted to tell.

[2] Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding. After all, it was published as original work with no connection to the Twilight Universe.

[3] not the only change, but the one which is most significant.

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Pitching

Pitching, in creative circles, is presenting ideas and work to others who might be interested in working with you on them. It’s a sales pitch where you are selling to a collaborator1 rather than a consumer.

I’ve gone pitching exactly once, but I still have some observations about the process that I wanted to share. What I’m not going to do is try to teach pitching, because I am not an expert and there is already a great deal of information out there.

… although, having said that, the first thing I wanted to say is how profoundly much of this information conflicts. I’ve seen people say that you should have a scripted pitch, and to avoid being too scripted. I’ve seen some people suggest leading with the character’s central dilemma, while others suggest leading with a mash-up question2 and yet others say that opening with a question is stale.

One of the areas where pitch advice tends to conflict is in pitch length: some suggest filling all the time available, while others say to only pitch for two or three minutes and leave the rest for organic conversation about the project. It’s true that you should have a very short version of the pitch to use in chance meetings (the famous “elevator pitch”) but that shouldn’t be your only pitch or you’re going to have a lot of very short conversations.

What I found comfortable was to write a script, and rehearse the script, but to approach the pitch much more improvisationally — basically how I run roleplaying games, truly. I aimed for a 3-5 minute presentation, which left space for conversations around the story.

I’d also highly recommend practicing your pitch on people. Not necessarily writing people, but definitely those who will tell you if it doesn’t work for them. This will teach you not just how to tell your story in front of others, but also how to read your audience and vary what you’re saying accordingly. Are the pitchee’s eyes glazing over at your intricate description of alien architecture on the newly discovered space station? Maybe skip that part and get on with the plot.

The single biggest thing I was surprised by in my pitching was how much I learned about my story. Going in I thought I had a good handle on the character, but I only had a good handle on the plot on the setting: I didn’t really understand what it was the main character wanted until I had to explain it to someone else under pressure. So, of the three pitches I made at Willamette Writers this year, the third one was the best.

So, apart from obvious things like practicing and asking questions, the three pieces of advice I would offer are:

  1. lead with the main character’s motivation – this connects the listener with the story, giving them a reason to listen to the rest of it. Then you can talk about what is stopping the character from reaching their goal, and the arc of the story.
  2. be flexible – adjust what you’re saying to your audience. This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear: it means telling them about the parts of your story which will be most interesting to them.
  3. don’t hide things – you’re trying to sell people on working with you on your story, not trying to capture readers. Don’t hide the plot twist.
    Note that there is a plausible exception here with mysteries, but if your pitchee asks for the solution then tell them: they can’t evaluate your story without it.

Pitching is undoubtedly stressful, but it’s an opportunity to talk about your story and that is something to celebrate.

[1] that is, an agent, publisher, producer, or even another writer.

[2] “Harry Potter meets Kierkegaard”3 or “The Flintstones in space”4 are two terrible examples; “Harry Potter in space” is something more interesting. Hmm… space wizards…

[3] … of which more next week.

[4] ie The Jetsons.

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Racism is Bad, M’Kay?

There are lots of things to argue about in politics, but one of the things I thought we had broadly settled was that racism was a bad thing.

Obviously, I’m white. I was also oblivious.

People of colour have known that racism was alive and well even when we had a black President, but the change of political climate over the last eighteen months or so has taken the racist undertones of the past into something close to an acceptable political position.

There are lots of reasons I find Trump appalling, but the legitimsation of overtly racist politics is probably the single most damaging thing about his regime*.

So, I want to be quite clear about my beliefs here because apparently we actually have to say this now:

  1. racism is bad
  2. misogyny is bad
  3. homophobia is bad
  4. making decisions about anyone based solely on properties that they have no control over is unjust, immoral and, well, bad.

Can we at least agree on that?

[*] it’s not the only thing because the whole corrupt bunch are engaged in nothing more than deliberate vandalism, but it’s the thing that degrades our politics the most.

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Shifts In Meaning

When it comes to language, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist: I would rather document how people use language than hit folks over the head with how they’re using it wrong. However…

Words do have meaning and they have history, and the first is derived from the second. Language exists primarily as a tool of communication and that communication only happens when the meanings are agreed on.

Words also have context. Sometimes that context is obscure and radically changes the intended meaning. For example, blue. We all know what blue means, right? But there’s a big difference between saying someone has blue eyes and that they themselves are blue.

Or the word terminal. If I’m a transport nerd then it means one thing (or several things depending on how finely graded your shades of meaning are for different modes of transport); if I’m a telecomms engineer it means something else. For a computer technician it means another thing again. If I’m a hospital nurse it probably has a rather more grisly, but still necessary, meaning. All of these different contextual meanings derive from the Latin “terminus” which meant* goal or end point.

So, words have meaning and context, but that context is not always clear to the listener. Whose job is it to uncover the context that illuminates the meaning?

I would say that depends. If the speaker is trying to communicate their ideas, then they need to provide the context or their ideas will be lost (this is why knowing your audience is important when writing). If the listener is trying to extract meaning from words that were not expressed without them in mind, then it is up to the listener to figure that context out – it doesn’t do any good to wilfully impose the wrong contextual meaning on a term**.

However, words do have historically-based, accepted meanings. Those baseline meanings need to be treated as the default unless context is found which changes them. I don’t agree with Humpty Dumpty, in other words: you can’t just go around making up new meanings for words willy nilly, at least not if you want to communicate anything.

Because Persian blue cats aren’t blue at all, and that’s just weird.

[*] I think the past tense is appropriate here since this refers to the Latin which formed the root of so many other languages rather than the conlang that is spoken in the Vatican.

[**] although you can construct quite a lot of jokes this way.

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September Things, 2017

August had events in it, and that’s for sure.

Three Things for August

  1. Willamette Writers conference – well, that was splendid. It was also intense – I was worn out at the end of the three days, but it was a good kind of weariness filled with affirmation and enthusiasm. Definitely looking forward to coming back.
    • pitching – good outcomes to the pitches. The pitching process itself was fascinating, and I learned things about my story while I was pitching it which was enlightening.
    • critique group – we’ve added another enthusiastic writer to the critique group and this looks like it is going somewhere! I’m so happy.
    • learning – I went to sessions that seemed relevant, but I also went to sessions that were a couple of steps to the side of where I usually work. I am pretty serious about producing Livia as an audiobook now.
  2. revise Song – I have made progress on this, but mostly on the early chapters. I would rather have the entire revision done before submitting even early parts. So, this is September priority.
  3. short fiction – I wrote a bit more of the story I started in Iceland, but it’s not quite there yet. I also ran into another writer at the eclipse party* we went to who was very encouraging of my efforts.

One of the things about August is that it felt like I got nothing done in the moment because I had a lot of other stuff happening, between camping trips, a crunch at the day job (which didn’t steal time so much as emotional energy), and the sudden death of the day job CEO (which took all my emotional energy in one vertiginous gasp). So when I look back and see that I touched most of my goals for the month I am both pleased and surprised.

And I also got things done I didn’t plan, like restarting some kind of schedule for this blog and experimenting with audiobook production.

So only 2/3, but a good month despite that.

Three Things for 2017

The fractions just keep coming – two thirds through the year. How goes it overall?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song – the third draft is not yet awesome, but it’s getting better.
  2. talk to some agents, aiming to obtain representation – made my pitches at the conference, and got requests for samples! Very excited about this. But, the samples need to be awesome (see above).
  3. investigate publishing A New Dawn investigate producing Livia as an audiobook – replacing the abandoned goal with the audiobook version of Livia. I have a decent microphone now, and some good information on how to process recordings. So, I won’t get this completed by the end of the year, but I should be able to figure out if this is something I want to do or not.

Like I say, a pretty decent month.

Three Things for September

  1. revise Song – finalise the third draft.
  2. critique group – maintain contact, keep working with these lovely people.
  3. short fiction – complete a story, plan a few more.
  4. audiobook experiments – do some recordings, experiment with different environments and audio processing.

September is about getting things done.

[*] there was an eclipse in Oregon and we had somewhere we could see the totality. It was worth it, even the 4h30m drive home.

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Iceland: Land of Stories and Unpronouncable Volcanoes

I grew up in Yorkshire in the North of England but I live in Oregon, so every now and then I travel back with my family to the place where proper chip butties can be bought and ridiculously tiny roads navigated.

This trip we took Iceland Air which uses Keflavik as their hub, and they allow layovers in Iceland of up to a week without extra fees*. So we decided to stop off in Iceland on the way – we’ve flown over it so many times, it seemed rude not to visit for a change.

We landed on the summer solstice, which meant that we didn’t see night for a week. The midnight sun in Iceland is far more disorienting than I expected. With light all the time you never have to worry about finding your hotel in the dark, but it also encourages you to stay up far later than you really ought to! The twenty four hour sunlight also helped reset our jet lag faster than usual.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik is not a large city, but it is very walkable. The touristy parts are no more than a couple of miles across, and although there are large roads the centre is very pedestrian-friendly. My immediate reaction was that it reminded me of Keighley, a Yorkshire market town just over the moors from where I grew up, but it’s more accurate to say it’s like a scaled down version of London – the roads are all the twisty turny paths of paved cow tracks just like in London, but the streets are all still narrow and cosy.

We mostly wandered around the city looking at things – the public architecture is remarkable. It’s quite a new city by European standards (Iceland was colonised only in the 800s CE) but it’s quite bold in promoting its history. The central church, Hallsgrimkirkja, is a wonderful light-filled edifice.

Geology

Iceland is defined by its geology.

It’s a volcanic island formed by a hot spot on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving away from each other. This means that the landscape is quite young: it is familiar in form to anyone who knows volcanic geology, but it’s a lot less worn down than equivalent landscapes in Oregon, for example.

Highlights for us:

  • hot springs – the original Geysir is on the Golden Circle, and there are many other places where volcanically heated water is forced to the surface. This is why Iceland is the geothermal energy capital of the world. Be prepared, though: many of the geysers are sulphurous, and so incredibly smelly!
  • volcanoes – volcanic outpourings are everywhere, as well as proud linguistic obstinacy over the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull. There’s a little museum on the main road along the south coast which tells the story of the 2010 eruption that shut down European air traffic for a week which is definitely worth a look. There are also opportunities to visit active volcanic sites, but we didn’t get to those parts of the island.
  • black sand beaches – volcanoes and sea water make black sand, and there are a couple of gorgeous examples near Vik. Reynisfjara also has some beautiful examples of basalt columns, the kind of thing that make up the Giant’s Causeways in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • ice – Iceland has ice because it’s quite a long way north. The glaciers are retreating due to a warming climate, but even so there are opportunities to explore tongues of glaciers. The abundancce of ice also means many spectacular waterfalls – Gullfoss is one of the best know, but you can get a lot closer to Seljalandsfoss**.

Culture

Volcanoes and Vikings are, it turns out, a good mix.

Most of the stories of the Vikings I grew up with were of marauders and invaders. King Harold, the last Saxon king of England, was defeated by William of Normandy after his army being weakened by an invading force of Vikings at Stamford Bridge; island monasteries were raided by the Vikings.

But Vikings mostly farmed. They were storytellers and sailors and metalsmiths and keepers of livestock. Until visiting Iceland I had only really heard stories from the side of the victim (Vik-tim?), and the skill and bravery of these people who came to North America five hundred years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic and then went away again because there were people already living there is remarkable.

Particular highlights for me included:

  • Þingvellir – Iceland has the longest continuously sitting parliament, and the Parliament Plain is where it met until the eighteenth century
  • Eyjafjallajökull museum – in view of the famous volcano is a museum which describes the narrative of the eruption and its effect on nearby farms. Very interesting
  • Lava Centre, Hvolsvöllur – a really good overview of Iceland’s extensive geology, imaginatively presented
  • geothermal plant – geothermal energy is more complicated than you’d think: you have to put the water back, for a start!
  • The Blue Lagoon – the nicest power station outflow you could possibly imagine. This is a seepage pool for geothermal waste water, which happens to be mineral-rich and a perfect temperature for bathing in.
  • Viking World, Keflavik (or, more accurately, Reykjanesbær) – a few years ago, some enterprising souls decided to build a Viking long ship like the one Leif Erikson and his crew took to Vinland, then they sailed all over the north Atlantic in it. Now it resides in a compact but dense museum overlooking the bay north of the Keflavik.

Weather

We were there in late June and it was rarely much above 10C (50F) – when it’s sunny it’s nice, but it is almost always windy. We were in three layers and were glad of our woollen hats.

Bring the right gear and you will be fine.

Language

It’s a fair bet that anyone you run into in a touristy location will speak English, and your odds are very good most places. We encountered a couple of teenagers who looked at us blankly when asked questions in English, but who knows if they were just being obstreperous.

Icelandic itself is fascinating because it has barely changed in a thousand years (the sagas are taught as originally written in schools today), and because while most European countries were writing literature in Latin (and would for centuries to come) Icelanders were writing in their native tongue.

I’m not going to claim that pronunciation is easy, but these are the rules I have learned that have helped me replicate what I heard:

  • ‘J’ is a ‘yuh’ sound (like German)
  • ‘Ö’ is an ‘eh’ sound (not like German!)
  • ‘Þ’ is a ‘th’ sound (like English until relatively recently)
  • ‘h’ at the beginning of a word is a ‘k’ sound
  • ‘ll’ is a ‘tl’ sound. Welsh is close with its ‘ll’ sound, although that’s more like ‘thl’ really so…

For example:

  • “Hvolsvöllur” => kvols-vet-lur
  • “Þingvellir” => thing-vetlir
  • “Eyjafjallajökull” => Ayah-fyatla-yeh-kut-luh

In conclusion, Iceland is an interesting destination. Be aware that things are expensive there, though.

[*] it also doesn’t hurt that Iceland Air is cheaper and quicker than the other routes we’ve travelled, so these people will see our business again even without this.

[**] I got very wet when the wind changed.

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