Year of Giant Novels Part 6: Seveneves

Seveneves is a giant sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson. I use the term novel loosely here. It isn’t so much a novel as a history textbook about an event that didn’t happen: the moon exploded. I say this because there isn’t really story or characters in the traditional sense.

The sense in which these elements exist is the same as a history textbook. The facts are presented in sterile, detached fashion. The main characters exist in the same way that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are “characters” in a history textbook. History texts don’t really have character development, but the figures still go around doing things.

Another parallel is that the story often completely stops for huge, in-depth descriptions of important inanimate objects. I think of this as similar to how a U.S. history text might go into great depth on how a cotton gin, or some machine from the industrial revolution, worked. These might be important in preserving certain historical moments, but it is a terrible way to write a novel.

There was a time in my life where I would have praised this type of thing. I would have talked about how brilliant it was for him to break with standard novel writing conventions to record this alternate history of Earth in history textbook form. I would have actually considered this harder to do than to write a more traditional novel. Oh. The pretentiousness of my youth.

Nowadays this novel strikes me as a huge ego trip by the author (or laziness; I’m not sure which is worse). He’s written the first step of an SF novel and now expects everyone to read it just because he’s famous enough to get away with it. Every great SF writer produces 250,000 words worth of material about their world and story as the first step. It is such a common thing to do that it even has a name: worldbuilding.

What Stephenson doesn’t seem to realize is that when he reads a 90,000-word novel that doesn’t contain all 250,000 words of excessive detail about every little thing, it isn’t because the author didn’t think of it, it’s because that author actually did the hard step of writing and producing a novel from their worldbuilding notes. You don’t publish the notes to the novel just because you wrote them.

The reason I say this is ego rather than just laziness or confusion about what writing an SF novel entails is that he breaks other golden rules of SF “just because he can.” (I don’t know why I put quotes there. He didn’t actually say this.)

If you go to any of the famous print SF magazines, you’ll usually find a list of terrible things that will get you an automatic rejection. One thing that appears on all of these lists is basing a story on a random, major, unexplained event. In this case, the moon explodes. And what caused this? Eh. He seemed to want to write the book, needed this to happen, but couldn’t come up with a reason, so he left it out.

The reason this golden rule exists isn’t arbitrary. Stephenson is writing hard SF. To put some mysterious event in like this turns the genre into paranormal or supernatural or worse. You may as well use as your starting sentence: And Sauron came out from hiding and told the inhabitants of Earth that he would, in two-years time, bombard the surface of the Earth with fireball spells for thousands of years.

Then write a hard SF novel after that. It is deeply unsatisfying and lazy. The Sauron start would change absolutely nothing. It is effectively equivalent to the opening we actually get, except more honest. To use the moon exploding feels like a shady trick in an attempt to pull one over on the reader into thinking it is an explainable event.

For some reason, he thought he was above this (hence ego) and went ahead and wrote a book that wouldn’t have any chance at being published if by a lesser name. I can almost see the board meeting where the publishers are talking about this.

“Should we tell him this isn’t okay?”

“No. He might go with someone else. This book will make us tons of money. Who cares if it violates standards we’ve set for other writers.”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.”

Ugh.

I didn’t mean to bash the book this hard, but while I’m at it, I may as well continue to air my complaints. The second most important event is also weakly justified. The moon fragments keep colliding until there are millions (billions? irrelevant to this discussion) of them. At some point, their orbits will decay and start pummeling the Earth, killing everyone on it.

So much of this is left a mystery, despite the fact that smart minds in the book have all worked out these calculations. This is hard SF. I want this explained better. I couldn’t care less about a several page description of how treadmills work on the International Space Station.

The fact that anyone predicted this is astonishing. The insane accuracy with which their models predict it takes this out of the realm of SF for me (they were within a few days). It was only a model. First rule of science: all models are wrong. Surely some of the parameters they thought they had nailed down were really wrong. I actually kept expecting a major twist of the book to be that the hard rain never came. That would have been cool. But it did come, just like the models predicted.

To go into more detail about what I would have like explained, why did these billions of chunks of moon orbiting Earth mysteriously start to fall to Earth? How small are the chunks at this point? Clearly they aren’t so small that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve crossed some critical size that they lose orbit. This, again, just strikes me as something Stephenson wanted to happen, couldn’t figure out why it would happen, and so just left it a mystery.

I think what’s frustrating about this is that if Stephenson had just written a 90,000 word novel that drew out the story, it would be a much more compelling read and simultaneously fix every one of these complaints. As I pointed out in my previous post, tonal consistency is important in SF. Stephenson goes into painful depths of science on some things, but then glosses over highly improbable other events. This inconsistency would be fixed if he let go of all the excessive description and focused on the story.

Now that the above 1,000-word rant is over, I will say that the book isn’t that bad. It’s an interesting thought experiment that goes on way too long. Prepare to be bored to tears by some excessive, irrelevant descriptions. Prepare to be frustrated to tears by other things that have no (or implausible) explanations.

You won’t connect to any characters. It isn’t really a novel. Once you get over all that stuff, you can start enjoying it. I never felt like quitting for any of the reasons I’ve given, and that’s better than some books I’ve read recently *cough* Ulysses *cough*.

Tonal Consistency in Fantasy Writing

Today I’m going to discuss a topic that ranges from extreme, blatant violations to subtle, accidental slip-ups and why they matter. The language of fantasy writing is much harder to get right than many “literary fiction” writers give it credit for. In fact, I’d say it is much, much harder than novels set in modern times on Earth.

Let’s start with Shannara, because I recently decided to watch the MTV series based on The Elfstones of Shannara.

Major spoilers for the books; minor spoilers for the TV series.

Shannara puts a clever twist on the fantasy setting. Instead of it being some mystical past, Terry Brooks made it a futuristic world. The implication is that a nuclear war happened, destroying technology, and then the radiation mutation of people became elves, gnomes, goblins, humans, etc. I think this is described in one of the “prequel” trilogies/books, but I never read them to be sure.

The number one concern when doing something like this is consistency. Some people might not like this change up because it violates genre conventions, but I could care less. If something is done consistently, then you should be allowed to do it.

The series does a pretty good job at keeping everything consistent with this setting. For example, the hero has to journey to a place called Safe Hold. We find out that this is the Sa(n) Fr(ancisco) (G)old(en Gate Bridge), where the sign has the letters smudged out and disfigured to create the words: Safe Hold. This is a pretty neat discovery, fully consistent with the setting.

But consistency of setting isn’t the only type of consistency. There is also something I’ll call tonal consistency. Despite being the future, the tone of the series keeps to a traditional fantasy tone. This means no guns, no modern music, and so on. This is where the TV series is at its worst. When guns appear in an episode, it is big shock that totally pulls you out of the tone up to that point. When modern music and a video projector appear, you lose the suspension of disbelief for the tone.

As I’ve already said, you can put all of this stuff in your fantasy setting if you want. The problem isn’t the breaking of a genre convention. The problem is that the reader/watcher has experienced hours of this world and seen no evidence that such things exist. There must be consistency from the start (or done for very deliberate and good reason).

These types of errors occur in a lot of period fiction, but no single example is usually enough to ruin anything. The problem is that you can only lose the tone of a work a certain number of times before you get pulled totally out of the atmosphere it tries to create. It’s mostly a subconscious thing that you probably don’t even notice until it’s too late to get back into the mood.

Let’s talk about some more subtle examples that are the reason this is so hard to do well. The language itself can be the source of these consistency problems. One obvious one is using the word “earth” when the characters don’t know about the planet Earth.

It is so easy to accidentally do this (not actually from Shannara): “Wil dug into the ground and felt the warm earth fall between his fingers.” You can pretend that the narrator has “translated” this for the reader. The word here is technically synonymous with “soil” or “dirt” and not referencing the name of the planet. But then why take the risk? Just use “soil” or “dirt” if that is what you mean. If the characters haven’t heard of Earth the planet, then they wouldn’t be using the word “earth” ever. Period.

The way this usually sneaks in is with similes and metaphors. “The pieces fit together like clockwork.” Wait a minute. Does this world have clocks? Are they precisely put together? “An emotional roller coaster.” Really? This world has roller coasters? Idioms can be problematic as well. “When hell freezes over.” Does anyone in the setting believe that hell is normally full of fire and brimstone?

Those ones slip in but are usually pretty obvious and easy to catch if you’re paying attention to it. The truly nefarious ones are when a word is perfectly ordinary and not a noun referring to something that doesn’t exist, but it’s etymology contains something that doesn’t exist. Wow these are subtle, but a great fantasy writer will make every effort to weed these out as well for consistency of tone.

Here’s one: quixotic (this is actually used in The Scions of Shannara, which I started reading, inspired by the show). It means foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals. But wait a second. The only reason it means that is because of Don Quixote. So if this book doesn’t exist in your setting, this word also doesn’t exist.

I’m torn on whether this is appropriate in Shannara. Since we know the book did exist, it seems okay. But still, it seems to conflict with the tone, since the prequels hadn’t been written yet, and we aren’t supposed to know it’s okay.

Measurement tends to be a judgment call. I could go either way. English and metric units definitely ruin consistency of tone, but this might be one of those “lesser of two evils” situations. If there is an easy way out, for example, use “two-day walk” instead of “eighteen miles,” always go with that. Sometimes you have to get creative enough that it ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. My rule is to avoid precise measurement in that case, but there may be situations where it is needed.

As a final note, I’ll say this can go too far. Every writer has to decide for themselves where the cutoff is. Is “stoic” okay even though it originates from the ancient Greek school of philosophy Stoicism? I draw the line with these cases by allowing a third person narrator to use them if that narrator is clearly not someone in/from the world. A character is not allowed to think or say words that originate from a culture that didn’t exist in their setting.

Along the same lines, what about “philosophy?” The word itself is borrowed from Greek, and so if Greece doesn’t exist on their world, does this break tone? I’d say that’s going too far. Both narrators and characters are allowed to say borrowed words as long as the word isn’t in reference to a concrete person, place, movement, etc. You have to realize that most words in English are borrowed or have pretty clear traces from other languages, so you can’t remove all of these for practical reasons.

Anyway. Sorry for spoiling anything. The series got me thinking about this topic, and I realized I had never written about it.

Year of Giant Novels Part 5: Ulysses

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve taken off with the assumption that most people reading will have a familiarity with the giant novel. This time I’ll start from the basics. Ulysses is one of those books that many people have heard of but probably still can’t tell you much about.

Ulysses takes place over a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. In fact, June 16 is called Bloomsday, and celebrations happen around the world in commemoration of the novel. I went into Ulysses knowing this much. What I hadn’t realized is that Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is given equal weight as a main character.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style. People have probably heard this novel is “unreadable,” and this is the reason why. It’s not so much that the events of the day are mindnumbingly boring (this is true!), but that the prose itself is impenetrable. I’ve worked my way through many, many works of literature people have called unreadable and never found them to be so. This one actually is.

Unlike Proust, whose stream-of-consciousness prose is thoughtful and elegant, Ulysses fully embraces the utter chaos that is the human mind. Here’s a sample:

Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. Encore deux minutes. Look clock. Must get. Ferme. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bit all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that’s all right.

And on and on and on it goes: for 260,000 words. There are ways to ground yourself though. And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about.

The name of the book is Ulysses in reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into sections, and one can supposedly correlate sections of The Odyssey with sections in Bloom’s day. But why? And should you care? We have to take a step back and put the book in context to answer this question.

Ulysses is often considered the perfect culmination of all modernist literature. Modernism as a movement is sometimes considered to have started all the way back with Madame Bovary (1856) but didn’t fully come into realization until the devastation of World War I.

There was a vast turning inward. The classics like War and Peace or The Odyssey or Great Expectations all had grand sweeping plots, rigid forms and structures, and a focus on beautiful language to show these things. Modernism rejected these notions.

I think it’s very hard for us to understand the feeling in Europe after WWI, but once can try to empathize with the sense of futility. We’re all small. People’s lives didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t heroes. There weren’t illusions of being able to change the course of history. The classic form of the novel probably seemed a dangerous fantasy. The world was chaos and unpredictable not structured and clear.

All right. So what on Earth does this have to do with Ulysses? The one takeaway from the title is that this novel is self-aware of what it is doing. It says: Bloom’s ordinary day is the heroic journey of our time. Maybe in the past, people could be worried about saving the world. In our time, an ordinary person trying to make it through an ordinary day is just as grand a struggle.

Depressing. I know. For me, the only way to make it through this book is to get rid of trying to figure out how individual sections parallel The Odyssey. Also, give up on there being any sort of plot to follow (though the wikipedia page is quite helpful on this front). The main thing is to dive into the difficult prose and think: yes, this is how real people think, it is chaotic, and somehow we manage to get through it everyday.

So is this novel worth it? In my opinion: definitely not. As a perfect embodiment of the modernist movement, it is an extremely important historical work. As a work for scholarly study, it will give endlessly. As a giant novel people should read, it is a nightmare.

If this type of thing interests you, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf instead. It is the exact same idea, an ordinary person’s ordinary day in the modernist style, but it is infinitely easier to read and much, much shorter.

When Should Campuses Shut Down Debate?

It’s been over a year since mob rule started taking over who is allowed to speak on college campuses. These types of things have obviously been going on longer than the most recent prominent cases, but the visibility seems to have brought us to a turning point. Angry students have learned that the administration will always cave to their demands out of fear. This is no way to run a university, but that is beside the point of this essay.

The question I want to explore is whether there is ever a legitimate reason to not allow someone to speak about or debate a topic. Here are some of the base assumptions I’ll be making:

1. Facts are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes overturn whole worldviews. Causing some discomfort in the pursuit of truth is never an acceptable reason to shut down a speaker or debate. We’d still believe the Earth was the center of the universe with this mentality.

2. Uncomfortable debates will happen on campuses anyway whether a particular speaker comes or not. We’ve all been in those classes where brief awkward exchanges happen between professor and student, and it quickly becomes apparent that the student believes something antithetical to what is being taught (intelligent design, the only valid foundation for ethics must be derived from a supreme being, the Holocaust didn’t happen, etc).

3. The people who will be so-called “triggered” by a speech or debate will not be in attendance anyway. They aren’t open to the ideas being discussed, so they have no purpose in attending. I’ll assume no one is being forced to go for a class or a grade. If a student thinks they might suffer from PTSD (or whatever hyperbolic acronym is in favor now), they just shouldn’t risk it by attending. Reasonable decisions by the students can avoid all harm that could come in this form.

4. This is almost never a free speech issue. Anyone can debate anything in public. Free speech is unrelated to a university spending resources to invite you to do this on their campus. The question should be whether the current way that universities deal with controversial speakers is in alignment with the goals of a university.

Here’s one legitimate reason for not bringing a particular debate to a campus. A topic is so settled, that there is no reason to publicly air an argument about it. Universities have limited funds, and wasting money arguing whether the Holocaust happened just isn’t a useful way to spend that money.

Note well: If you’ve already invited this debate, I don’t think that reason applies anymore. A group of students protesting the debate should not shut it down. If the university doesn’t want this debate, then they shouldn’t invite the speakers to begin with. Once an invitation is given, no amount of pressure should shut the event down.

Do I think the taboo nature of that debate topic ought to be reason for not having it? Absolutely not! Settled questions like these are probably not worth the time and money, but there isn’t much harm in debating them. When a question is truly decided, it isn’t hard to debunk the arguments. No one fears or protests this.

Sometimes it can even be useful to remind ourselves what makes their arguments bad and what the evidence is. It would be embarrassing if someone graduates from a major university and can’t respond to claims that the Earth is flat. Shielding students from these silly ideas instead of exposing them as frauds makes the ideas more likely to spread not less.

This brings me to the fear some of these students have about hearing certain viewpoints. The violent reaction to these ideas usually means the ideas have some merit. No one is afraid of a flat Earth debate. They would think it’s silly. The spherical Earth arguments win. No one will be convinced of the flat Earth theory in that debate.

The only reason students protest certain speakers is because they fear people might be convinced when they hear the evidence that contradicts their worldview. If they deny this, then ask why they are so worried about the students listening to the speaker. They’ll probably mumble something about not letting hate speech on campus, but if it’s purely hate speech, everyone will see this for what it is.

The reason no one is convinced by the Westboro Baptist Church is precisely because we’ve heard what they have to say. They debunk themselves with their hate speech. Censoring speech about topics makes it look like there is something there when there isn’t. I’ll reiterate, if the administration really thinks they will only get hate speech from a speaker, don’t invite them to begin with.

So far I think we’ve only dealt with really easy cases. Most of the people that students protest pose absolutely no threat. This means Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christina Hoff Summers should all be able to air their opinions. If they’re wrong, then that will come out in the debate or speech. They won’t convince people. If they aren’t wrong, then that is all the more reason to let them speak.

There are much harder cases, though. These are topics that one can couch in the language of the pursuit of truth, but it is hard to see why anyone would be researching it without some ulterior motive. This would be something like IQ differences between races.

I’m torn on these types of things. Part of the beauty of tenure at a university is the ability to research taboo topics without fearing for your job. We absolutely cannot make people come up with positive impacts of their research in order to fund it. The mathematician that studies the derived category of coherent sheaves on high dimensional varieties in positive characteristic would have a hard time coming up with any sort of real world positive impact as well.

Ah, but that research has no application, so it is somehow “neutral” you say. When there is a clear racist or otherwise negative application, then the researcher must justify it. This is a legitimate slippery slope though. Who gets to decide what is a “positive” application or a clear “negative” application to begin with? Once you allow any sort of censorship of research based on subjective judgments, you run into huge problems when the “wrong” people get in power.

So in summary, I think the types of people who get disinvited from campuses right now are easy cases. They should be allowed to speak. They pose no threat and will often give well thought out counterpoint to the established worldviews of many students.

There is a real and interesting debate to be had on more difficult cases, but overall, I see no way to restrict those debates without setting a dangerous precedent. So I tentatively say that we must also allow these taboo subjects to be researched and debated, at least in a university setting where the pursuit of truth must take priority.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.

Draw Luck in Card Games, Part 2

A few weeks ago I talked about draw luck in card games. I thought I’d go a little further today with the actual math behind some core concepts when you play a card game where you build your own deck to use. The same idea works for computing probabilities in poker, so you don’t need to get too hung up on the particulars here.

I’m going to use Magic: The Gathering (MTG) as an example. Here are the relevant idea axioms we will use:

1. Your deck will consist of 60 cards.
2. You start by drawing 7 cards.
3. Each turn you draw 1 card.
4. Each card has a “cost” to play it (called mana).
5. Optimal strategy is to play a cost 1 card on turn 1, a cost 2 card on turn 2, and so on. This is called “playing on curve.”

You don’t have to know anything about MTG now that you have these axioms (in fact, writing them this way allows you to convert everything to Hearthstone, or your card game of choice). Of course, every single one of those axioms can be affected by play, so this is a vast oversimplification. But it gives a good reference point if you’ve never seen anything like this type of analysis before. Let’s build up the theory little by little.

First, what is the probability of being able to play a 1-cost card on turn 1 if you put, say, 10 of these in your deck? We’ll simplify axiom 2 to get started. Suppose you only draw one card to start. Basically, by definition of probability, you have a 10/60, or 16.67% chance of drawing it. Now if you draw 2 cards, it already gets a little bit trickier. Exercise: Try to work it out to see why (hint: the first card could be 1-cost OR the second OR both).

Let’s reframe the question. What’s the probability of NOT being able to play a card turn 1 if you draw 2 cards? You would have to draw a non-1-cost AND another non-1-cost. The first card you pick up has a 50/60 chance of this happening. Now the deck only has 59 cards left, and 49 of those are non-1-cost. So the probability of not being able to play turn 1 is {\frac{50}{60}\cdot\frac{49}{59}}, or about a 69% chance.

To convert this back, we get that the probability of being able to play the 1-cost card on turn 1 (if start with 2 cards) is {\displaystyle 1- \frac{50\cdot 49}{60\cdot 59}}, or about a 31% chance.

Axiom 2 says that in the actual game we start by drawing 7 cards. The pattern above continues in this way, so if we put {k} 1-cost cards in our deck, the probability of being able to play one of these on turn 1 is:

{\displaystyle 1 - \frac{(60-k)\cdot (60-k-1)\cdots (60-k-7)}{60\cdot 59\cdots (60-7)} = 1 - \frac{{60-k \choose 7}}{{60 \choose 7}}}.

To calculate the probability of hitting a 2-cost card on turn 2, we just change the 7 to an 8, since we’ll be getting 8 cards by axiom 3. The {k} becomes however many 2-cost cards we have.

Here’s a nice little question: Is it possible to make a deck where we have a greater than 50% chance of playing on curve every turn for the first 6 turns? We just compute the {k} above that makes each probability greater than {0.5}. This requires putting the following amount of cards in your deck:

6 1-cost
5 2-cost
5 3-cost
4 4-cost
4 5-cost
3 6-cost

Even assuming you put 24 lands in your deck, this still gives you tons of extra cards. Let’s push this a little further. Can you make a deck that has a better than 70% chance of playing on curve every turn? Yes!

9 1-cost
8 2-cost
7 3-cost
7 4-cost
6 5-cost
6 6-cost

Warning: This mana curve would never be used by any sort of competetive deck. This is a thought experiment with tons of simplifying assumptions. The curve for your deck is going to depend on a huge number of things. Most decks will probably value playing on curve in the 2,3,4 range way more than other turns. If you have an aggressive deck, you might value the early game. If you play a control deck, you might value the later game.

Also, the longer the game goes, the less cards you probably need in the high cost range to get those probabilities up, because there will be ways to hunt through your deck to increase the chance of finding them. Even more, all of these estimates are conservative, because MTG allows you to mulligan a bad starting hand. This means many worst-case scenarios get thrown out, giving you an even better chance at playing on curve.

This brings us back to the point being made in the previous post. Sometimes what feels like “bad luck” could be poor deck construction. This is an aspect you have full control over, and if you keep feeling like you aren’t able to play a card, you might want to work these probabilities out to make a conscious choice about how likely you are to draw certain cards at certain points of the game.

Once you know the probabilities, you can make more informed strategic decisions. This is exactly how professional poker is played.

Arguments on Religious Exemptions to Nondiscrimination Law

[This post is a day late. Excuses: I got bogged down looking these laws up. I accidentally had “insert” on, and I deleted large chunks without realizing it.]

It’s been in the news recently that a few states have (re)issued “Religious Freedom Laws.” The most recent being Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. I won’t get into the details on this particular act but instead try to present some arguments from both sides of this debate that I think are good and bad.

Like most liberals, I tend to react from my gut and conclude these things are horrible. This is mostly an attempt to take a step back and figure out  the actual arguments. I’ll take a philosophical approach and assume for the sake of argument that the laws are written in a reasonable way to achieve their intended goal rather than pick apart the specific language of any one of them.

This means we’ll assume that there is a (local) law that says public accommodations must serve people regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc, and that the newer religious freedom law exempts people from following the nondiscrimination policy based on a “deeply held religious belief.”

Good pro argument: It’s not a big deal for people who are denied service for any reason to go somewhere else. I actually think this is a pretty good argument. When I was planning my wedding, I think back to how I would have felt if someone would have said, “You know, we’re family owned, and we prefer not to do gay weddings for religious reasons. We can put you in contact with several other local bakeries that do them instead if you don’t mind.”

Wedding plans have lots of setbacks. This one would be the least of my worries. I find it hard to care that much. I’d think they were homophobic jerks, but if the laws were written in a way that said: if you deny service for a religious reason, you must provide contact information for a service of equal quality within a reasonable distance, that seems to be a good trade-off. In order to discriminate, they have to advertise for their main competition. If there isn’t competition, they wouldn’t be allowed the exception.

Good anti argument: It’s not a big deal for the provider to just provide the service. Part of being an adult who engages the public is to deal with people you don’t like or who make you uncomfortable.

Let’s take two examples. The first is the clerk who hands the documentation to the gay couple. This should be easy. It’s just a piece of paper. I don’t even think that clerk has to sign it. They literally just hand it to you. That person isn’t condoning anything or celebrating anything or participating in anything. In other words, it’s just not a big deal to provide that service regardless of religious belief.

A slightly trickier example is baking a cake for a wedding that “goes against your religion.” Let’s remove the gay wedding from the example. This becomes a question of whether the person has developed the normal adult cognitive faculty of separating a pure business transaction from their personal life. It’s childish to care so much about how a cake is going to be used.

I’m sure there are Catholic bakers who believe getting remarried without an annulment is a sin. Or heck, they probably believe all marriages should be through the Catholic Church. Yet they manage to provide cakes for all sorts of weddings that aren’t a part of their religion.

My guess is that they have the ability to forget about it once it is baked. If it bothers you so much, stop thinking about it so much. The cake baker is not “participating” in the wedding. They are not “condoning” or “approving” of the wedding. They won’t even be attending. The ego needed to think so highly of their service is staggering.

I maintain that this is true for every scenario the law is intended to cover. Grow up. It’s not a big deal to provide the service. Sometimes, in real life, you have to deal with people you don’t like. That’s just part of running a business. It’s special pleading to get a law to shield you from these people.

Consistent libertarian pro argument: All services should be allowed to discriminate however they want. It’s 2016! The market will weed out the discriminatory services fairly quickly, because everyone will boycott them for discriminating. Then, without any government intervention, we will be in the same situation that the anti side wanted.

I have no idea whether this is empirically true, but I respect the consistency of the argument. This brings up a bad argument on the pro side. Some people say the law is okay because it has “targeted language.” This is a horrible argument. It is an attempt to get around the slippery slope of allowing all people exemptions to all things based on vague “religious beliefs.” But being targeted is admitting that the law is specifically designed to legally discriminate against one targeted group. That is unacceptable. Religious bigotry cannot be written into law. The consistent libertarian pro argument is much better.

Slippery slope anti argument: Allowing religious exemptions will lead to chaos. The language of “deeply held religious belief” is too vague. That could mean anything. Maybe it’s my deeply held religious belief that it’s a sin for Asians to eat pork. Am I allowed to deny them service at my all-pork restaurant based on that?

This gets back to the libertarian argument. I think if the pro side wants to be consistent, they have to say this is allowed. The fact that they won’t go this far is a sign that their argument isn’t very good if made in this way. So ultimately I think I have to come down on the anti side unless there was solid empirical evidence that the libertarian argument would work.

 

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Year of Giant Novels Part 4: The Way of Kings

The next giant novel of the year has been taking me quite a bit of time. I’ve chosen The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, to change things up a bit. It is the first book in a long epic fantasy series. I’ve written about Sanderson’s Mistborn in the past.

I didn’t worry about spoilers in the previous posts in this series, because the first few books were “classics.” The contents of those books are part of the fabric of Western culture. This book is still pretty new, and like most speculative fiction, the mysteries of the world are part of the fun. So I’m going to be vague sometimes. I promise not to spoil anything.

When I announced this series, I pointed out that the most common complaint in book reviews I made the previous year was that the book was too long. Unfortunately, I’m going to lodge the same complaint here. I see no excuse for it.

One of the features of this world is a place called the Shattered Plains. In order for cavalry fighting to occur here, men have to move large bridges by hand across these crags in the ground for the horses to run across. The Kaladin storyline has this happen probably five or so times. Showing this to us once was interesting. Reading five chapters where this happens is a slog.

I get it. He introduced new elements into those scenes. He developed the character. Blah, blah, blah. These aren’t legitimate excuses. Someone along the publication line should have said, “Those scenes get tedious to read, and they are all going to blur together in the reader’s mind a week after finishing the book anyway, so maybe you should combine them into one or two chapters.”

This would have worked wonders on the pacing. It would have meant a denser layering of new concepts, but this would be a small price to pay considering how few new concepts are introduced in these chapters. I can’t help but feel like these sections existed merely to make the book longer so that the series as a whole could rival giants like The Wheel of Time.

The description also got tedious. I found this a strange turn from his earlier stuff. He used to give excellent, brief details that told a lot about the world and culture and characters. The Way of Kings takes the “more is more” approach. Everything gets describe to a fault.

I get this is part of the “style” of the genre. People want to hear a million details about this fantasy world. But to me, it reads as lazy. It’s weird to call such a long book lazy, but this book came out after he got “famous.” It feels like he stopped working hard to find the right description and instead dumped everything onto to the reader hoping one of them was the right one.

The most interesting character for me is Shallan. She basically infiltrates her way into an apprenticeship to a scholar. There are a lot of complexities to her, and she gets put into interesting moral dilemmas that I cared about as a reader. She also interacts with people from different walks of life, which lends itself to a more natural exploration of the religions, cultures, and history of the world.

Unfortunately, her point of view disappears for huge chunks (I think over 300 pages at one point, a whole novel!). This makes the tedium I referred to above even worse, since I knew there were interesting parts I could be reading.

I once read a review that said Sanderson’s NaNoWriMo-esque speed of writing might be good for fans that just want to know what happens next, but it is beginning to show in the sloppiness of his writing for the rest of us. I can’t agree more. If this were carefully cut to 600-700 pages, it would be exactly the same book, but infinitely better.

I think that’s enough of the bad. Let’s get on to the good. The world is detailed and has a long, complicated history. We get glimpses of this past with enough detail that I fully believe Sanderson has a good idea about what went on. This is quite an impressive amount of depth to the world you don’t get from much epic fantasy (e.g. I’m not convinced Tolkien had pre-Third Age Middle Earth history worked out at the writing of The Lord of the Rings).

The magic system and sword/armor systems were original and neat. Actually, most aspects of the world were interesting. I don’t blame him for wanting to drone on forever about them (please resist the urge in future books!). I mean, who puts giant crustaceans in epic fantasy? It is nice to get away from the dragon trope.

The characters weren’t bad, but they certainly felt a little one-dimensional at times. In a novel with this many characters, it’s good to have defining features to remind the reader who they were. When these features get repeated too much, the character becomes reduced to that feature. I’m not saying that happened in the book, but it was borderline sometimes.

Now I should make a disclaimer that I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, so things might turn around in the second half. I’m hopeful, since many people think this is the best modern work of fantasy out there right now. We’ll see.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 8

Today we’ll look at some prose from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t put this off forever; any series about prose would be remiss to skip Fitzgerald.

Many writers these days pop out 120,000 word novels every year. The Great Gatsby clocks in at about 47,000 words and was finely tuned over three years. This careful attention to prose is exactly the type of thing we should be looking at in this series of posts.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m pretty sure I read this book in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I may have just studied some plot summary handout, though. In the years since then, I’ve attempted to read it maybe five more times. I’ve failed every single time. Something clicked this last attempt, and I thought the book was brilliant.

This book is hard! It’s shocking that this is a standard for high school students. Structurally, it jumps around a lot. It is half the length of a standard novel yet has twice as many main characters. Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Jordan, plus several other minor characters all have fully realized backstories, personalities, and relationships with each other.

The way Fitzgerald achieves this is with extraordinarily economic prose. Pretty much everything in the novel serves two or three functions (as we’ll get to shortly). The point of view is brilliantly chosen. The narrator is telling of events that happened in his past. This gives an intimacy from the narrator being there and knowing the characters, while at the same time serves a distancing function.

I wish this “partially involved narrator” was used more. It was quite refreshing. The narrator also served to complicate the structure, because we hear the events as Nick learned of them, rather than chronologically. The shaky timeline serves a dual purpose: it reiterates that this is all in Nick’s memory, and it heightens the sense that Gatsby is running out of time.

Let’s get to the prose. Here is an early description passage of a place between Long Island and New York City. This place has huge significance in the later parts of the novel.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through powdery air.

It starts with a simple declaration to give the reader a picture then em dashes to more detail. It starts a metaphor: it isn’t just a valley but a farm for ashes. This makes sense, because the town is industrial and produces the ash. We immediately get a simile that the ash grows like wheat, staying consistent with the farm metaphor.

The picture is brilliant. We can almost feel it growing and covering everything. We get a few details, but these details are enough to paint a huge picture: ridges, hills, grotesque gardens, houses, and chimneys.

The sentence closes with a description of the people. The phrase “transcendent effort” here is so unique and unexpected. It creates a sense that these people require great will just to move in this oppressive ash. How do the men move? “Dimly” and “crumbling” evoke both the mood of the town but also keeps the description consistent with ash, which is also dim and crumbling.

In one sentence, Fitzgerald gave us all the description of the town we would need for the whole book. He achieved this through consistency in his metaphor but also making the different parts of the description reinforce each other. He used adjectives that did work for both physical description as well as mood.

Lastly, the sentence itself has a type of melancholy to it through its pacing and length. By chaining together those “ands” between the commas, the cadence gets drawn out. It plods along, almost losing you as it does it. The reader drowns in the description like the people in the town are drowning in the ash.

Sentences like these don’t come on accident. It reads like almost careless, effortless writing, but on close examination like this, we can tell how much work actually went into it. Almost the whole novel is like this somehow!

Let’s do some more:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

I chose this one, because I wanted to reiterate a point from the first one. “He came alive to me” is a simple declaration. The sentence could have ended there, but this would be the type of laziness that pervades less professional writing. If you’re just going to tell the reader something like this, you may as well not include it.

So the elaboration is the interesting part. He again chooses a metaphor: delivered from a womb. This is the point I wanted to emphasize. This consistency in metaphor is one the annoying things I find when critiquing new writers.

Maybe they strike upon some surprising idea like “womb of his purposeless splendor” (though I doubt it). How do you work it in? Tons of ideas might come to mind like “arrived from the womb” and so on. But of course, one has to look to the previous part of the sentence.

We have the phrase “to me.” Babies are “delivered” to people from wombs, so to stay consistent, this is almost the only choice. It is at this point that babies first cry and “come alive” (I am not making any sort of political statement here). The whole thing works as one consistent unit to both elaborate on the coming alive, reinforcing the metaphor, and having dual meanings.

Then there is the last part of the sentence: womb of his purposeless splendor. As in the first example, this is such a striking and unexpected phrase. Gatsby has been living in a womb of sorts, hiding away in his giant house without purpose, but it is certainly magnificent. Somehow those few words capture all of this. Now he is emerging from it and will have a purpose. It is, in fact, this very scene where Gatsby first reveals the purpose of everything.

We could go on like this all day. Notice we’ve only looked at two sentences. I guarantee that if you open the book to any random spot and find a single sentence, you’ll be able to keep doing this. The book is so tightly constructed that it boggles the mind.