We’re rapidly entering an age where science fiction becomes fact on a daily basis. Who’d have thought that by 2013 we’d all have tricorders, but call them iPhones? But sometimes, fantasy is also becoming real. This particular example is fun for me because it ties to my own work. In the book my wife and I wrote, Sword and Illusion, we created a fabric called “silken steel.” When the protagonist from that story, Moonrazer, the Exalted Warrior of the Sarl, took a husband we wanted to give her a way to embrace the softer feminine side of her nature without giving up her identity as a warrior. “Silken steel” was a kind of armor that was as light and shimmery as, well, silk. Now, it seems, something similar has been created, although this is apparel for men. The bullet proof suit will set you back twenty grand, but for the medieval warrior turned urbanite, it may be worth it.
If you read my posts at all you know that I don’t wear my political views on my sleeve, nor post about how everyone on the other side is an idiot. In fact, I think such posts are counter-productive. I want to win people to the cause I believe is right, not deliver an insult that makes me feel superior.
So this post isn’t for or against Obama’s healthcare legislation. This is about one simple issue on which maybe, just maybe, there can be bipartisan agreement. Here it is: Healthcare providers should not have the right or ability to take back money for a treatment, unless they can prove fraud.
I’ve had some personal experience with this. We obtained treatment through Humana. We talked to the providers, went to the place they recommended and saw the doctors there for several months. Eventually, Humana came back and told us they shouldn’t have paid, and they took back all the money. I appealed the decision through my employer, and the decision to take back the money was upheld. After the appeal, a person from Humana called me up to talk about the problem. He all but called me an idiot for not reading the laws and coverage terms more carefully.
In my case, the cost was several thousand dollars. It was painful, but it didn’t break me. I know other people with similar experiences for whom it was much worse. Think about this means. We all have the responsibility for knowing all the rules about our medical coverage spelled out by our state and by providers, or we can be made to pay the full amount for any medical procedure at some later date. As far as I can see, all of us are vulnerable. We should do something about this.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of my all-time favorite movies. Always has been, from before the time I had an inkling of what story structure and good writing were. And yet, when I think back on the movie, I wonder why it worked so well.
One of the basic lessons that any writer learns is that “Deus Ex Machina” endings are bad. They are unsatisfying because the characters are supposed to drive the story and the victory, not some hand of God. When this happens, rather than feeling a sense of wonder at the magical things happening, the reader usually feels annoyed that he/she had to see all the irrelevant stuff that came before.
And yet, what was that ending in Raiders if not, quite literally, the hand of God? Does this mean the ending is not Deus Ex Machina, or does it mean that all rules have exceptions and Deus Ex Machina is okay in some situations? I think I need to re-watch the movie. It’s been too long.
Those of you who know me, know that I’m a fan of the theory that robots are going to take all the jobs away. One job I never really thought that robots would take would be parenting. The human touch is important, and so on. But parenting isn’t just one job. One part of it, possibly the hardest part, is disciplining. What makes it tough is that many children (and some adults) enjoy seeing other people become angry. The only way to be effective as a disciplinarian is to show no emotion and be absolutely consistent. Noah has been making this clear to me, and I’ve become pretty good at the robot face. Hmm.
Okay, robots are consistent and emotionless. What about the punishment? How would they carry it out? Should robots be equipped with Star Trek style agonizers? No. Most kids in the modern world care only about one thing, getting to play computer games. Robots could completely control our access to this form of entertainment, and only enable our accounts if the children behave. Robots can take over helping children with their homework, making sure they make their beds, etc. The human parents can step in to give good night kisses and hugs. In short, we can all become grandparents.
I, for one, fully support our new robot overlords, err, parents.
Elysium was an enjoyable movie. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster do a good job, the visuals are stunning, and the camera work has that gritty feel of Battlestar Galactica. The story is well-constructed from a story point of view, i.e. plot points, decisions at critical points. It was also fun to see a Warehouse 13 actor (Faran Tahil) playing a similar role.
On the minus side, there are serious logical flaws. Why does a society with robots sophisticated enough to serve in law enforcement still have dangerous manual labor jobs? If John Carlisle can rewrite the basic code of Elysium to change control of the station, why wouldn’t he just take over himself rather than making a deal with Delacourt?
One of the difficult things, possibly the most difficult thing, about writing is figuring out how to convey information to the reader. In order for the reader to understand the story, explanation is necessary, but is usually also boring. For example, a conversation consisting of one character asking questions and another answering tends to be uninteresting, regardless of how natural it would be for that to happen. Likewise, having a character explain something in a lecture, read something in the paper, hear something on television, or look it up on the internet tend to be tiresome. The banality of these latter methods might even make them worse than simply dumping information into the narrative.
What is a writer to do? Fortunately, there are situations when the above modes of supplying information are not only acceptable, but eagerly devoured by the reader.
First, while the reader is fairly uninterested in what happened before the current scene, the reader is usually quite interested in what is happening to the character now. The reader wants to know what the character sees, smells, touches, and tastes, and wants/expects some description of the current environment.
Part of the reason is that the reader wants to vicariously live through the character. However, the degree to which description is desired by the reader depends on the emotional content of the scene. In key moments where emotions change or deepen, or when important decisions are being made by a character, the action needs to slow down to convey the character’s thoughts, precisely so that the full impact can be realized. The reader wants the chance to feel the emotion too.
Of course, the things described have to be relevant to the emotion or decision. Readers usually don’t care what the sky is doing. However, the description of the knife sticking out of the character’s chest matters a lot. How much the blade gleams, what the pommel looks like, and all the different ways in which the pain manifests (or doesn’t), should be spelled out in detail.
Descriptions of the scene can also be used as Trojan horses to carry information into the scene. By the description of a knife, the reader can learn whether the character is a cook or a killer. This latter method is interesting to the reader because it involves the brain at a deeper level, at deduction and inference.
The second major way is to present things backwards, to show the reader a result before clarifying the cause. Raise a question in the reader’s mind, and the reader will seek the answer. Make it a big enough question, and the reader will gladly read through an information dump in almost any form when it finally arrives.
If the main character of a story is named Artemis Gold, and he discovers there’s a professor with his name in three different universities, both the character and the reader will want to know why. When a fourth and fifth are discovered, the character will go out of his way to meet these other Artemis Golds and find out what they have in common. When the hero finds the millionaire who paid five couples to give that name to their child, the reader will be reading attentively during the question and answer session with the millionaire when it finally arrives. Actually, I almost want to read it now.
Anyway, these are my thoughts on valid ways to convey info to the reader. If anyone has more insights on this topic, I’m interested to hear about them. Please dump that info on me!
Galaxy Quest was one of my all time favorite movies. In part, this is because I’ve always loved Star Trek, and the parody is so beautifully done. I think all stories hinge on two key decisions, “The Fateful Decision” and “The Climactic Decision.”
“The Climactic Decision,” is something that needs to happen so that the story can end. It is a decision between two things, an easy way out in which the decider gets what they want, and something more risky. Notice that I said “the decider” and not the hero. That’s because the hero isn’t necessarily the one to make the climactic decision–very often it’s the villain, and this is true in Galaxy Quest. When Sarris has his enemy defeated, he refrains from killing Mathesar in order to make Jason Nesmith explain that “The Historical Documents” were nothing but a lie. He wants to rub salt into Mathesar’s wounds, and holds off from killing his enemies to do it. In this way he earns his defeat, and prepares the audience for the end of the movie.
In the last episode of “Elementary” this season, the villain also makes the Climactic Decision (spoiler alert), but there is a twist. Moriarty has gotten away with her crimes and achieved everything she wants. All she has to do is walk away and enjoy her riches–but she comes back to rescue Sherlock from his drug addiction. She doesn’t have to. Normally, when a character makes this choice, they are supposed to earn the reward–except she’s the villain, Holmes was faking his relapse, and she gets caught. The trick to this ending (as I see it) is that even though she gets caught and goes to jail, she hears Sherlock tell her he fell in love with her. Her reward is something she didn’t know she wanted, and maybe something she won’t appreciate.
My belief is that “The Climactic Decision” is necessary for the audience to feel like they’ve heard a complete story. But whether this decision belongs to the hero or the villain, or whether the decision merits a reward or punishment are choices for the writer.
Have you ever had a pickpocket put your wallet back into your pocket without taking the money? That’s what happened to me in Beijing yesterday. He grabbed my credit cards, my driver’s license, etc. and proceeded to make massive charges.
I actually thought I’d stopped the pickpocket, because I felt the wallet going out of my pocket and grabbed it. I checked to see that the money was still in there, and didn’t notice the cards were missing. A few hours later I discovered what was missing, then realized I hadn’t stopped the pickpocket from taking my wallet of my pocket but simply noticed him/her putting it back (crowds were too heavy to see who it was).
The police in Beijing doubted my story. One officer asserted that no pickpocket would be so clever. Really though, passing up $20 dollars worth of Yuan in order to make tens of thousands of dollars in charges to credit cards seems like an obvious strategy (in retrospect). I’m pretty sure I’ll escape from all the fraudulent charges. I was lucky I noticed the problem as soon as I did.
One thing I discovered is that the Chinese need pins on their credit cards. It makes me wonder. Why don’t we have the same requirement? Granted, it’s not a huge security barrier, but it would make life significantly more difficult for pickpockets.
Why are news outlets biased? You might think it’s some kind of sinister conspiracy, or the result of powerful people controlling what the masses think. I have a different opinion–it’s what the market wants.
People (conservatives, liberals, moderates, you, me, etc.) don’t like to hear stories that disagree with what they already believe. Whenever they do, they immediately get angry and suspect they are being lied to. Everyone knows this reaction as confirmation bias. If a news outlet violates a person’s confirmation bias enough times, they’ll stop going to a news source. Therefore, to be successful, a news outlet needs to cater to specific points of view.
If your sources of news don’t make you angry on a regular basis, you’re guilty of contributing to this effect. If you get all your news from John Stewart or Rush Limbaugh, you’re even worse. What can we do to combat bias in the media? Fight confirmation bias in ourselves.
If you’re a liberal, watch Fox news first. If you’re a conservative, watch a liberal show. Look for bias in what they say and what they omit. When you hear something that supports your beliefs, question it. If you’re a liberal who thinks conservatives are evil, or a conservative who thinks liberals are evil, hit yourself on the head until the bias goes away.
How to reject an author? How to crush those tender feelings of the sensitive artist? I’ve received a good number of “Unfortunately, your story isn’t quite what we’re looking for right now” letters through the years. One of my favorites was a personalized rejection which contained the sentence, “We must be highly selective in adding to it [our list of fiction writers].” I kind of wanted to say, “Well, shoot, I appreciate the need to be selective, but couldn’t you make an exception just this once?”
I’ve also had a few rejections come back in under 24 hours (one in less than 30 seconds). I think it would be nice to add some kind of automatic delay in these cases. While I really do appreciate efficiency (I once waited two years for a rejection), it seems to me there’s a balance that might be struck.
Clarkesworld has this neat system where you can watch your story’s progress in the queue. Click. “Your story is 21st in the queue.” Click. “Your story is fifth in the queue.”
I wish all submission houses had this! It could fulfill the desire to endlessly check status (the same kind of joyful activity as checking the stock market or an Amazon sales rank). I’d like to see a few more steps added: “Story is being read,” “Story is being pondered,” “Story is being debated by the editorial staff.” These can be fake steps, of course, but I think they’d make the experience of submitting and getting rejected a bit more entertaining.