Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for August 2019

Useful guides and useless advice / Follow-up: Useless guides on writing

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Recently, I lamented the quality of guides on writing ([1]). A few remarks based on my later readings and thoughts:

  1. Speaking of “guides on writing” was not ideal. I should have used e.g. “guides on writing fiction”.

    While many guides on writing (in a more general or more mechanics-of-writing sense) are poor too, the chance of finding a good one is fairly large. Strunk’s The Elements of Style, briefly mentioned in [1], is a strong example and gives excellent value for the invested time. I have recently re-read it for the first time in about ten years, and intend to do so again in the near-by future.* Another long ago read that I have in very positive memory, and intend to re-read, is The King’s English, which improved my ability to think** about language considerably.

    *I do not agree with him on all points, but he can stimulate thought even where I disagree. I urge the reader to pick as original an edition as possible, however; ideally, even pre-White. I note e.g. that a much more recent edition that I leafed through in a book store seemed very far from the original in insight and attitude, and e.g. even spoke of the need to replace an original “she” for “America” with “this country” (or similar), and included example texts by e.g. Toni Morrison, who, I strongly suspect, would not have met Strunk’s approval in terms of grammar and style.

    **Something that far outweighs the risk of encountering outdated rules.

  2. I have since found and read a few works on Wikisource more worthy of attention than those criticized in [1]. The most notable is The Craftsmanship of Writing, which is another good source of thought and understanding, as opposed to the canned, pre-chewed, follow-my-instructions-without-thinking advice of many modern guides.

    A lesser, but still positive, example is Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing. Stevenson, of course, was himself a best-selling author (cf. a complaint in [1]).

    I give an honorary mention to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition when juxtaposed with another discussion of “The Raven” (note the skepticism as to whether Poe should be taken at face value).

  3. Outside of Wikisource, I have also read Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, which can be quite helpful in understanding the limits of literary criticism, the benefit (or even need?) to see a work from the author’s perspective, and Tolkien’s own approach to writing fiction.

    Indeed, combining Tolkien’s text with earlier thoughts of my own (notably, [2]), as well as some library readings on literature, I am growing skeptical to literary criticism as a field and profession. There are differences in accomplishment between authors;* however, a discussion of an accomplished author might fail through a too limited understanding of the author’s intentions, and disapproval might say more about the critic’s understanding of the work than about the work. A particular complication is failure to understand what results from a deliberate artistic choice and what from lack of ability.

    *As demonstrated e.g. by comparing short-stories by typical school children with short-stories by typical professional authors.

    (But I doubt that this will keep me from writing the odd critical piece of my own.)

  4. Even non-book advice can be quite poor. I recall e.g. the border-line idiotic writing “process” that we were force-fed in school: Write down (by hand) a first draft. Write it down again as a second draft, making whatever changes are wanted. Write it down a third time, making only minor changes (e.g. to correct spelling) and with a main focus of legibility of hand-writing. This is both inefficient and boring, turning writing into mere busy work bordering on taking dictation. For someone who struggled with hand-writing, like yours truly, it was a disaster, killing my interest in writing for many years.
  5. One extremely good piece of advice that I have encountered repeatedly: Read own texts out loud.

    I have so far limited myself to “reading in my head”, but have still seen a considerable improvement in my ability to spot language errors ([3]). This likely for the dual reason that I am forced to read considerably slower than when reading normally, and that differences in “sound alike” words are enhanced, reducing the risk of accidental confusion. (The latter is a particular problem of mine, cf. [3].) A third explanation might be that I have now have two cognitive systems working in parallel, the “reading” and the “hearing” ones.


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August 30, 2019 at 8:53 am

The struggling author II

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Fairly soon after my “struggling author” piece, things started to fall into place, and by now, just short of the one-month mark, I have found my way to roughly a 40-hour week.* Moreover, I currently have no motivation problems, and self-discipline is correspondingly a non-issue.

*In terms of work relating directly to my book, ranging from research to actual writing; not including e.g. the reading of works by others or a few blog posts.

On the downside, the amount of actual output is still fairly low* and much of that in the process of being re-re-revised. This because I still am navigating some beginner’s mistakes, still have to think about some things that I expect to be automatic later on,** and have repeatedly found that my character conceptions and plot-outline require considerable changes in light of what I learned about them during writing***. I count on all three issues improving with time as I grow better and as the characters/plot reach a sufficient maturity.

*At roughly 13 thousand words or a little more than a quarter of the expected output for the National Novel Writing Month, including the short-story mentioned in the previous text. (The “raw” output, including the removed and the rewritten, is obviously higher than the “polished” output, but certainly not by anything near a factor of four. Then again, I likely have quality ambitions well above most NNWM participants.)

**Paralleling my experiences from e.g. programming, that every time a similar situation is encountered, the renewed decision will fall faster, be better, and/or require less thought, until it is at some point “internalized” or is made “by instinct”.

***Which, paradoxically, implies that it was a good idea to start writing before planning was finished: Writing has revealed weaknesses and problems that I was too inexperienced to spot just through planning. This might or might not be different for future books.

A problem area is dialogue: With all those movies and TV shows watched, I had assumed that dialogue would be fairly easy. In reality, I find that virtually everything said sounds highly unnatural in the first attempt. Moreover, the “voices” of the main protagonists are too inconsistent: comparing two chapters, I found that they each had different voices from each other (good) in both chapters, but that the voices were not consistent (bad) between the chapters… That the (non-dialogue) prose is easier might be a side-effect of all the past blogging, and that I have hardly written one word of dialogue since leaving school.* To my surprise, and in contrast, I have had no problems leaving the style of writing of my blog behind, in favor of something smoother and more “fictionally sound” (I still need to improve, but I am far closer to where I want to be than with dialogue).

*A semi-recent parody of Plato aside, where even the attempt at sounding natural would have been contrary to the purpose.

This matches a more general topic of previous experiences, readings, whatnot being of less value than expected, because they did not have the purpose to further my own writing: Over my almost four decades as a reader, I much too rarely stopped to think about what made a book good, what could be done differently, what means the author had used to achieve a certain effect, etc. The result is that I gained much less (from an aspiring author’s perspective) from the reading that I would today—and that I have a great many works and authors that I need to re-acquaint myself with.

On the upside, this first month has given me a much better understanding of what is missing in my skill-set, what qualities can make a book great, what means and possibilities there are, and so on—and I am now confident that I can become quite good at writing fiction. (But note that I still suspect that it will take years. The difference between “now” and “a month ago” is the certainty that I can do it, given enough time.)

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August 29, 2019 at 4:39 am

Further thoughts on the City Pentalogy

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I have finally, after thirty-something years, finished* Per Anders Fogelström’s “City Pentalogy” (cf. excursion in [1]). My feelings remain mixed, and I would rate book one considerably above the others. A particular problem with the later books is that the author’s attention is divided over more and more individuals, making it hard to build sympathy, vest interest, develop insight into characters, or even keep track of who is who—reading book five, I had to make use of the included family trees again and again. The average** year might cover a dozen pages. This can work when, as in book one, there is a clear focus on a single character. By book five, the attention is split*** over possibly two dozen characters, who then might average half-a-page per year… In the end, Henning, the protagonist of the first book, is the only character that I truly clicked with, that truly felt “real”, even if a few others came close. (See e.g. [2] for earlier discussions of sympathy and identification.)

*Even now, somewhat incompletely: The second book is still missing, implying that I have not yet gone through the whole series in one sequence, and that I am left with a sense of incompleteness this time too. (Obviously, many claims made here must be taken with a reservation for the contents and quality of the missing book.) To boot, this led to a pause of several weeks between my finishing book one and starting on book three. Still, I have now definitely read all five books at one time or another.

**The division is very uneven. Some years have not a single page or share a chapter with several other years. Others have several chapters on their own.

***However, as with the years, the split is very uneven. The overall page count is likely “won” by Henning’s daughter Emilie, who features in all five books, from birth to death, and is something of a focus character in books three and four, and the parts of five before her death. Some others, e.g. his great-grand-son Henning (“the second”), who inherits the focus in book five, might also rival Henning (“the first”). (Note that I use “focus” quite loosely.)

For my own writings, this is a warning not to introduce too many core characters: Not only might this lead to too little time per head, but it might also make the reader see them as a fungible dime-a-dozen characters, whose fortunes and misfortunes can be shrugged off. (Note the contrast to the ensemble take in [2].)

I also suspect that Fogelström wrote book one with a greater dedication than the later books, later often trying to fill a quota of pages. (In all fairness, the total page count might be around 1500, in my edition.) A contrast with my own writings, after all of three weeks, is that I currently have a number of key scenes that I plan and partially write, with what might amount to filler* between them.** In the “City”, there appears to be few or no key scenes, but still a lot of text that feels like filler.

*Which is not to say that this filler will be boring, pointless, or irrelevant to the story—just that it will not be “key”.

**Whether my own take will be fruitful or continue in that manner, I cannot yet tell. However, I do note that e.g “The Lord of the Rings”, which I have also re-read in parallel, seems to follow a similar pattern of key scenes and filler. (And I suspect that a part of Tolkien’s popularity goes back to the great number of scenes that can be considered “key” or else “highly memorable”.)

Similarly, Fogelström might have been too unfocused in general topic: Is this a family saga, a history of Stockholm*, a description of working-class life, a documentation of Swedish politics, … Trying to do all of these is not necessarily an error, but when we combine it with the above abundance of characters and the low page count per year, it becomes a problem—the more so, because the focus is continually widened, increasingly addressing a global situation.**

*While a prior knowledge of Stockholm is not necessary to understand the books, it will likely increase enjoyment considerably—especially, for those who once could recognize events, buildings, developments, whatnots, from their own experience. (The latter group is far smaller, and covers a smaller portion of the time line, today than when the books were written, in the 1960s. I, e.g., was born in 1975, and only moved to Stockholm in 1994.)

**This is almost certainly a deliberate choice. The fifth book is titled “Stad i världen” (“City in the world”; or, possibly, “City surrounded by the world” or “City as part of the world”, going more by implication.)

As a final negative, much of the language is fragmented in a manner that reduces readability, introduces ambiguity, or becomes outright annoying. This includes both heavy use of the full-stop where e.g. a comma would have been expected and a tendency to drop subjects. For instance, a paragraph of the fifth book reads:*

*With reservations for mistyping. The passage is found close to the end of the chapter “Nära Stillhetens hav”. The page was picked at random. This is the whole paragraph.

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Inte nu. Kände snarast saknad, smärta. För sent, för gammal för henne.


Once* he would have been ashamed** of it. Not now. Felt rather longing***, pain. Too late, too old for her.

*“In the past” would be more literal, but is awkward for the four-letter “Förr”.

**The English “ashamed” might be a little stronger than “skamsen”.

***I cannot think of a truly good English match for “saknad”. Contextually, “absence” might be better. More literally, it indicates a feeling or state of missing something/someone. Cf. e.g. “Jag saknar dig”/“I miss you”. (Note that a re-write to accommodate such language differences would ruin the example.)

This might be acceptable as a single occurrence of deep introspection, but similar formulations are quite common, often in trivial situations. I would argue that e.g. the following is stronger, while grammatically sounder and still somewhat in the same style:

Once he would have been ashamed. Now he felt longing, pain. It was too late; he was too old for her.


Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Nu kände han saknad, smärta. Det var för sent; han var för gammal för henne.

Among more neutral items, many of which surprise me in the works of a Left-leaning author:*

*However, there are also many clearly pro-Left statements that give the impression of being Fogelström’s own opinions.

  1. Much of the books deal with changes: changes to the city, changes to life, changes to working conditions, changes to technology, …, but also changes to attitudes and maturity. Notably, there are repeated references to attitude differences that more-or-less match what many* say about the “millennials” today, e.g. that they are too soft, have it too easy, are too lazy, are too immature, … Indeed, Henning came to Stockholm, alone, at 15 (give or take) and had to fend for himself and take adult responsibility from day one—and he was a working orphan** even before that. In book five, we have persons in their twenties going to university, teens getting into trouble because of “too much” spare time,*** someone turning 18 and immediately driving a car, …

    *To some degree, I do too. However, I see a wider problem over a hundred or more years that too many of any generation take their current life-style for granted and fail to understand how much harder members of prior generations had it (on average). Ditto in comparisons with less fortunate countries. I see this view validated by the books.

    **Unless I misremember. It is conceivable that he was “just” estranged or otherwise unable to draw on parental support. (This part of his life is only known through later references and have not remained very clearly with me.)

    ***Here and elsewhere, unless the opposite is clear, I relate my impression from/of the books and the author’s attitude, without necessarily agreeing or claiming that the books are realistic.

  2. The issue of too much spare time could also be seen as part of another pattern: the division of the subjects into ambitious hard-workers and “no goods”*. Every generation appeared to have several of these, who tried to get by on crime, begging, borrowed money, and/or prostitution; who felt that having fun was more important than planning ahead; or similar. They invariably (?) fared poorly in life and died young or young-ish.

    *My ad-hoc term. The books have no equivalent term.

    At least one character (almost certainly someone in the Berg family) even had extensive thoughts on how the “no good” life-style was something to be proud of—better to beg or steal than to work. (As opposed to the typical Leftist explanation that those who beg or steal have been driven to the edge of society by need, misfortune, “discrimination”, …)

    On a lesser scale, there is some division between the competent hard-workers and those who are incompetent or lazy (while still actually being employed).

  3. As a special case, there is a large proportion of women who are (too their own detriment) promiscuous or outright prostitutes. There are also several cases, not limited to women, of too calculating marriages that end in unhappiness. Consider e.g. Klara and Annika, who are room-mates with Henning (and several others) early in the first book: Klara prostitutes herself, grows into an alcoholic, ages prematurely, and dies in her late thirties (?). Annika dedicates herself to finding a rich husband. She succeeds, but her marriage is not happy and she remains childless (except for an adoption). Their similarities and differences is one of the stronger points of the first book.

    An interesting variation is the case of Tyra, a later promiscuous woman who dies at forty and spends most of her life in poverty with a considerably older “no good”. She appears to be genuinely dedicated to her husband and (likely, my memory is vague) to her children, while lacking in judgment. A similar dedication is not a given among other spouses and parents, even when hard-working and intelligent.

  4. These areas are over-lapping with the influence on own success (cf. [1]), which is unusual for Leftist material. While it is rare for the poor to become rich, the lowest-of-the-low almost always have themselves to blame: Those who are lazy and irresponsible mostly descend in life; those industrious and responsible mostly, barring the odd stroke of bad luck, ascend.* Similarly, competence plays a role for success. One character, likely Leftist activist/politician Gunnar, even explicitly considers how equality (implied: of outcome) appeared impossible, and how even equal opportunities seemed to lead to differences in outcome.

    *Henning, who arguably worked himself to death, might be seen as strong counter-example, but even he had a broadly upwards tendency before his sickness. I suspect, however, that Fogelström’s goals in the first book were more strongly focused on showing the horrible 19th-century conditions and later drifted, be it because of an own change of priorities or the great societal improvements that did take place. (Note that the books cover roughly twenty years each, implying that the conditions change considerably between every “first page”. With book two missing, I have a forty year gap between two of the first pages…)

  5. Considerable space is spent on conflicts within the Leftist movements, notably Social-Democrats vs. Communists and Communist faction A vs. Communist faction B. This plays in well with a text that I have in long planning (do not hold your breath) concerning the “First they came …” concept with regard to the Left, the great abuse of “Fascist” to include anyone not of the right Leftist sub-sect, and similar. Indeed, these books are just one of many places where I have encountered variations of “Social-Fascist” to refer to Social-Democrats.* Or consider the well-documented condemnation of e.g. Trotskyists as Fascists, this problem area being an important inspiration for “Animal Farm”.

    *Without giving any signs that Fogelström, himself, would see such an equivalence. He merely reports a historical propaganda/defamation use.

As an aside: Many characters have great similarities between generations. I am not certain, e.g., whether this is a result of laziness when creating characters, whether something almost inevitable, or whether the author has deliberately pushed similarities. The latter might be to prove a point about types of humans recurring, to see how the “same” character fares in different times, to illustrate how some characteristics can run in families (if so, because of nature or nurture?), or similar.

Excursion on prior reading:
I can now date my second attempt (cf. [1]) a little more precisely: I found an accompanying note from my mother, dated “100122”, i.e. January 22nd, 2010. The books will have arrived a little later. (This makes the occasion my 35th birthday, on the 19th of the same month, which indeed made me slightly older than Henning at his death.) I found the note somewhere in the first half of the forth book, likely implying that this is where my reading ended. However, I also found an old (unrelated) receipt very early in the fifth book, which could imply that I had actually finished the fourth book, and got held up in the fifth (or, e.g., that I just had put the receipt there temporarily to clear a desk).

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August 21, 2019 at 10:29 pm

Useless guides on writing

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For natural reasons, I have looked into various writing guides lately. Almost all have one thing in common–they are proof that the author is not qualified to write on the topic… (Often reducing my skepticism to the claim, “those who can do, do; those who cannot, teach”, in the process.)

Consider William Zinsser and his “On Writing Well” (specifically, the “30th anniversary edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed by a paragraph on how visitors are drawn to the photograph, followed by a paragraph on how writing has gone electronic but the photograph remains relevant (in the opinion of the author). What follows then, I do not know, because I decided to skip the rest of the introduction…

Now, does the story about the photograph have a valid and valuable point? It probably does, but this point could be made much better by actually getting to that point! (Which might be that writing is ultimately about the writer, or ultimately a human activity, or similar.) Even what might be valid about the photograph could be condensed to three sentences instead of three paragraphs.

The first regular chapter does contain a few good points and an interesting contrast between two authors, one who writes as a “vocation” (Zinsser) and one as an “avocation” (a “Dr. Brock”). However, this chapter, too, starts with an anti-hook: irrelevant background on how the two came to form a panel and discuss their writing with a group of students. I almost skipped ahead another chapter then and there. This type of writing might, barely, be acceptable in fiction, but not in a non-fiction work where the reader actually reads with the purpose of learning. (If I had seen these two anti-hooks in fiction, I might instead have complained about the blandness of the writing—the excuse that they would simultaneously serve as good examples of fiction does not hold.*)

*Obviously, the standards for writing fiction and non-fiction are different, and so are the purposes of fiction and non-fiction. It would be conceivable that these writing guides are poor, because an author who is good at fiction does not have the skills to write non-fiction. However, these anti-hooks would only very rarely make good fiction either—be they by Zinsser or someone else.

I persevered, going through such irrelevancies as the color of Dr. Brocks’ jacket…, and found material that a better writer would have condensed into no more than half the space—likely less.

Chapter two, admittedly, begins with a reasonable introduction: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (and an equally reasonable and relevant continued first paragraph).* Even Strunk (“Omit needless words.”) might have approved.

*I might have objected to the common misuse of “America” to refer to the United States of America, the likely unnecessary U.S. restriction, or questioned whether the rest of the paragraph was needed. I definitely have problems with the hypocrisy of his complaint in light of his own writing… (Notwithstanding my own wordiness—this is a point that I am far from mastering.)

But: A few pages later, I encountered the outrageously ignorant PC claim that use of “he” for “the writer” and “the reader” would be sexist… Note: not “outdated”, not “offensive to some groups”, not “contrary to modern norms”—but “sexist”! I am skeptical enough ([2]) to the relevance of the alternative motivations, but the use of “sexist” is inexcusable and entirely out of line, making implications about the intentions and mindset of others that are pure speculation—and usually wrong.

At this point, I could no longer take the author seriously, and threw the book away.

Similar problems appear to be quite common in this type of literature.

A particular annoyance is the “expert” who has his mind set solely on the writing of best-sellers, with no regard for other purposes of writing. True: I would love for my writing to earn me an early retirement (and I am not above writing a “pot-boiler”). However: That is not why I write… I write in the hope to develop myself further, to reach some degree of competence as a writer, and to, possibly, leave something behind that will be considered a strong literary accomplishment.*** In the choice between the success and accomplishment of, respectively, Stephanie Meyer and Kafka, I would take Kafka any day.* And: how many of these “experts” have actually written a best-seller (in fiction) of their own?** Indeed, comparing likely scenarios, my best bet to lead a comfortable life with early retirement would be to continue my career as an IT consultant.

*Where I go by Kafka’s success during his life time. What followed later, was of little use to him… (And it is hard to name worthwhile “serious” authors that have had few readers, and have been read by me, and will be recognized by the typical reader of this text.)

**I have personally read only one book on writing by someone who qualifies—Stephen King’s “On Writing”. While this book is quite weird, it has also, so far, been the most useful.

***Also see some texts on the same attitude from my pre-fiction days, e.g. [3], [4].

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August 15, 2019 at 1:00 am

The struggling author

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Almost ten days ago, I became a professional author, and I soon jokingly referred to myself as a struggling author.

This joke has turned out to be depressingly true, if not in the more common has-trouble-to-make-ends-meet sense: I have really struggled with the transition.

This in several regards, including:

  1. The trouble with switching from my sabbatical and its great freedom to a more structured schedule. True, I likely used to spend about a full work-week per week doing things like studying, reading, writing blog posts, etc., with an eye on personal development, rather than (just) fun. True, my new schedule* is not that straining and still allows much more freedom than a desk-job. Still, the switch has been surprisingly hard, both with the needed extra self-discipline** and the restrictions on choice.

    *Currently, I have four hours a day set aside to plan/research/write, one hour to read specifically about writing, and a handful of hours to read literature that I believe to be helpful for my development (also see excursion). The proportions will likely shift away from reading as I develop my skills.

    **I know from experience that once I start to postpone tasks until tomorrow, things can slide very fast. This might be acceptable for a hobby, but would be disastrous for a professional career. I simply must take a different attitude than during my sabbatical.

  2. I had great early problems using my time productively, to find out what I all needed and wanted to do and how to approach it. For instance, with most of my past (non-fiction) writing, I have just had an idea, mulled it over for a while, started to write, and the let the process take over. This has not worked at all—in part, because the book I have in my mind is has a lot of pieces that do not yet fit together. Indeed, I have so far written very little text, because the planning has taken over. While this is likely a good thing (at this stage), it leads to the next issue.*

    *I know that there is a school of “just sit down and write”. While I do not say that this is a bad idea, it does not fit who I am today and the comparatively complex book I am currently working on. However, I promise not to postpone the actual writing ad eternam and I do realize that planning beyond a certain point will not be productive.

  3. What I had planned in my head during my sabbatical simply does not work: The pieces, again, do not yet fit together. I have too little of a clue what will happen beyond a certain point. The characters are too shallow. The overall rules of the universe are not yet clear. Etc. (Of course, all these are things that could make anything written too early “wrong” as things clarify.)

    On the bright side, I have made great progress and am actually starting to understand what I want to write. (Whereas I just believed that I understood it ten days ago.)

  4. My understanding of writing fiction has altered dramatically. Being specific is hard, but the analogy of having read about cold water and the jumping into it shows the general idea. While it can be safely assumed that my understanding will continue to change over the years, this time has been humbling. In particular, I had not quite understood how much there is going on behind the scenes of a text. I have encountered advice about prose, motivation, character, …, in various forms since I was a teenager, but actually trying to write a non-trivial text contemplating such aspects is something different.

    This in part through writing (a first draft of) a short-story* in parallel to planning the book, which has been a very valuable learning experience. However, it has also shown me how long the distance to mastery still is.

    *While comparatively short, it is much more “intellectually ambitious” than the small exercise and experiment stories I have written in the past.

  5. I have had various annoying and unexpected problems of other kinds, e.g. an unexpected computer crash* when I had really delved into my short-story or in that I have tried to use an external keyboard, which has had weird side-effects. (Specifically, killing the middle-button on my mouse and the Umlaut-generation on the keyboards. I still do not know what has gone wrong, despite hours spent trouble-shooting.)

    *They are very rare with me, but when they do happen, it is always at a particular inconvenient time. Moreover, with various passwords, encryption, user accounts, …, it can take a while before I am up-and-running again, which kills motivation.

Nevertheless, I remain with my decision: I might not have known how cold the water would be (at least not during the early days), but I did know that it would take years to get where I want to be, and I do know the difference between doing something as a hobby and doing it professionally—-the one is fun, the other is work. I also take comfort in sayings like “Aller Anfang ist schwer”* and “Alla är vi barn i början”**.

*German: Every beginning is hard. (More literally, possibly, “Everything’s beginning […]”.)

**Swedish: We are all children in the beginning.

A caveat to others, however: My situation is special. I have the luxury of having a few years worth of living expenses saved up and my decision to go pro was partially motivated by the wish to learn how to write fiction, in that I knew that being a pro would be helpful in a different manner from just dilly-dallying as an amateur with a dozen other interests. Most others should learn how to write well first and go pro later (if at all). Certainly, quitting a job the one week and concluding that writing will not work out the next (understatement of the year) is not a good career move.

Excursion on future updates:
Do not expect overly many. Between fiction and my (other) blogging, I will likely prefer to not burden my fingers with additional blog posts. Moreover, I intend to seek anonymous publishing, implying that sharing book-specific details might be a bad idea.

Excursion on reading:
An incidental, if possibly temporary, change is that I read in a very different manner at the moment. In the past, it was mostly a matter of entertainment; now, I often actively think about various aspects of the text, notably what works well, what does not, and respectively why. (Including formulations, structure, plot, …)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2019 at 2:19 am

Going my own ways

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One aspect of my visits to Sweden is the many recollections from my childhood brought forth.

This includes my having a long history of, literally or metaphorically, going my own ways and striving for independence* even as a child. For instance, my mother has repeatedly told me how I used to break out of my crib (“spjälsäng”), through pushing the laths (?) at the bottom aside and crawling out.

*From e.g. limits set by others, not necessarily when it comes to e.g. my parents providing dinner…

Other incidents include (ages are guesstimates):

  1. Age three or four, during a vacation, walking off into a forest, disappearing out of sight, and causing an impromptu search party of, possibly, a dozen people. I did not understand what the fuss was all about.
  2. Age five, during a mall visit, leaving my family for the great fun of an elevator ride, causing the party to split to try to cover all “escape routes”.
  3. Age five, walking well out of bounds with the family dog, only to be collected by my uncle, who happened to drive by.
  4. Age seven, taking my sister and attempting to run away, in order to not have to go somewhere*. My mother took the car and caught up in half a minute…

    *I have no idea about the where, but it likely was something boring or annoying, e.g. church.

This not to mention a great many (allowed) walks of various kinds. Indeed, a great annoyance to my mother was the restrictions by my förskola* that she had to drop me off in the morning and collect me in the afternoon—despite a distance of just a few hundred meters and despite my often going further on my own. There were even cases when my mother picked me up, dropped me of at home for a snack, and I was back, on foot and on my own, in the vicinity of the förskola half-an-hour later. Of course, in today’s over-protective climate, it is conceivable that my mother would have been considered negligent for allowing these walks…**

*Literally, “pre-school”. Going by Wikipedia, “Kindergarten” might hit the age group (around 6) better. While I am not aware of the exact background, these regulations were likely intended to protect the förskola or its employees from legal culpability, so that no child went missing “on their watch”. To boot, there was likely the aspect of one-size-MUST-fit-all that is so common among bureaucrats—not all children lived as close-by, and different rules for different children might have been unthinkable.

**Not to be confused with the first item above, where my parents actually might have been negligent.

Excursion on out of bounds:
For young me, there was a fairly wide and very long area around where I lived, visible on OpenStreetMap between Kyrkvägen and Bergmästaregatan, which had only one crossing street (a small one at that) and was considered solidly within bounds. (This area included the förskola.) In addition, the area northwards and to either side had very little traffic and was viewed with tolerance, especially the walk to Laxbrogatan and the part of it where my maternal grand-parents lived (close to the intersection with Källtorpsvägen).

For item 3 above, I likely started at my grand-parents’ and walked into the town center from there.

Excursion on school:
I do not remember how the first years of school were arranged. It is possible that I walked or drove a bike very early on; it is possible that my mother drove me the first one or two years (roughly, ages seven respectively eight). I do have a few recollections of car pooling, but I do not know whether that was a common occurrence or just a once-in-while thing. Either way, the roughly one mile distance was a matter of muscle power for most of my school years. (And, obviously, the rules for “out of bounds” rapidly grew laxer as I moved past six.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 9, 2019 at 7:34 pm

Follow-ups: A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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Two follow-ups to an earlier text ([1]):

  1. Reading a magazine, I note repeated discussions of the need for Germany to have a high competence in this-or-that new field—matching the common politician’s panic when Germany fails to be world-class in any given field. Moreover, this is not uncommon in e.g. Sweden or the U.S. either.

    *Specifically, the members’ magazine of VDE—a German professional organization for engineers, of which I am (still) a member from my days in IT.

    However, is this really needed? Some of the greatest benefits of modern society come from cities, countries, groups, companies, …, specializing and gaining a high degree of competence in a more limited number* of fields. By gaining this high competence, they remain competitive in the market and the market benefits from the higher average competence level in the field. This is similar to specialization by individuals in [1].

    *The suitable number will depend on the entity in question: a company might do well with one single field, a country might need dozens.

    My own Wuppertal is one of many good historical examples: By ducal decree, Wuppertal* received a local monopoly** (the “Garnnahrung”) on certain steps of yarn processing. This lead to a great concentration of textile industry, making Wuppertal’s fortune for long after the monopoly was abolished.

    *Strictly speaking, areas since joined into Wuppertal, which has existed as a legal entity only since 1929.

    **Which should not be seen as an endorsement of monopolies: the monopoly caused the specialization; the specialization was good.

    Such specialization can have many positive effects, including building a higher competence through interaction and increased competition between different masters, but also e.g. lower transportation costs between specialists in various sub-sections,* better infrastructure,** talent being drawn where there is a better chance of work, etc.

    *E.g. that the weaving industry can get its yarn locally, in large quantities and with many competitors to choose from, without having to shop Germany-wide.

    **E.g. that the public roads, treatment plants, whatnot used by the one company benefit the others too. (Note that similar companies tend to have similar needs.)

    I strongly suspect that trying to be good at everything is counter-productive and that specialization, to be really good at something, is the better strategy. If so, politicians should stop complaining about how their respective country is falling behind at new technologies A, B, and C—and instead laud and support its excellence at new technology D. Export D; import A, B, and C.

    As a caveat, being too much of a “one-trick pony” and failing to adapt to new developments is dangerous (and here concerns are reasonable). If, e.g., D had been an old technology, it might not have been a valid argument against lack of excellence with A, B, and C. Wuppertal, again, is a good example: in the 20th century, the lower production costs of e.g. India killed much of Europe’s textile industries. Wuppertal was no exception—but it had some four hundred (!) good years before that.

  2. In [1], I am critical of the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor for certain professional degrees, the (potential) lack of specialization found in “general studies” or “liberal studies”, and the possibility to get a degree* in a softer field while being weak at thinking. I also mention the lower university-entry ages of older times. Factor in the shorter U.S. high school (compared to e.g. Germany),** and the use of variations of “bachelor” and “college” to refer to secondary education in some other countries, and I suspect that we have an unfortunate clash of ideas and terminology that lead us away*** from a better way to handle education, in that students are increasingly forced to go through two stages of education (high school, bachelor) that try to fill the same purpose.

    *Note that I do not necessarily claim either that it is possible to be good in a field while being a weak thinker, or that a weak thinker would profit as much from the studies as a great thinker. The point is that the degree it self is attainable and proves next to nothing about someone’s intelligence.

    **Indeed, it could be argued that at least the first year of a U.S. college is high-school level from a Swedish or German perspective. Cf. e.g. parts of an older comparison ([2]) of my own education with a U.S. J.D. “doctorate”.

    ***Including e.g. the “Bologna” reforms in Europe.

    How to do it better? Let a bachelor be something with a low degree of specialization* and let it be a pre-requisite for e.g. “med school”—but let it come at a younger age, e.g. 15 through 19. Either the students already have the brains to handle it, possibly with some softening to compensate for lack of experience and maturity, or they likely never will. For those that do not,** other educational venues or work should be available. Notably, the benefits of having both e.g. a German Abitur*** and a U.S.-style Bachelor are small when we look at suitability for higher (or even higher) education. Compared to today, this might or might not leave the student short in some areas, but these areas not being necessary for higher education, they can safely be left for the students’ spare time and private interests—should they be so inclined. (I also suspect that the loss would be much smaller than the official syllabus might indicate, considering both memory failures over time and that much of high-school would likely be subsumable in the bachelor. Indeed, when we look at the recent U.S. situation, a considerable portion of college is spent teaching the students what they should have learned in high school—but did not.)

    *As a consequence, more specialized topics, that might today be studied in the form of a bachelor, would earn another degree—as used to be the case in Germany (e.g. the various Diplom-X degrees) and partially still is the case in Sweden. This type of bachelor would be in the “general studies”/“liberal studies”/“liberal arts” area, possible with some hybrid traces of the old high school.

    **The implied restoration of the filter effect is a positive. Do not let PC thinking, unrealistic expectations on humans, and “no child left behind” ruin education.

    ***Secondary education which is longer and decidedly tougher than U.S. high school—but still well short of a U.S. bachelor. (The former is more comparable to the “mittlere Reife” than to the Abitur.) Also see [2]. Note that Germany, to some degree, already performs the type of filtering that I wish, but is increasingly falling into the “everyone must have the Abitur” trap and, thereby, moving in the wrong direction, towards less excellence.

    Disclaimer: This assuming that the traditional system of “go to school first; work later” is followed. I favor an entirely alternate system of mixing work and education (preferably, not school) through-out life.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Tolkien and applicability vs. allegory / Follow-up: Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

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In preparation for my own writings, I am revisiting a few old favorites. I just started on Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and found this claim in the foreword:

I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

This single sentence concisely covers much of what I try to say in the second half of an earlier text.

More generally, it is interesting how Tolkien rejects suggested hidden meanings, allegories, connections with WWII, … This despite (because?) the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy being highly open to interpretation. Indeed, specifically a WWII influence felt obvious to me as a young* reader, in the repeated rises of Sauron resp. Germany and how both World Wars changed the world sufficiently that it might be warranted to speak of a new era—just like in Tolkien’s history.

*How young I do not know. My first reading might have been at age nine or ten, but I am not certain that I already knew enough about WWII and the overall situation to already have this image, implying that it might have arisen during a later reading.

With age, of course, I have been less likely to make such interpretations, because the analogies hold poorly, e.g. with WWI Germany (or the other “Central Powers”) not being more evil than other countries, and the “Allies” of WWII containing a very comparable evil to Hitler’s Germany in Stalin’s Soviet, or with the dubious identification of WWI Germany (respectively, the “Central Powers”) with WWII Germany (respectively, “Axis Powers”) Indeed, shortly before the above quote, Tolkien discusses how a strong WWII influence on the book would have implied changes that blurred* the difference between good and evil.

*Likely, to him; definitely, to me: I note my repeated claims that “evil is as evil does”, “fascist is as fascist does”, etc. (However, I stress that Hitler, like Sauron, instigated the evils and pushed them further, and that any evil acts by the Allies would have been made unnecessary by his absence.)

As an aside, for a beginning author looking forward, this foreword, by an accomplished author looking backward, is very interesting and educational.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered one of my favorite inventions—the osthyvel.* This kitchen implement amounts to a (carpenter’s) plane for cheese, but in a more compact form, looking** a little like a cake and pie server with a bladed slit, which cuts and collects a slice of cheese.

*Going by Wikipedia, this might translate as “cheese slicer”, but it also claims that the osthyvel would be “very common” in Germany, where it is, in fact, a niche tool (as discussed in this text). I will stick to “osthyvel” (singular) and “osthyvlar” (plural) here. (Note, throughout, that I am weak in kitchen terminology and do not necessarily pick the optimal words.)

**At least in the standard model. I have seen some other versions over the year.

While ubiquitous in my native Sweden, it is quite rare in my adopted Germany, which has implications on e.g. how cheese is packaged and sold—big blocks of cheese for home slicing in Sweden and pre-sliced cheese in Germany. This, in turn, severely reduces the value of the osthyvel in Germany. Indeed, I spent the first 21 years here without bothering.

After my re-encounter, I decided to purchase one anyway and see where it took me—especially, because German cheese is sold in too thick slices that tend to over-power the taste of a sandwich*, use the cheese up unnecessarily fast, and are likely sub-optimal from a health perspective. To boot, these “value subtracted” slices come at a hefty price increase,** both through the smaller quantities per package*** and for the “service” of slicing—just like the coffee in a coffee pod is more expensive than regular coffee.

*For convenience, I will take “sandwich” to include toast, bread-rolls, and other breads where a slice of cheese might find use.

**Something of increased importance as I try to live cheaply as a struggling author.

***If in doubt, because the larger surface areas, post-slicing, reduce durability. 200 grams, less than half-a-pound, is a typical size, but smaller and larger quantities are available.

My new osthyvel has improved my cheese situation, but nowhere near as much as it could have: In order for it to be useful, I have to buy unsliced cheese. However:

  1. The selection of unsliced cheese in Germany is much smaller than in Sweden. Apart from some more expensive “special” cheeses, most super-markets appear to have only Gouda and Emmentaler (“Swiss cheese”)—and because of the holes and the small blocks, cf. below, Emmentaler is not much of an option. In other words, I am largely restricted to Gouda. (As it happens, Gouda is one of my favorite cheeses, but still…)

    Indeed, I strongly suspect that the unsliced market in Germany is simply not intended for sandwiches, instead aiming at e.g. cooking, grating, cubing, use on crackers, …

    In contrast, Sweden has an enormous variety of cheeses available. This does not just increase the customer’s ability to choose and prioritize, but has a two-fold positive effect on the price: Firstly, because unsliced cheese is not a rarity, there is a downwards price pressure through competition—there is no “niche effect” on the price. Secondly, there is a greater chance of finding something “on offer”. (Non-offer differences in price exist too, but are implicitly contained in the “prioritize” above.)

  2. The package sizes and, often, shapes are unfortunate for slicing, which requires more stability than e.g. cutting. For instance, the Goudas that I usually buy come in at about one pound, are shaped like very high pie slices, and still have the “crust” attached. The result of the former two is that it takes more skill to slice the cheese and that even an experienced slicer can see a portion of the cheese break off rather than be sliced (especially, on the narrow end of the “pie slice”). Indeed, I stick to specifically “medium old” Gouda for this reason—the “young” Gouda is softer and trickier.* The third, at least in combination with the “pie slice”, implies a bit of tricky cutting with a knife and/or a further waste of cheese.** (Emmentalers are more rectangular and without crust, but still have unfortunate proportions—and are, again, weakened further through holes.)

    *The “medium old” also tastes better, but both variety and the lower price might make me prefer “young ” on occasion. “Old” Gouda, the best tasting version, I have yet to see in unsliced form (in Germany).

    **I tried using my osthyvel to remove it, naturally, but this does not work as well as I had hoped. The curvature of the cheese is a particular problem.

    In contrast, Swedish cheeses often come in multi-pound varieties and, when not, have proportions and shapes that make them much more stable—e.g. in that the above “pie slice” of Gouda might have been replaced by a half or entire “pie” of Gouda, or even a larger block pre-cut into a more rectangular and crustless shape. The greater quantities also imply a better price relative weight.

    Disclaimer: It is possible that my (German bought) osthyvel is not the very best and that some of the above would go smoother with a replacement. Unfortunately, the very limited choices and often high prices in Germany make experimentation and comparison harder than in Sweden. Then again, I have no obvious reason to suspect a quality problem. (Going by price and optics, I might even have assumed clearly above average quality, but I know from experience that neither need say very much about a products “fitness for purpose”.)

The above refers to the situation in the self-service areas of more general stores: I have neither checked the “serviced” areas*, nor the specialist stores. Even if they were to have better options, I would likely still avoid them due to the increased effort, e.g. for having to waste time queuing twice. Moreover, one of the main advantages with a “bulk buy” would be a better price; however, in my impression, the former sell by weight without a quantity discount and with an implicit service surcharge, while the latter have a higher markup for reasons like targeting “refined” tastes and bigger pocketbooks, and smaller volumes of more choices.

*Where e.g. meet and cheese can be ordered by quantity, with or without additional cutting, from staff. This might or might not be “fresh-food counter”.

Measured by importance, relevance, whatnot, this is not what I would have chosen for a first text. However, I am a little uncertain on how to begin and coordinate the (often over-lapping) others. This text gives me a start, if nothing else.

Excursion on coincidence vs. conspiracy:
The above is a good example of why it is important to not jump to conclusions about e.g. conspiracies, sex discrimination, or similar. (Cf. e.g. an old text on misunderstood discrimination in hair-salons.) It is tempting to look at the above and conclude that German stores deliberately make it hard to use an osthyvel—so that they can keep selling their over-priced and too-thick pre-sliced slices. Possibly, they do,* but another explanation is more likely, namely that Germany took a different turn than Sweden because the osthyvel was invented and spread too late.** A more likely case for cheese, is the thickness of the slices, but that too might have another explanation, e.g. that it is harder to make thinner slices by machine, that too thin slices are too perishable, or that consumer demand and the need for a one-slice-fits-all solution limit choice.

*There are cases, where I do consider such manipulations outright likely, but those are in the minority. An example is the removal of two-ply toilet papers from stores, which artificially limits access to a (superior, in my opinion) product that was present for a very long time. (While, in contrast, the mere introduction of higher ply-counts is not an example, even if it serves the same purpose.)

**The inventor was Norwegian, and the step to Sweden was considerably shorter. To boot, the invention appears to have taken place as late as 1925.

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August 3, 2019 at 12:56 am

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