Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

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Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?

Undoubtedly.

And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.

True.

Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am

Distortion of literary works / Enid Blyton

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While I have always been strongly opposed to censorship, political correctness, intellectual dishonesty, (mis-)editing of the words of others, and similar, there is a particular area that troubles me with an eye on my own contemplations of becoming an author of fiction—presenting distortions of the works of dead authors as if they were the actual works.

For instance, I recently stumbled over the Wikipedia page on “The Famous Five”, and was distraught to read:

In modern reprints, George still wants to be a boy, but the statement that her short hair makes her look like a boy has been removed as it is now considered offensive to assume that girls need long hair to be considered feminine. Anne’s statement that boys cannot wear pretty dresses or like girl’s dolls has been taken out. Julian and Dick now help the girls with cleaning the house and washing dishes.

This increases the series of children’s’ books* that have been distorted in an irrational and destructive manner, contemptuous of both the author and the readers. (To boot, the claim “now considered” is a further inexcusable lack of encyclopedic standards on behalf of Wikipedia. A correct claim would be that e.g., depending on what applies, the “censor’s** considered it offensive” or “some population groups considered it offensive”.) Not only are such distortions despicable in general, but here the reasons appear to be particularly weak. I note, concerning the hair, that in such young people it can be the only physical differentiation and that judgments like “looks like a boy” and “looks like a girl” have to be measured against the time in which they occurred. To boot, George almost*** certainly otherwise dressed and whatnot as a boy, making the hair just one piece of a puzzle. Removing references to the hair thoroughly distorts the original intentions. Similarly, removing Anne’s statement distorts her character and misrepresents the times. This is especially bad, as it removes the contrast between the boyish/unconventional George and the girly/traditional Anne, weakening the two characters and the “group dynamic”. That the boys help with house-work again misrepresents the times and risks a character distortion—how do we know that they would have helped, had they lived in today’s world? Worse: I strongly suspect that these changes, especially the last, is not so much a matter of wanting to avoid offense as of deliberately influencing modern readers to hold a certain set of values—an utterly inexcusable reason for an already inexcusable act.

*Other examples include “Huckleberry Finn”, “Doctor Dolittle”, and the Swedish “Ture Sventon” and “Pippi Långstrump [Long-Stocking]”—among the at least dozen cases I have heard of. (The true scope of the problem is likely orders of magnitude greater and afflicting many more languages.)

**I call a spade a spade—these people are no better, arguably worse, than regular censors. (To “call a spade a spade” is another example of how unjustified censorship is common: Here, “spade” refers to a digging implement in a saying that goes back to ancient Greece. Still, there are people who consider it offensive because the same sequence of letters, much more rarely, has been used to refer to Black people…)

***It has been a very long time since I read one of the books, and there is some minor room for a combination of character being misremembered and contents not matching what would be reasonable based on first principles.

I note that the motivations give in other contexts tend to be very poor. For instance, Swedish censorship and distortion have been directed at the word “neger” as being offensive—however, unlike the English “nigger”, “neger” was never offensive. This changed at some point in the 1980s or 1990s when the PC movement presumed to declare it offensive. This with no reasonable motivation and likely based on a mindless analogy with the English “nigger”—if the one is offensive, then so must be the other…

A particular perfidious version, inexcusable beyond the inexcusable, is the claim that certain changes were made because “we” are sure that this is what the (long dead) author would have wanted—a presumption so moronic and/or dishonest that I feel like punching the speaker in the face.

Such changes, worthy of the Ministry of Truth, are a crime against the author, who sees his work distorted, and a crime against the reader, who is refused the opportunity to read the original work and whose view of the world of old is potentially distorted. Indeed, for a member of the politically correct who actually had a brain, would it not make more sense to let the children see that the world was different in the past and draw their own conclusions? Would it not be better that a girl noted that Anne did house-work and that Julian did not—and questioned the “why”? To look at Anne and George and ask who she would rather be? For the girl-who-wants-to-be-boy* (or vice versa) to look at George and how she had the courage to go against convention even back then? Etc.

*However, I am uncertain to what degree George’s wishes were comparable to some modern cases and to what degree she just wished for a more boyish life-style, considered girly-girls silly, whatnot. Not only are my contacts too far back, but I doubt that Blyton would have been explicit on the topic (if it even occured to her).

As for myself, I have not yet made up my mind on whether to become an author of fiction, and chances are that I would never have a sufficient and enduring popularity that such concerns would actually be relevant. However, I state now and for the record that I absolutely and categorically forbid such distortions of any of my works, current, past, present, and irrespective of type. If I am alive, I will exercise legal options; if I am dead, I will come back to haunt the culprits. The latter especially if someone presumes to try that utterly inexcusable excuse “we know that this is what he would have wanted”—you now know that it is not!

Excursion on other distortions:
Unfortunately, the general problem of distortion is not limited to e.g. censorship and children’s literature. Notably, newer German editions of older texts often come with the claim that the orthography has been “behutsam angepasst” (“cautiously adapted”) or similar, in order to match modern German—and this even for works that were written as late as the 19th century… This might be less harmful than the above, but still brings risks and disadvantages—and most changes are pointless in that the average reader could take the old spelling in a stride.* (A better solution would be to add a few corresponding notes. For truly extreme examples, a parallel original and “translated” text is an option.) For instance, one reason to read older books is to get a feel for the historical language, which is no longer possible. For instance, any such change risks an unintended distortion.** For instance, it is possible that the author deliberately chose a more traditional spelling over a more new-fangled one, in which case the alteration is in direct contradiction to his will.

*A notable example is the common use of “th” in many cases where today “t” is used, e.g. “Thal” vs “Tal” (“valley”). Consider e.g. the extinct Neanderthals vs. the valley Neandertal—at the time of their discovery, the valley used the “th” spelling, which is preserved in the anthropological name, while it uses the “t” spelling today. (And, yes, Neanderthal is correctly pronounced with a “t” sound—not with a lisp.)

**E.g. because two words that used to be spelled (slightly) differently are now spelled the same or vice versa, because some rhyme or play on words does no longer work, or because some spelling choices might have been very personal. (The latter especially in times when the orthography was less standardized than today.) An interesting example is the disappearance of older words, word cases, whatnot. Consider e.g. a modernized version of Shakespeare that replaces “thou” with “you”, etc.: This would lose a lot of nuance as to who is in what relationship to/with someone else and how the relationship might change over time.

The problem is not necessarily limited to dead authors either (but is particularly perfidious there, because they cannot defend themselves). Translations are a horrifying source of problems, at least in Germany, where I have encountered many efforts so awful that they should have led to a summary firing. The German translations of Terry Pratchett’s books have often been disastrous (cf. portions of a text on Pratchett’s death)—and do not get me started on German movie translations… While this is often the result of mere incompetence, e.g. ignorance of what a certain word/phrase/reference/… means,* it can also be deliberate. Notably, there is a school of translators who attempt to hide the fact that a work actually is a translation at any and all cost… (Including rather losing a play on words than giving an explanation of it, or rather re-writing cultural references to some highly approximate local equivalent.) This is an anti-intellectualism and dishonesty that is truly deplorable.

Excursion on Blyton:
Blyton might have mass-produced works with little literary value and might, by reputation, actually have approved in exchange for a bit of extra money. None of that matters: The editors have no such actual approval; the distorting effect for the readers remain (cf. above); the works have, irrespective of literary value, a great following and have been loved by millions (implying that any change is likelier to do damage than to do good); and, above all, if this is accepted for one author, what protects other authors? Indeed, even “To Kill a Mocking-Bird”, widely considered a work of considerable literary accomplishment, has been targeted by the PC crowd. It is important that not one inch be given to these people.

Excursion on tomboys and Feminists:
A peculiarity when it comes to e.g. Feminists and tomboys vs. girly-girls is that “tomboy” is often described as some type of insult or framed in a context of boys/men looking down on the tomboys who “should” be proper girly-girls instead. This repeats a pattern of ignorance and over-generalization about what men are actually like and what they actually think about women—I very much preferred George to Anne at that age, I have preferred girls/women with boyish/mannish interests later in life, and the same applies to a very sizable portion, likely a majority, of the male population. Yes, when it comes to sex and romance, there are many cases where a certain femininity in behavior and style can be attractive; no, when it comes to playing, socializing, whatnot, the tomboy and her adult successor tend to do better. For that matter, too much femininity and/or stereotypically female behaviors are a turn-off in romance too. (Too much make-up, too many shoes, too much emotionality, etc.—the likes of Carrie Bradshaw are not a good ideal.) Of course, even a boyish girl/woman can be quite physically attractive, aesthetically pleasing, and even feminine—this is not an either–or area. (Consider e.g. Evangeline Lilly in “Lost” or Keira Knightley in “Bend it like Beckham”*.) When a man says “tomboy”, it is more likely to be a compliment than an insult.

*Incidentally, a good example of German mistranslations: It was renamed to the alleged English title “Kick [sic!] it like Beckham”… Also a good, if fictional, example of how men tend to view tomboys—compare the positions of the two fathers and the two mothers towards the respective daughters and their “boyish” interests.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2018 at 8:22 pm

Sound-bite communications and too much brevity

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While I have recently criticized older writers for being overly wordy, some modern forms of writing and whatnot is a greater evil: Those that fail to inform or, worse, actually mis-inform, through reducing communication to tidbits without context.

Consider e.g. a typical modern documentary: Someone with some connection to the topic is allowed to say a single sentence, taken entirely out of the original context*. There is a cut to the next person with some connection to the topic, who is also allowed to say a single sentence. There is a cut [etc., etc.] This goes on for five or ten minutes—and what happens after that I frankly do not know, because I have already turned the documentary off… To make matters worse, the connection is not necessarily very strong and the single sentences are often uninformative irrespective of context. At extremes, a documentary about a film-maker can start off with single sentences by people who at some point made a single film with him—or merely share the same field. (But happen to be quite famous…) The sentences themselves can then amount to “He is the greatest!”, “I loved working with him!”, and similar.

*From the optics, this context is usually a longer interview, which would, likely, have been more interesting to begin with. True, such interviews are rarely entertaining, but there is something to be learned and understood—and the point of a documentary is to give that opportunity. For entertainment, pick a good sit-com, action movie, or whatever the current mood calls for.

Note that it is very hard to say something sensible with a single sentence, even when that sentence is targeted to the purpose (not just torn out of context). Look e.g. at the immediately preceding sentence: It does a far better job than the aforementioned and is comparatively long, but it is still just a piece of the overall text. Consider how it would read without the context of the overall discussion or note how it would be just a claim without any support for its truth.*

*This is, admittedly, a situation that can be hard to avoid even in a full text, and not always something that I pay great attention to. A major complications is that what might seem self-evident to one person is not so to the next, e.g. because they have different levels of expertise or because their priorities differ. Another is that the overall text might give enough support when enough time is spent thinking, but that the reader will not necessarily be aware of this (or willing to put in the time, or smart enough), while the writer might be too stuck in his own context to realize that there are things that might better be spelled out. Even so, a larger block of text is almost always better than just a single statement.

Or take the reverse approach and contrast “He is the greatest!” with “He revolutionized the use of camera angles and I have never known a film-maker with such a drive for perfection. I was particularly impressed with his movie X, e.g. the scene where […]”: The former is just a sound-good/feel-good claim; the latter allows the viewer/reader/… to gain some insight, make his own verifications, find other sources of information, whatnot—e.g. through watching movie X with particular attention to the mentioned scene and/or camera angles.

The lack of context can even make claims misleading. For instance, “I loved working with him!” might have been exclaimed after an early successful collaboration, and does not necessarily reflect feelings after a later collaboration that lead to a major falling out—and knowing why the feelings were positive can have a massive impact on interpretation. (Did he make the experience pleasant or entertaining? Did he share insights into film-making that improved the speaker’s own abilities? Did he behave professionally when others might have exploded in anger? …) Similarly, “greatest” need not refer to the film-maker as a film maker—it might have been as a friend, a person, a philanthropist, boxer, or even be referring to physical size. (Other examples can be more subtle, while being vulnerable to similar objections.)

Somewhat overlapping, these single sentences are almost always lacking in nuance and have a tendency towards the hyperbolic—I have yet to hear “X is on my top-ten list, slightly behind Bergman. I waver between him and Fellini for eighth place.”, which presumably is not cool enough for a modern documentary.

I am left with the impression that the documentary makers just try to pump out a certain number of minutes of screen time (never mind its value per minute) and resort to a way that allows even those void of skill to produce those minutes. Possibly, a secondary, highly populist, concern can play in: To allow mindless viewers to get some degree of entertainment, e.g. through rapid changes (never mind that the result is unusable for those with a brain or a genuine interest—those for which documentaries should be made).

The problems are by no means limited to documentaries, however. For instance, there are many journalistic “articles” on the web, especially sport-centric, that consist of as many Twitter-quotes as own text… No analysis, no details, no information—just superficial impressions or sound-bite claims by others. My concerns are similar, as is my lack of enjoyment. I am certainly not informed by such crap.

Twitter, it self, is an obvious further example: If someone wants to inform the world that “I am going to the loo! Yaaay!”, Twitter might be an appropriate medium. For readers and writers looking for something with more substance, it is not a good choice.

Politics (especially Left/PC populist) and advertising are, unsurprisingly, other common sources of examples. Consider e.g. the utterly despicable pro-abortion argument (using the word loosely) “It is my body!”. Not only does this anti-intellectually reduce a very complicated* ethical question to a mere slogan, but this slogan is also extremely misleading—the main reason why this question is so tricky is exactly that it is not “my” (i.e. the current woman’s) body that is the main issue! The main issue is the body of the fetus, and involves sub-issues like when this body should be considered a human and when a disposable something else—which in turn involves medical, philosophical, and (for non-atheists) religious considerations. (Other issues not addressed by this slogan include whether and to what degree the interests of the father** and the grand-parents might need consideration and what the medical professionals consider compatible with their own conscience and religion. At the same time, it fails to use the single strongest pro-abortion argument, i.e. the medical risks resulting from illegal abortions.)

*So complicated that I have no clear opinion on the matter: I do not argue “pro-life” here—I argue against useless, illogical, intellectually dishonest, whatnot argumentation and cheap sloganeering.

**Including the negative direction, since he is usually forced to pay for the child when no abortion takes place.

Excursion on depth in general, especially regarding school:
As I have noticed again and again after leaving school*, what passes for education is often sufficiently superficial to be near useless—sometimes, even dangerous. The same can be said about much news reporting (even when the extreme cases above are discounted). Generally, society is filled with shallow information and a shallower understanding—while most people fail to understand that they know and understand very little. School amounts to twelve-or-so years of superficial orientation on most topics, where it would have been better to dig deeper into more select areas. History is possibly the topic in which this is the most obvious. Look at a typical school text on history, consider how many pages are spent on what topics, and then compare this amount of text with e.g. the Wikipedia article on the same topic—and compare the amount of depth, thought, analysis, whatnot. Reading the Wikipedia article once or twice and forgetting ninety-five percent of the data (but not insight!) will usually be more valuable than even memorizing the school text.

*Somewhat similar arguments apply to higher education too, but to a lesser degree and with more honesty: Achieving a diploma is somewhat comparable to getting a driver’s license—proof that someone is fit to enter traffic, but still trailing severely compared to what is expected ten or twenty years down the line. School, in comparison, often amounts to the knowledge that a car has four wheels and uses gasoline—superficial, border-line useless, and ignoring other numbers of wheels and other energy sources.

Excursion on “likes”:
It could be argued that “likes” takes this type of mis-communication to its purest extreme (or it could be argued to be another topic entirely). Consider e.g. the lack of a motivation why something was “liked”; the uncertainty of whether the text/video/whatnot was viewed as high-quality or whether it was the message that was approved; the typical inability to “dislike” something; the pressure some might feel to “like” as a form of payment (or the hope of getting “likes” in return, or the fear of disappointing a friend, …); etc.

Excursion on neglecting core groups:
Documentaries and entertainment (cf. above) is just a special case of a very disturbing tendency of neglecting the core group (traditional target/raison d’être/whatnot audience), for which something should be made, in favor of the great masses—failing to realize the betrayal implied, the damage done, and that it might be more profitable to hold a large portion of a niche market than a thin sliver of a mass market. A good other example is museums that (at least in Germany) focus so much on populist entertainment that I, as a core-group member, rarely bother to visit one. A particular problem is the drive to include children, even when they gain nothing museum-specific from the visit, and even when their presence is a disturbance to other visitors. For instance, when I lived in Munich, I visited an automotive or vehicle museum—and was ultimately forced to avoid large areas of the museum, lest I flip out. Why? A large part of the museum was occupied by some type of for-children-cinema and a slide—both in immediate vicinity of parts of the exhibition, both entirely lacking sound barriers. To boot, there was an endless stream of children running around and shouting between them. I note both that neither appeared to have any educational value (even discounting the limited value achievable in young children*) and that any hoped for gain in long-term interest in museums (if occurring at all) is outweighed by the adult visitors losing their interest. The true explanation is simply a wish to maximize the number of paying visitors—and education be damned. Other examples include sports’ events going for the ignorant masses, with imbecile commentators, idiotic camera angles, whatnot, and ignoring** those with an interest in and knowledge of the respective sport.

*It is a dangerous myth that children learn better than adults. Even when it comes to raw facts, it is highly disputable. When it comes to gaining an understanding, extrapolating, applying, it is horrendously wrong. See also e.g. [1].

**Note the difference between opening doors for the masses in addition to the core group vs. doing so through locking out the core group.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2018 at 9:50 am

Multiple ideas vs. focused texts

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I have repeatedly encountered claims by authors* that their stories only truly work, come to life, whatnot, when they are based on two or more separate ideas. I have made the same, but more ambivalent, observation regarding my own (non-fiction) texts: The texts that I really have a drive to write, that are the most fun to write, that develop my own thoughts the most, …, tend to be the ones combining two or more ideas. The way of writing described in an older text also almost forces the inclusion of multiple ideas, even when the original drive was not rooted in more than one idea. On the downside, these texts are also the least focused, might give the readers less value for their time, and would be most likely to be torn to pieces if submitted to e.g. a college course on essay writing.**

*Including Stephen R. Donaldson with regard to his “Gap” and “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” series. As for the others, I have to pass, seeing that I only took superficial note at the time, and that these encounters stretch back over decades.

**However, I state for the protocol that I simply do not agree with much of the standard writing advice and that my deviations are more often rooted in disagreement with than ignorance of such advice. This includes, outside of very formal types of writing, keeping a tight focus on a single topic, or focusing on a single side of an issue. (The latter might be more convincing, but should a good essay aim at convincing or at giving insight and attempting to get at the truth?) It also includes “avoid the passive”, which I consider one of the worst pieces of advice a writer can get.

Consider, for a comparatively simple example, a few thoughts around the 2018 Chess World Championships and the fact that all the regular games ended in draws:*

*I originally intended to write a separate text on that matter. Since I sketch the material here, and have an ever-growing back-log, I will forego that text.

On the one hand, I have long observed that as a sport matures and as we look at higher levels within a sport, (a) players/teams tends to grow stronger defensively at a higher rate than they do offensively and/or that differences in scores tend to grow smaller, (b) the nature of the sport often changes.*

*Consider for (a) the chance of in soccer finding a five-goal victory margin or an overall of ten goals for a single game between national teams today vs. fifty years ago, between men’s teams vs. between women’s teams, or between Bundesliga teams vs. between local amateur teams. (With great reservations for temporary fluctuations, the presence of a truly exceptional team, unusually large mismatches in level, and similar.) Consider for (b) how a low level bowler aims to knock down as many pins as possible, hoping for a strike every now and then, while the pro is set on failing to get strikes as rarely as possible.

On the other hand, partially overlapping, it seems to me that chess is being crippled by too many draws. Notably, at increasingly higher levels of play, it becomes rarer and rarer for Black to win, implying that the “job” of Black is to get a draw. In contrast, the “job” of White is to win. However, even White’s win percentage is often so low that draw orgies result. Looking specifically at the 2018 World Championships, we also have another negative: The defending champion and eventual winner, Carlsen, was known to be stronger at speed chess than his opponent, Caruana—and in case of a tie after twelve regular games, the match would be determined by a speed-chess tie-breaker. Considering this, Carlsen had a strong incentive to play risk-free games, knowing that a tie was close to a victory and that draws in the individual games favored him. Going by the account on Wikipedia, this almost certainly affected the 12th game.* After twelve consecutive draws, the tie-break came, and Carlsen now won three games out of three… Similarly, even without a favorable tie-breaker, a player who got an early win might then just go for safety draws in order to keep that one-point advantage until the end.

*Going by the other game accounts, there were no strong signs of such caution. (I have not attempted to analyze the games myself, and I might even lack the ability to judge what is “safety first” play on this level.) However, another player in his shoes might well have played with an eye mainly at forcing a tie-break, and have viewed a victory within the regular portion as a mere bonus.

Looking more in detail, my plans did not advance so far that I can say with certainty what I would have written, except that it would have included a potential rule change to e.g. give Black more points than White in case of a victory and/or to make the split of points uneven (in favor of Black) in case of a draw. This would have had the intention of giving Black incentives to play harder for a win and/or to make White dissatisfied with a draw, and some discussion of how such rule changes could turn out to be contra-productive would have followed. For the latter, an intended parallel example was the off-side rule in soccer: Abolishing it would lead to more goals if the teams play as they do today and it could give incentives to play more aggressively through putting forwards higher in the field to await a pass; however, it could also lead to more defensive play through keeping defenders back even when attacking, in case the ball is lost and a quick counter-attack follows.

*For some value of exciting: I usually find watching soccer to be quite boring.

Here we also have an illustration of one of the problems with more focused texts: If I were to try to divide the above into two (or more) texts, they would each be missing something or be forced to partially duplicate discussions. It could be done. There might even be contexts when it should be done. However, this would entail more work than writing a single text, the result would be lesser in my eyes, and I would, myself, prefer to read the joint text.

The illustration would have been better, had I been further along in my planing. However, consider e.g. how a discussion of the off-side rule in the chess text would have been weakened without a discussion of the more general phenomenon and the context of the comparatively low number of goals in soccer (if in doubt, when compared to e.g. basket-ball or ice-hockey). Goals in soccer, in turn, would be a fairly uninteresting and loose special case without having an eye on the wider issue of (a) above. Or consider just discussing the “drawiness” of top-level chess without mention of (b) in general. Etc. For a good example of a text actually written, see [1]: Here a discussion of a specific PED-related controversy is combined with a general discussion of some sub-topics, and then transitions into a questioning of how reasonable the current take on PEDs is. (Could have been two or even three texts, had “focus” been a priority, but, to my taste, the actual text works better.)

Excursion on fiction and multiple ideas:
The above-mentioned claims by authors are likely mostly relating to fairly abstract ideas or broad themes that do not automatically point the way;* however, in my experiences as a consumer of fiction, the better works often have a number of ideas or concepts of a more concrete kind that combine to make them that much greater. For instance, “Star Wars” without light-sabers would still be “Star Wars”, but it would not have been quite the same. Similarly, “Star Wars” without the Force would still have worked, but … Or consider “Star Trek” and the individual series with and without holodecks. Clearly, the holodeck is not needed, but it adds so many great additional possibilities. It would certainly be possible to make a reasonably good “high concept” series around the holodeck alone. Similarly, “Chuck” basically combines two different TV series—comic spy adventures and the absurdities of a fictional electronics store. Taking just the latter and combining it with the family-life of Chuck would have made for a reasonable comedy series. Taking just the former in combination with family-life would have made for a very good action-comedy series. Having both in one series made it truly great entertainment.

*Donaldson speaks e.g. of a combination of leprosy and unbelief for “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”—the road from those ideas to the actual books is quite long and very different books would have been equally possible.

And, no, this is not limited to modern screen entertainment: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, e.g., is not just a tragedy or love story—but both. It also has more comedy in it than most modern rom-com movies… Then there are life lessons to be drawn, some remarkable poetry, and whatnot. At least the filmatisations by Zeffirelli (outstanding!) and Luhrman show the room for action scenes.*

*I am uncertain how this could have come across in an Elizabethan theater: On the one hand, the means would have been more limited; on the other, the standard of comparison was necessarily much lower. (Both movies also make remarkable use of music; however, that is independent of the underlying play.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 6:59 pm

Revisiting verbosity based on Wesnoth

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Since writing a text dealing with verbosity (among other things), I have dabbled with Wesnoth*, which well illustrates the problems with undue verbosity, lack of tempo, and similar:

*See an excursion for some information and a few notes on terminology beneficial for the non-player’s understanding of this text.

  1. Most campaigns contain an undue amount of narration and dialogue*.

    *Which is fixed in advance. Only very rarely can the player influence the development of the dialogue, and then only within a small set of fix choices.

    Now, a good story can make a campaign more enjoyable*; however, the point of the game is to play the game—if I want to read an extensive story, I can just grab a book.

    *Especially, through adding aspects with no correspondence in the “pure” game, e.g. character background or a romantic sub-theme.

    Worse: Most of the resulting text is pointless. It adds no value to the story or the overall enjoyment; is repetitive; states what should be a given; or is otherwise a waste of time. (That the text is very often poor by criteria relating to prose, effectiveness, story-telling, …, does not help—but that is an unrelated topic.)

    For instance, very many scenarios start with multiple enemy leaders saying variations of “I will crush you, puny humans!” or “Victory shall be ours!”—which reminds me of German sports writers, who do not tire of headings like “X will den Sieg!” (“X wants to win!”). What had they expected that made that news-worthy?!?

    Another complete idiocy is “war council” scenarios where various characters make mostly pointless statements, sometimes leading up to half-a-dozen characters, one after the other, saying “Agreed!” (or something to that effect)—where a simple “(All agree.)” would have done just as well, with a fraction of the player’s time wasted. Usually, the entire council could have been compressed into just a few lines of dialogue or replaced by a simple narrative message.

    The bulk, however, is lost on unduly long narration, mostly amounting to filler.

    To boot, if a campaign is played more than once, the value of the (textual parts of the) story are diminished further (while the non-story parts remain similarly interesting to the first time). What might be acceptable the first time around, need not be so the second, third, or fourth time.

    Sometimes, it is so bad that I skip entire sequences of story (which is, fortunately, possible as a lesser evil)—but am then (a) left with no benefit at all from the story, (b) often lack context,* and (c) can miss various hints to optimal game play given in the text**.

    *E.g. in that I do not know why I suddenly have an ally or why I am suddenly trying to defeat a band of orcs, instead of those undead that had hitherto been the main enemy.

    **E.g. that a wooded area contains hidden enemies or that some aspect of the standard game-mechanisms has been temporarily altered.

    Most campaigns would be better by cutting the text in half; some would be better by cutting it to a tenth. (Note that I do not say that the story should be cut—only the text.) Generally, it is important to understand that different types of work require different types of writing—a game is not a novel, a play, or even a comic.

  2. The previous item is made the worse by limitations in the way that the game displays text: A longer piece of narration is displayed with no more than a few lines at a time (the next few lines following after user confirmation) and in an annoying manner, where each line is slowly blended in, one after the other. (Fortunately, this blend-in can be skipped by pressing the space key; however, this risks skipping too far, and a setting to skip the blend-in as a matter of course is not present.) Similarly, dialogue, even single words, is always displayed individually for each character speaking. Both imply that the user (even when wanting to read) has to hit the space key every few seconds; both have negative effects on strategies like getting a cup of coffee between scenarios to read the narration and dialogue at the beginning of the next scenario in a fully relaxed state.

    A particular annoyance with dialogue is that any utterance causes the view of the “board” to be focused on the speaking character, which leads to an additional delay and implies that the focus will usually end up at a different portion of the board than before the dialogue.*

    *Since the original focus is not restored. This is OK for pre-scenario dialogue, but problematic with in-game dialogue: Consider making a move to attack, having that attack interrupted by a triggered dialogue, and then having to scroll back to attempt the attack again… This leads to yet another unnecessary delay.

  3. The problems are not limited to text. For instance, some war-council scenarios contain sequences of half-a-dozen characters moving across the board, saying something, and then moving back across the board. These movements bring no value, appear to be unskippable, and take an excruciating* amount of time, during which the player can do nothing within the game. Still, some campaign makers have deliberately taken the effort to add these “value subtracted” moves…

    *I play with the animation speed increased by a factor of four (and have all unnecessary animations turned off). Even so, such sequences are horribly slow. With default settings, the best bet would be to grab a book until the movements are over—which really shows how redundant they are. (Another interface quirk is that the next faster setting is a factor of eight, which would be beneficial here, but might make other portions of the game move too fast.)

  4. A related scenario-error within regular game play is to involve too many units at the same time. For instance, there are a some battle scenarios (e.g. in “Legend of the Invincibles”) with more than a hundred AI-controlled units on the board at the same time (almost all of which are moved every single round)—and where it takes several rounds for the player and the AI-controlled enemy to even make contact.* The ensuing (mostly) unimportant movements, can go on for minutes… Even after contact is established, it takes quite a while before the majority of the units are actually involved in fighting—and that often occurs because sufficiently many of units have finally been killed off…

    *A better way to handle so large battles is to give the opponents less “starting gold” and more “income” or otherwise delay the “recruitment” (without reducing the total number of units eventually involved). A partial improvement is to reduce distances between opponents, but this could lead to a too fast defeat of some of the enemies or increase the influence of luck.

    In such cases, I have even made my own moves, done something completely different while waiting for the computer to make its moves, and then just checked whether the outcome was sufficiently satisfactory* when it was my turn again. Of course, this work-around is often foiled by some random dialogue in the middle of the battle, e.g. when an important enemy unit died. I then have to click through the dialogue, restart the battle, and go back to my “something completely different” for another few minutes…

    *With an eye on two things: Firstly, the loss of some specific units can lose the game outright. Secondly, if too large losses of other units occur, an eventual victory would by Pyrrhic. In both cases, it is time to start the scenario over with a better approach.

In the defense of these campaigns, they are contributed by various users and, therefore, rarely written by professionals. Then again, the more “professional” a campaign appears in other regards, the more text there tends to be (both in general and with regard to “pointless” text).

Excursion on Wesnoth, background information, and terminology:
The games is officially called “Battle of Wesnoth”. It is a turn-based strategy game, mostly played against an AI, which I played very often some years back—before frustration with too great an influence of luck, a poor user interface, and many idiocies in campaigns eventually drove me away. (The issues discussed here relate to literal or metaphorical verbosity—the overall list would be much longer.)

A “campaign” is a series of linked scenarios, roughly equivalent to the overall adventure or war. A “scenario”, in turn, is roughly a sub-adventure or a single battle. A “unit” corresponds to a piece in chess. I have otherwised tried to be low on “technical terms”, in favor of what those unexperienced with computer games and/or Wesnoth might find understandable.

Note that some descriptions above have been simplified compared to actual play. (For instance, even the large battles scenarios discussed above will typically start with only a handful of units, and see armies rapidly expand through “recruitment”.)

Those interested can download it for free from the official Wesnoth website, which also provides more detailed knowledge than given here.

Disclaimer: I played using the latest version available in the standard Debian repositories (1.12), which is not the latest version released. However, this should only affect general game-features, not individual campaigns. Further, the user interface has never improved* much in the past, leaving me pessimistic concerning later versions.

*Add more unnecessary or even annoying animations—yes. Tweak the looks of various units—yes. Improve actual usability—no.

Excursion on reading speed:
I suspect that some of the above is worse for those who read or process information faster, e.g. in that the “coffee strategy” will work better for a slower reader, who will hit the space key less frequently and have more time to relax during an individual portion of text. (On the other hand, a slower reader will, obviously, need longer to reach game play, and might grow more frustrated with the length of the delay.)

Excursion on “The Elements of Style”:
“Omit needless words” is likely the most famous claim in that book. Examples like Wesnoth and Der Untergang des Abendlandes really drive home the point. Notably, the main problem with both is the sheer quantity of needless words (and needless movements, etc.). The latter also shines a different light on this recommendation, in as far as “The Elements of Style” was written in a different era, when texts like Spengler’s were far more common than today, and the advice correspondingly more beneficial: Looking at typical writing back then, it was likely the single most important advice to give; today, it is “merely” good advice. For instance, my recent criticism of Stephen King’s novels (as too thick for their own good) is not rooted in individual formulations being unduly long*, but in problems on a higher level, e.g. individual scenes that could be cut out or shortened without loss.

*His sentences are reasonably compact—certainly, more so than my own…

Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2018 at 11:43 pm

Conflicting own beliefs and what to do about them

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In the set of beliefs* held by anyone, there will be occasional real or imagined conflicts (consider also e.g. the concepts of “cognitive dissonance” and “doublethink”). People differ mainly in (a) the degree that they are aware of and (b) how they handle these conflicts. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of most or all conflicts that arise, make no attempts at detecting them, and are prone to just explain away the conflicts that are known—even descending to outright doublethink.** A particular issue with awareness is that a too faulty or incomplete understanding can make such conflicts go undetected.***

*I use “belief” as a catch-all that, depending on context, could include any or almost any belief, idea, opinion, whatnot that implies or would imply something about something else. This includes e.g. “cucumbers are green”, “cucumbers are blue”, “God does [not] exist”, and “I [do not] like chocolate”.

**This includes such absurdities as simultaneously professing to believe in Evolution and Gender-Feminism. Indeed, a great deal of my annoyance with politics/ideology (in general) and Feminism/Leftism/PC-ism (in particular) results from the adherents ever recurring faults in similar directions.

***Consider again Evolution vs. Gender-Feminism: It is, for instance, highly unlikely that evolutionary processes would generate physical differences while keeping mental abilities identical—but exactly that is seen as a given by most Gender-Feminists (and a significant portion of the PC crowd, in general). Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the different roles of men and women in most societies over thousands of generations would have left no trace in form of e.g. natural inclinations. A Creationist–Feminist match-up would be less prone to contradictions.

In many cases, these conflicts are sufficiently trivial that they may be neglected.* For instance, that someone has two favorite dishes, music bands, movie stars, …, rarely has major impact on important decisions.** When it comes to topics that can have a greater impact, especially on others, care should be taken, however. Consider e.g. questions like how to vote in an election, what recommendations to make to others, what agendas to push, …—here it is important to have a sufficiently sound view of the topic; and if beliefs conflict, the view is unlikely to be sufficiently sound.

*A resolution can still bring benefit, e.g. through better self-knowledge, and I would not advice against the attempt.

**However, the resolution is often fairly simple, e.g. that none of two is the favorite and that the word “favorite” is best avoided; or that an opinion has changed over time, while still being professed out of habit.

Giving blanket rules for detection is tricky, but actually reading up* on a topic, gaining an own understanding (as opposed to parroting someone else’s), and deliberately trying to see the “bigger picture” and making comparisons between different fields and ideas, can all be helpful. Above all, perhaps, it is helpful to actually think through consequences and predictions that can be made based on various beliefs, and looking at how they stack up against both each other and against observations of reality. In my personal experience, writing about a topic can be an immense help (and this is one of the reasons why I write): Writing tends to lead to a deeper thought, a greater chance of recollection in other contexts, and a thought-process that continues intermittently long after a text has been completed.

*Note especially that information given in news papers, in school, or by politicians tends to be too superficial or even outright faulty. Wikipedia was once a good source, but has deteriorated over the years (at least where many topics are concerned). The “talk” pages can often contain a sufficient multitude of view-points, however.

If a conflict has been detected, it should be investigated with a critical eye in order to find a resolution. Here there are at least* five somewhat overlapping alternatives to consider: (a) One or both beliefs are wrong and should be rejected or modified. (b) Both beliefs have at least some justification and they should be reconciled, possibly with modifications; e.g. because they cover different special cases. (c) The conflict is only apparent, e.g. through a failure to discriminate. (d) One or both beliefs are not truly held and the non-belief should be brought to consciousness; e.g. because profession is made more out of habit than conviction. (e) The support of both** beliefs is approximate or tentative (awaiting further evidence), and (at a minimum) this condition should be kept in mind, with revisions according to the preceding items often being necessary.*** Note that the above need not result in rejection of one belief—it can equally be a matter of modification or refinement (and it can also happen to both beliefs). This is one reason why investigation is so beneficial—it helps to improve one’s own mind, world-view, whatnot.

*A deeper effort might reveal quite a few more alternatives. I write mostly off the top of my head at the moment.

**Here it has to be both: If one belief is taken as true and only one as approximate, then it would follow that the approximate one is outright faulty (at least as far as the points of conflict are concerned), which moves us to the “One” case of (a).

***For instance, if two physical theories are not perfectly compatible, the realization that physical theories are only approximations-for-the-now (eventually to be replaced by something better) gives room for an “approximate belief” in either or both theories. As long as work proceeds with an eye at the used assumptions, with the knowledge that the results might not be definite, and while being very careful in areas of known conflict or with poor experimental verification, this is not a major issue. Indeed, such “approximate belief” is par for the course in the sciences. In contrast, if someone was convinced that both were indisputably true, this would be highly problematic.

Again, giving blanket rules is tricky, especially with the very wide variety of fields/beliefs potentially involved and with the variety of the above cures. However, actually thinking and, should it be needed, gathering more information can be very productive. Having a good ability to discriminate is helpful in general; and with (b) and (c) it can be particularly beneficial to look at differences, e.g. if there is some aspect of a case where one belief is assumed to apply that is not present in a case where the other belief is assumed to apply. With (d), it is usually mostly a matter of introspection. (In addition, the advice for detecting conflicts applies to some parts here and vice versa. Often, the two will even be implicit, hard-to-separate, parts of a single process.)

For a specific, somewhat complex example, consider questions around what makes a good or poor book, movie, whatnot—especially, the property of being hackneyed: On the one hand, my discussions of various works have often contained a complaint that this-or-that is hackneyed. On the other, it is quite common for works that I enjoy and think highly of (at least on the entertainment level*) to contain elements of the hackneyed—or even be formulaic. Moreover, I rarely have the feel that this enjoyment is despite of something being hackneyed—this weakness, in it self, does not appear to disturb me that strongly.

*Different works serve different purposes and should be measured with an eye on the purpose. When I watch a sit-com, depth of character is far less important than how often and how hard I laugh; the romance in an action movie is a mere bonus (or even a negative, if there is too much); vice versa, an action scene in a rom-com is mere bonus; plot rarely makes sense in non-fiction; etc. For more “serious” works, more serious criteria and higher literary standards apply.

Is my explicit complaint compatible with my implicit acceptance? To some degree, yes; to some degree, no.

On the “no” side: I suspect, after introspection, that I do or do not find a certain work enjoyable, thought-worthy, whatnot, based on criteria that are not explicitly known to me.* If I find enjoyment (etc.), I am less likely to look for faults; if I do not, I am more likely to look for faults—but there is no guarantee that my original impression was actually caused by the faults now found. Some will almost certainly have been involved; others need not have been; and there might have been other faults involved that I never grew explicitly aware of.

*There are many aspects of different works that can individually have a large impact, and the end-impression is some form of aggregation over these aspects. For instance, consider the impact of music on movies like “Star Wars” and “Vertigo” or on TV series like “Twin Peaks”—change the music, and the work is lessened. Notably, the viewer is rarely strongly aware of the impact of the music (even be it hard to miss in the aforementioned cases).

On the “yes” side there are at least three things to consider: Firstly, a work can be hackneyed and have sufficient other strengths to outweigh this. Poor works are rarely poor due to one failure—they are poor because they fail on numerous criteria, e.g. (for a movie) being hackneyed and having a poor cast, wooden dialogue, unimpressive music, … Being hackneyed is, alone, not a knock-out criterion—being original is an opportunity to gain points that a hackneyed work simply has not taken. Secondly, different criteria can apply to different works,* and being hackneyed is not necessarily an obstacle for the one work, even though it is for another. Thirdly, if something is known to work well, it can be worth using even if it is hackneyed—“boy meets girl” has been done over and over and over again, but it still works. (See also an excursion below.)

*Partly, as in a previous footnote; partly, with an eye on the expected level of accomplishment. For instance, my very positive discussion of Black Beauty must be seen as referring to a children’s book—had I found the exact same contents in a work with the reputation and target group of e.g. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I have yet to read), I would have been less enthusiastic.

All in all, I do not see a problem with this conflict in principle; however, I do suspect that I would benefit from (and be fairer in detail* by) looking closer at what actually created my impression and less closely on criteria like “original vs. hackneyed”. The latter might well amount to fault finding or rationalization. To boot, I should pay more attention to whether specifically something being hackneyed has a negative effect on me (beyond the mere failure to have a positive effect through originality).

*I doubt that my overall assessment would change very much; however, my understanding and explanation of why I disliked something would be closer to the truth. Of course, it might turn out that being hackneyed was a part of the explanation in a given case; however, then I can give that criticism with a better conscience…

Excursion on expectations:
In a somewhat similar situation, I have sometimes complained about a work having set a certain expectation and then changed course. That is an example of another issue, namely the need to discriminate*. There are setups and course changes that are good, in that they reduce the predictability, increase the excitement, whatnot. This includes well-made “plot twists”. There are, however, other types of expectations and course changes that are highly unfortunate—including those that make the reader (viewer, whatnot) set his mind on a certain genre or a certain general development. A course change here is likely to detract from the experience, because different genres are enjoyed in different manners, and because there is often an element of disappointment** involved. Depending on the change, there can also be a delay and reorientation needed that lessens concentration and enjoyment further. Another negative type of changes is (almost always) those that try to rejuvenate a TV series or franchise by sacrificing what once made the series worth watching, by “jumping the shark”, and similar.

*Yes, discrimination is also a sub-topic above; however, here we have a too blatant case to be truly overlapping: There is no need for me to re-investigate my own beliefs—only to clarify them towards others. (Except in as far as I might have suffered from a similar fault-finding attitude as discussed above, but that attitude is just an independent-of-the-topic aspect of an example.)

**Note that this holds true, even when the expected and the delivered are more-or-less equivalent in net value. (However, when there is a significant improvement, the situation might be different: I recall watching “Grease” for the first time, with only a very vague idea of the contents; seeing the first scene; and fearing that I was caught in the most sugary, teenage-girls-only, over-the-top romance known to man—the rest was a relief.)

Excursion on “boy meets girl”:
An additional, but off-topic, complication when considering the hackneyed, is that there comes a point of repeated use when the hackneyed does not necessarily register as hackneyed and/or is so central to a genre that it is hard to avoid. Consider the typical “boy meets girl” theme. This, in it self, is so common and so basic to movie romance that it rarely registers as hackneyed. In contrast, the rarer “childhood friends fall in love” does*. With “boy meets girl”, the question is less whether the theme lacks originality and more whether the implementation is done with sufficient quality** and whether the details are also lacking in originality (is there, e.g., yet another desperate chase to and through an airport at the end?).

*At least to me, which also shows that there can be a large element of subjectiveness involved.

**Oscar Wilde defended against accusations of plagiarism by pointing to the difference between adding and removing a petal when growing tulips: To repeat in a better manner what someone else has already done, is not necessarily a fault.

Excursion on good fiction:
More generally, I am coming to the conclusion that fiction (and art, music, whatnot) either works or does not work—and if the end result works, an author (movie maker, whatnot) can get away with more-or-less anything along the road. This includes the hackneyed, poor prose, absurd scenes, artistic liberties with science, a disregard for convention and expectation, the tasteless, … (But the question of “because or despite?” can be valuable, especially with an eye at a different reactions among different readers.) The proof of the pudding is in the eating—not in the recipe.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2018 at 2:53 am

Prose and “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

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I find myself unexpectedly returning to prose and style of writing—after having intended to deepen my understanding of history and societal development: Yesterday, I started to read Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, which, going by reputation, should have contained a fair amount of material of interest to me. After about a hundred pages, most of which consisted of a foreword, I gave up in frustration—the man simply could not write. (And the overall work is two volumes of more than six hundred pages each.)

Ideas, definitions, and arguments are drawn out ad eternam. What could have been stated in a single ordinary* sentence covers an entire paragraph—or more. The total contents of these hundred-or-so pages could be compressed to ten. (If the rest of the work is of a similar character, I could have been more than three-quarters through a compressed version with the same effort.)

*As opposed to the often very long sentences used by Spengler, which can be paragraph-sized in their own right. (Also see below.)

The flow of the individual sentence is often highly confused, reminding me of a compass needle in the presence of magnetic disturbances. Hypothetical* example: A horse is a four-footed, in other words quadruped, animal, excelling in speed, contrary to the cow, whose digestive system is of the utmost complexity, and ridden, i.e. used as a means of transport, by humans, or dogs in a circus, the cow hardly ever being ridden, …

*Considering his complicated style and issues of idiom, I am loath to actually attempt a translation of a real example. Besides, I would need to make a re-download to find such an example. Note that I have not attempted to duplicate his style in any detail—I just try to bring the general impression of the compass needle across.

As for sentence structure, sentence length, and choice of words, he makes me look like Hemingway. I do not like to throw the first stone here, both because of the hypocrisy involved and because many failures to understand a sentence can be put more on the reader than on the writer. However, I readily admit that there were sentences that I had to re-read even to just understand them as sentences (as opposed to understand the idea or arguments presented by them—and the ideas and arguments were usually not hard to understand once the sentence had been deciphered). In a few cases, a sentence was also so long that I had to go back to the beginning in order to replenish my memory and to be able to put the end of the sentence in context…

The “reasoning” often consists of nothing more than claiming that something would be obvious, often drowned in a barrage of words. Spengler appears to continually confuse “personal belief” with “logical conclusion” and/or attempt to hide a lack of actual arguments through a flow of words.

Excursion on the actual contents:
Because I covered so small a portion of the overall work, I cannot make that many statements about the actual contents (as opposed to how the contents were written). However: On the one hand, Spengler and I seem to share a conviction that there are many lessons and, possibly, predictions to be drawn from past civilizations and phases of individual periods and fields*. (Also note sayings like “history repeats it self” and “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”.) I also share the general fear that the “Abendland” could, conceivably be approaching its “Untergang”; and the general idea that progress might be replaced by stagnation as a civilization develops.** On the other, his “Morphologie”*** takes this to such an extreme that it lacks plausibility and would likely be considered pseudo-science today. Going by a few tables with comparisons between civilizations, I also suspect that he has bent the data to fit his theory on more than one occasion. (Something almost impossible to avoid with the great difference in the developments that are considered morphologically equivalent…)

*For instance, I suspect that there are great similarities in the rise, flowering, and fall of this-or-that style of painting or music—not just empires.

**I note factors like that a lesser need to work hard in order to survive could lead a “softer” and less industrious population, that entertainment could grew more important than accomplishment, the risks of dysgenic pressure, and similar.

***Roughly speaking, that the development of a civilization follows a certain fix pattern with (on a historical scale) synchronously repeating stages of even areas like math and art. Unless the unread parts of the work contains strong arguments and examples, I see this as much too far-going.

Excursion on predictions:
Future prediction based on history should always be taken with a grain of salt—Asimov’s psychohistory will likely remain more fiction than science. A good example is H. G. Wells’ “The Shape of Things to Come”, which gets almost everything wrong—and when it gets something partially right, the flaws render the prediction almost comical. For instance, he does manage to predict a German–Polish war with far-reaching consequences around 1940, half-a-dozen years past the time of writing, but has the Germans barely able to keep up with the Poles and, in my recollection, had the Poles as the original aggressors.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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