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Lessons from Mistakes Were Made , Dissonance and Evil

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I finished Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), and I really enjoyed the book. Anyone who is a student of the human condition would, I think, find the book enlightening. Of course, if you spend ~$10 on it and force yourself to read it, self-justification will help you to believe it was worth it.

The authors have a chapter on evil that puts a fine point on many of the things I thought about as I was going through the book, and highlights why it was a good read for me as a writer. People often become evil, they stipulate, not out of a desire to be evil, but out of a desire to be good. This is really a research-backed way of saying, “everyone has his reasons”. They use, among others, the example of the guards at Abu Ghraib. These guards were, likely, the heroes of their own stories. Especially after they had already done some minor torture and humiliation, they were in a difficult situation and were confronted with two, dissonant, thoughts.

  • I am a hero and a good guy
  • I have inflicted pain and humiliation on people

The way they resolved these two thoughts was not to stop doing harm, but to come to a place where they understood themselves to be especially virtuous and for their victims to be especially worthy of the torture the guards inflicted upon them. Every act of humiliation only served radicalize them further down the road of self-justification. People can, and do, recoil from this and choose to face their problems, but those are heroes and the topic of a different post. Also, one could probably talk about a bucketful of psychological theories with regards to the soldiers: groupthink, aggression theory, social identity theory, etc.) I’m focusing on dissonance for now.

I imagine some of the best antagonists, especially the mortal ones, start out not only thinking of themselves as good, but also being good in truth. They are moral people who make a mistake that causes them some fair amount of dissonance. The antagonists then justify their mistake instead of facing it. This causes them to reinterpret all past and future events with their new understanding of morality. They operate this way until they find another excuse to slip, or they perpetuate the original mistake again. This further pushes them from being the moral people they once were and edges them closer to villainy. By the time they have become the dragon and the person with the lowest cost (the protagonist) confronts them, their view of the world has become so skewed that when the protagonist doesn’t agree with them then the protagonist must be the villain. My goal, then, is to deliver such a villain, or multiple such villains, in my novels, and to give the reader a tour of the downward spiral. I want to explore not only the fallen, but the sensation of watching the antagonist fall. That should make the final confrontation more gripping and satisfying.

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Lessons from Mistakes Were Made #1, Dissonance Theory and Osama

May 2, 2011 1 comment

Warning, I get a tad religious and political. If those things make your brain catch fire, you have other things to do today than read this blog. Go do them.

I’ve been reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) (Amazon). It’s a fascinating look at cognitive dissonance, which is, briefly, a discomfort that arises from holding two different thoughts simultaneously. Dissonance theory is predicts that we then modify our experience of the moment or our memories to reduce the dissonance. The book is full of case studies and scientific evidence I won’t go into over much, but I will provide a summary of one example.

The book discusses an experiment where people were given a description of a girl. In the description she does one generous thing and exhibits one annoying trait. Some of the people were then asked to write a letter of recommendation for the girl. Others were asked to write a letter of complaint to the housing authority. The remainder of the people (the control) wrote nothing. The people who wrote the letters invented facts about the girl in question to flesh out their letters. Regardless of which they wrote, when they were later asked their opinions, their opinions on the girl had changed (recommendation writers favored her; complaint writers disfavored her). They remembered details they wrote as if those details had been in the original essay. The control remembered the girl more accurately and had no opinion.

The books is interesting and definitely gives me ideas for how characters should interact. I’ll pull more things from it and discuss narrative implications in the coming days.

Today, though, I wanted to use the book to discuss my own dissonance. As a Christian and a man who likes to think of himself as moral, I’m anti-killing. Jesus had a fair amount to say on the subject of killing, and none of it would find itself in the ‘pro’ column. I believe in Him and His message. Even if you don’t, you, dear reader, probably aren’t going to kill anyone today or any other day, so, to varying degrees, you likely are anti-killing humans and consider yourself moral. (Note the caveat, ‘likely’) But today, we have news the US has finally killed Osama bin Laden. As an American, I’m pro the killing of the man who led al-Qaeda and, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was behind the attacks on 9/11. People, good people, worked toward this goal for a decade, and finally, we got him. There is, I think, an apparent dissonance here. I’m anti-killing except when I’m not. My mind tries to resolve the dissonance, as is its wont.

“Hey”, it says, “God is always killing people in the Old Testament. One of the Judges is even an assassin. Take that!”

“But wait,” my mind also replies, “vengeance is God’s. He’s pretty clear on that. The people who kill in the name of the Lord, but without His permission, meet harsh ends.”

It continues on like that for some time. I’m unsure how my brain will resolve the issue other than to let the event fall into the past and then stop worrying about it. That seems likely.

I don’t bring these things up to discuss either religion or politics on the Internet, I don’t debate that here. It’s an ugly forum for it. I bring this up mostly because it’s topical, and it’s happening in my head.

From a writing perspective, it gives me fuel for the writing fire. In the novel I’m currently working on, my characters all consider themselves moral. They also all belong to systems designed by fallible humans and so are on the wrong side of certain issues. Issues that will result in the death of innocents. Most of my characters will feel dissonance very much like what I feel today. Some will move past it quickly— either the killing was perfectly justified or it wasn’t. Their response to their dissonance will ‘radicalize’ them into sides. One or two, however, will feel sharply the sting of their own hypocrisy. These few will wrestle with these ideas. The heart of their struggle will not be won with swords, but when they come to understand which virtues and ideas they hold most dear, for it is the idea we hold more dearly that always wins.

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Death-Star Economics

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I found this article on the economic sense of the Death Star and thought it deserved a repost.

One of the authors posited the question:

What’s the economic calculus behind the Empire’s tactic of A) building a Death Star, B) intimidating planets into submission with the threat of destruction, and C) actually carrying through with said destruction if the planet doesn’t comply?

What follows is a good discussion of how the Death Star made perfectly good sense, from a certain point of view. The Romans apparently used the same strategy in their empire. If a city seemed to be harboring more rebels, they would raze the city to keep the others in line. It mostly worked for them.

Additionally, there is a discussion of ‘playing chicken’ in the game theory sense. If one convinces his opponent he is crazy and will do what ever he needs to do to win, his opponent will often capitulate. From this perspective, the Emperor may have hoped to destroy Alderaan and save the galaxy. Spoiler: it didn’t work.

I don’t have much to add to the article, but it’s a fun read, so check it out.

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Dragon-slaying and Ballroom Dancing

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Today, I came across this article (PDF). It’s a game theory research paper discussing the circumstances under which an individual will provide a public good. In other words, it examines the math of when one person will, having had enough of a dragon killing people, rise up and attempt to slay said dragon.

The math isn’t, for me and what I do, all that interesting, but the conclusions we can infer from the math point me in the direction of things I do care about. For instance, the people who have the most to gain from a public good (e.g., a slain dragon) are also the people who are least able to provide the public good. This makes sense. Poor farmers cannot slay a dragon as easily as adventurers, who could also just walk away from the poor hypothetical village.

The math also indicates the pressure to provide the public good increases over time. This pressure is weighed against the cost of providing it until someone decides he can no longer wait. This is the inflection point of adventurers. Math tell us adventurers are people who have low costs for dragon-slaying and the highest valuation of the lives of those they save.

Heroes, even reluctant heroes, are playing a game of chicken- they wait for someone else with a lower cost to step forward. In a narrative, that is unlikely to ever be the case. It is my job to demonstrate to the character, and the reader, what that cost is and how much the character values life. All heroes will wait until the cost of waiting is unbearable. The key to interesting heroes is to make that pain point fairly high. We don’t want to read about heroes for whom the cost of dragon-slaying is minimal. We want to read about heroes whose cost is almost everything. And it follows, if their cost is almost everything, they will wait a long time to see if anyone else steps forward first.

No one else will, though. Because I, as the author, have chosen these characters for action. Whether they like it or not.

Edit: Ballroom dancing, the economists note, is similar to dragon-slaying. The music starts and there is a pregnant pause. Everyone waits for the first couple to step onto the floor. Until one person (or couple) reaches his cost point. Once the public good has been provided, more people step forward to dance as well.

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What’s Next

April 7, 2011 2 comments

Having finished draft four of Wolf: Sins of the Father, I thought it might be fun to brainstorm in public a bit.

What follows is roughly the shape of the world my next novel will occupy. It may be the world of the Five Nations. It may be something else, but these are roughly the things I am thinking. Of course, anything I write here has a long way to travel before it makes it into a novel I write. And I’m not talking about the story so much as the general feel of it all.

  • The Golden Age is in the distant past or never came.
  • People are flawed. Some do the right thing for horrible reasons and some do horrible things for what seem to be the right reasons.
  • True evil only exists in the supernatural. In the mortal, we get shades of grey.
  • True good exists only in the supernatural as well.
  • There are supernatural forces of good and evil. And there is magic.
  • Magic is difficult and mysterious. It is not science by another name. It is an ineffable ‘black box’ of logic and rules.
  • Heroes and villains both come from humble origins.
  • Humble origin <> blacksmith’s apprentice. From a certain perspective, just about anything can be of humble origin.
  • Evil seeks the destruction or subjugation of all life.
  • Good fights this.
  • But. For whatever reason, Good chooses to fight through flawed mortals in far more subtle ways than evil.
  • People, generally, lack faith in anything but themselves.
  • Friendship and camaraderie are important
  • and horribly fragile.
  • and nigh impossible to reconstruct after breaking.
  • Resources are limited. In the Golden Age, they were far less limited than the current age. Remnants of this Golden Age still scatter the landscape in ruins.
  • The Golden Age was marked by hope. The death of the age meant the death of hope for the common man.
  • The Golden Age cannot be recovered. The best one can hope for is an age less horrible than the current one.
  • Cowboys are cool, but I’m still too close to the Dark Tower. So, no cowboys.
  • Hobbes was right. Locke was wrong. The state of nature is: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Locke would weep.

There is more, but that’s a good broad stroke. The more gets into specific things this list has got me thinking about.  No specifics will find their way here, yet. 

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I Hate April Fools, But This Takes the Cake

April 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Here you will find a marvelous story written about the inability of DC residents to easily access cupcakes. It has a fantastic map. Best line: “Activists concerned with public health have recently made such "food deserts" a social justice issue.”

Maybe even funnier than the article, is commenters on the site are confused as to whether it’s real or not. Tremendous.

I want them to get the LHC up and running as a through-time-communicator, so I can send a message back to myself.

“Self,” I’d say, “Read this article. Going to grad-school will make this article the highlight of your day at some point in the future. I have had real discussion, with real people even, about topics not so dissimilar from this. And they were heated.”

Then, I will watch myself tremble. Because it is bitter. And because it is my heart.

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How to Love Like an Artist

April 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I am mostly responding to Austin Kleon’s marvelous piece, “How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. It’s good, and you should read it.

A stupefyingly brief summary of his post is this:

  1. Steal like an artist (nothing is original).
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to make things.
  3. Write the book you want to read (Write what you know like.)
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The secret: do good work and put it where people can see.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice.
  9. Be boring.
  10.   Creativity is subtraction.

It’s a good read. He delves into each of these points to greater or lesser degrees. The lion’s share of his post is on point 1, but everything there is good. I read it and immediately started scribbling an expansion of his point 3.

    Austin points out ‘Write what you know’ is the mantra of beginning writers and those who teach them. He says, it should be ‘write what you like’ instead. The things you like, the things you enjoy, are the things you will most ardently pursue.
    I agree with that, but I wanted to add that I think should be ‘write what you love’. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to write what you lust. It is easy, for me at least, to fall into the trap of having an idea that feels great. I want to spend the rest of my life writing just about this idea! I exclaim in my head. But, before I get around to working on that idea, because I have a different major project on my plate, the intensity of my love, my lust, for that idea cools.
    Instead, we should look to have a deeper, richer love for what we work on. Not fleeting lust, but enduring love. Because one day, at four in the morning, when you have a chest cold, inspiration will strike. And if your bedrock is based on the mercurial, flighty emotions associated with quick-fix lust, you’ll just roll over and go back to sleep. If you have something deeper for your work, you’ll force yourself to scramble around in the dark, cursing yourself all the while, to find your pen and your stupid, black of course, notebook. You’ll write everything you can think of down, and four will turn to five. And you’ll want to spend more time with it.
    Really, writing what you love is a lot like being a husband or a father. There will be times it annoys you. There will be times you want a break, and times you don’t think you can handle anymore. But, if you love it, you go back. You force yourself to do the work you don’t always like, because you love it. Because the world would be a dark, hopeless place if you didn’t have your work to go back to.
    If you’ve ever heard of the three Greek words for love (eros, agape, and philia). You know what I mean. Eros is seductive and burns intensely, but it dies quickly. Agape love is a deeper, richer experience. And sometimes it’s a burden, but it’s a burden you love to carry. Philia is more about keg-stands and fist-bumps. I think. I may have that bit wrong.
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