Friday, June 29, 2007

Editing 101: Self-editing for the Spec Fic Writer: An ApolloCon 2007 panel

Panelists: Rosemary Clement-Moore, Melanie Miller Fletcher, Alexis Glynn Latner (moderator), Julia Mandala, Barbara Winter

Description in the program book: Panelists discuss the process of self-editing. And no, we don't mean just chucking it out the window and starting over. How can you honestly and dispassionately proof and edit your writing.

Start with the ending and write toward the beginning

... is a good advice if you are getting bogged down in the middle of your story and don't know how to progress your plot, or if you are not sure what's supposed to happen at a certain place in the book.

In one of the books she was writing, Rosemary Clement-Moore had beautiful first six chapters, but no ending. She had characters riding in cars. After she wrote the end of the book, she knew what they were going to talk about when they rode in cars.

Alexis Glynn Latner advises: outline ahead. Tolkien plotted LOTR all the way through and then wrote it backwards from the ending.

One panelist observes that a lot of people don't outline because they say they are "organic" writers who work better without an outline. Oh, come on! she says. You don't outline because you can't!

Editing out self-indulgent parts

The panelists addressed a problem that a lot of writers, especially beginners, apparently have: becoming so enamored with some of your characters that you want your readers to know everything about them, including the complete life history of those characters. But the reader usually doesn't need to know all about a certain character. The reader only needs to know enough to understand what's going on in the story right now. To make it easier to part with those extraneous bits, Julia Mandala suggests to think about it this way.

Julia Mandala. I like the editing part because I do that for the reader. I had my fun writing the first draft [where I got to play with the characters as much as I liked]. But [when you are editing, you need to] wonder, what will make the reader enjoy the story the most?

Alexis Glynn Latner agrees: the first draft is totally self indulgent. She also offers this bit of advice on how to assuage the pain of throwing out the passages that are dear to your heart but not necessary to the story.

Alexis Glynn Latner. When you write exciting, but unnecessary scenes about a secondary character who would like to have a book for himself or herself, you don't want to just dump them -- that's bad for you psychologically. Make a file of them so that you could reuse them for another book.
If your problem is like mine -- not that I get too attached to my characters (if anything, by the time I finish a story, I can't stand them anymore :-)), but that there's a lot going on in the story and you are uncertain in which order the events should be told, Barbara Winter offered a good piece of advice. Not that I asked her, but I was happy to hear something relevant to my own editing struggles.
Barbara Winter (left) and Melanie Miller Fletcher at ApolloCon 2007
Barbara Winter (left) and Melanie Miller Fletcher at ApolloCon 2007
Barbara Winter. One of the best tools anyone ever gave me was this. For every scene in your book, write on one page a sentence what the scene is about (e.g. Joe says "bla"), and on the other page, what's the purpose of this scene. If you do that for each scene, you will be able to say: oh, this scene obviously has to come before that one. Or: the purpose of these two scenes is exactly the same. In this case, do I need both of them, or can one of them be cut and go in that other file?

In any case cutting is probably necessary for any story. Apropos of which, Alexis Glynn Latner offered this poetic observation: a story that's alive would heal when you cut it.

No panel on editing is complete without funny tales from editors' trenches. The following story was probably supposed to illustrate mistakes novice writers make with insufficient / inadequate characterization of their characters.

One of the panelists was teaching at a writers' workshop, and one girl turned in a story that had a homosexual pedophiliac bondage relationship in it. The panelists told the girl: I can handle homosexuality and bondage, but an 8-year-old doing those things? That's a big no-no. The girl became really flustered: OMG, the protagonist was NOT a young boy, he was just a very slender, slim-built adult! The panelist did a hillarious impression of the girl becoming a blabbering mess as she tripped all over herself to explain there was no pedophilia in the story. She just wasn't skilled enough to describe her protagonist in a way that would let the reader see him accurately.

Choosing the correct tense and point of view

There was also a lot of talk about writing techniques such as choosing the correct tense and point of view for the story. The panelists were unanimously conservative on these two points. The past tense is almost always the right tense for a story, unless there is a compelling reason to choose present tense. A limited third person point of view is usually the right point of view, or the least problematic anyway.

Most readers, as well as most writers and editors, don't like stories told in present tense. The panelists said the present tense is very hard to do right. Rosemary Clement-Moore said even though present tense is supposed to immerse you in the story and make you feel as if you are experiencing it directly, for some reason it makes you more distant from the story.

The same with first person point of view, said Julia Mandala. It is good only when it's done right. You want to put the reader inside the character, to fully immerse the reader in the character's experiences. E.g. instead of "I was tired", you need to say, for example, "oh, my limbs were like noodles". ("Yes, I know it's a cliche," Julia added, "but you get the point".)

There had been stories done with multiple first-person points of view, but there had to be a very good reason for that. For example, if the hero and the villain are on separate parts of the country, and won't get together for many chapters, and don't know about each other, it is OK to use both first person viewpoints.

Alexis Glynn Latner offered an interesting observation regarding male versus female viewpoint. She likes to write from a male point of view, because, to quote her, "it snaps down productive filters: a guy wouldn't say that, a guy wouldn't notice that". She can become more easily bogged down in a female point of view -- perhaps because women notice more minute details.

How do you know when you're done editing?

A fitting question to end a panel with is how do you tell when you've done all the editing you could do? How do you know when the story is ready to be shown to the first reader (usually a friend or a fellow writer in a critique group)? The panelists say that point comes when you find yourself making minor word changes here and there rather than doing actual editing.

Melanie Miller Fletcher visualizes her stories as a board with nails in it that have loose colorful threads drawn between the nails. She says that she knows the story has been finished and is ready to be shown to the first reader when the strings are all tight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Geeks in Love: Finding Love in Fandom: an ApolloCon 2007 panel

Description in the program book: Maybe it's flirting; maybe it's friendship; maybe it's a lifelong relationship. Finding romance in all its forms and guises in the ever-surprising world of fandom.

Panelists: Chuck Coshow, Jonathan Guthrie, Becca Leathers, Graham Leathers (moderator), Tim Miller, Val Villareal

What it was like: pretty much as advertised, only I was hoping it would be funnier and would have more quirky dating stories that are only likely to happen to geeks. In comparison, Eric and Cathy Raymonds' panel Dating 101: Remedial Flirting at Linucon 2004 was funnier.

Not surprisingly, common interests play a part in geek dating

All of the panelists met their significant others in the SF fandom, or, in the case of Tim, because of shared interests and sense of humor. Tim met his wife in high school and fell in love with her when she laughed at one of his jokes -- unlike the majority of the population, who doesn't get his sense of humor. She was also into Dr. Who. "Imagine that," he said, "a girl who had the same interests!" Val and Chuck... well, I don't remember how or where they met, but Chuck said his love for Val was clinched when he made a vaguest reference to a Disney kids show, and Val responded by singing a line from the theme song of the show. (Or something like that.) Becca and Graham Leathers met at DuckCon at Chicago 2 or 4 years ago. They were each an independent music guest, and they met in a music circle. They ended up hooking up again at a folk music festival at Winnipeg. Jonathan Guthrie met his his wife at a convention, but he had some experience with fannish women long before that: his first serious girlfriend, when he met her, was wearing a Don't Panic t-shirt.

Jonathan Guthrie, Becca and Graham Leathers Jonathan Guthrie, filk Guests of Honor Graham and Becca Leathers

So, common interests fueled the attraction these people felt for their mates. As Becca said, it's hard to explain her interest in filk to somebody who's not a musician (or even to some fellow musicians?). The panelists valued the "he/she gets me" factor so highly that one of them even asked the audience, has anyone here ever had a successfulx relationship with a non-fan? Tim compared an interest in things fannish to an interest in politics. He knows couples where one is hard left and the other hard right, who work a lot better than couples where one is politically very involved and the other doesn't care at all. Because in the first case at least both understand each other's passion for politics. I, a sole contrarian voice, argued that a success of a relationship has little to do with whether the other person is in the fandom. But of course I have only one data point -- myself, and can't speak for the whole fandom.

But it wasn't just the geeky or fannish interests that brought those couples together. Graham said when he saw dogs listed as one of Becca's interests on her LiveJournal, it clinched his interest in her, since he had been a dog trainer himself.

How hard or easy is it to find romance at SF conventions?

Chuck. When I first started coming to conventions, in the mid-80s, there were a lot more women than men. And then you tried to meet these women, and everyone's shields were up. They were like, here is one of those assholes. Nowadays it feels OK to meet people. Does everyone feel it was like that? Women go to cons to have fun, and those geeky guys come to them and say, I roll hundreds on <some kind of RPG?>! Let's go have a coke!

A woman in the audience: it's the opposite for me. I work in theater and I don't go to bars, so my pool of available straight men is not very big. So I hope that a nice geeky guy will come talk to me [at a con]. But it doesn't happen often. They happen to be libertarians.

Tim. There is a reputation that fandom in general is a big open tent [?]. In the 70s and 80s everyone in the fandom was considered an outcast. So geeky guys thought that the girls in the fandom would automatically accept them, and then they discovered that the general rules of dating still applied even in the fandom.

So maybe there was a reason why this panel did not have much of a novelty factor: geek dating isn't very different from mundane dating.

Tim Miller and Val Villareal Tim Miller and Val Villareal

Some said a difficulty of finding a romantic interest may also vary from con to con. One in-the-know fan in the audience dropped names of conventions that have reputations of being events where people go to get laid. Jonathan said that he had never experienced a hookup party at any convention. "Either I'm doing something wrong," he said, "or it really doesn't work this way."

Also, Becca reminded, a lot of people you meet at conventions are from out of town, so if you find romance, it's likely to be long-distance. That comes with its own challenges, and the odds for it surviving are not good (although a long distance relationship did work out for Becca and Graham). On the other hand, Graham added, if a relationship ends, the distance makes it less likely that you'll run into that person at future conventions.

Common sense advice, or conventions as churches

Overall, any advice given in this panel was only common sense. The panelists gave plenty of reminders for the guys to keep bathing and brushing their teeth if they ever want to get a date.

Chuck. It's a truism: a lot of guys come to a con and decide it's a 3-day excuse to abandon all hygiene. But [there are also] fans who go to cons try to socialize others, in the sense of teach them acceptable behaviors.

Tim. Remember the 5-3-1 rule: you have to have either 5 hours of sleep and 3 meals, or 3 hours of sleep and 5 meals, and 1 shower a day, and this will get you through the convention.

Chuck. The tub in your room doesn't just exist for icing down beer.

Val Villareal and Chuck Coshow Val Villareal and Chuck Coshow

Other advice:

Graham. One of the worst things you can do is come across as desperate. I was pretty much resigned to being single, and I was OK with that. I just had to bump into someone who I thought we can be friends with, but it progressed beyond that. I have no regrets about that. So, be yourself.

Tim. Don't look at cons a a singles bar: look at them more like a church, where you go for a some other purpose, but may meet people.

Jonathan added that some people treat church as a singles bar.

Here are more of my blog posts and pictures from ApolloCon 2007.

Monday, June 25, 2007

How Friendly Were Frodo and Sam? An ApolloCon 2007 panel

Description in the program book: Was there a homoerotic subtext to Lord of the Rings? Is subtext in the eye of the beholder, or is Spec Fic friendlier to GLBT characters and readings than the mainstream? Panelists discuss the perception of alternative sexualities in SF/F.

Panelists: Alexis Glynn Latner (moderator), Lee Martindale, Jess Nevins, Selina Rosen, Mel. White

Selina Rosen and Jess Nevins at ApolloCon 2007
Selina Rosen and Jess Nevins at ApolloCon 2007

What was it really about: The discussion didn't focus so much about a relationship between Frodo and Sam, or even gay / lesbian / bi / transsexual (GLBT) characters in SF. Mostly it revolved about fan fiction, especially slash fiction.

At first there was some speculation about Frodo and Sam. Were they or weren't they?

One panelist was vehemently opposed not just to slash fiction, but to most kinds of fan fiction. Others defended fan fiction, but acknowledged that slash fiction did nothing to address GLBT issues, and was overall not very relevant to the panel topic. Some panelists tried to get the panel back on track, but in the end they did not produce anything other than a few rather obvious observations.

My full article can be found on my web site.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

ApolloCon 2007, Friday: kaffeeklatsch with David Hartwell

Here are some interesting tidbits that were said at the kaffeeklatsch with the editor-legend David Hartwell.

A lot of people have very different opinions as to what hard science fiction means. Some count J. G. Ballard amont the writers working in this subgenre. In fact, J. G. Ballard had once stood up and said he was a hard science fiction writer: the hard science within which he was working were medicine and psychology. He may have had a point, because he was trained as a doctor, and he used those sciences rigorously in his fiction.

David Hartwell at the ApolloCon 2007 opening ceremony David Hartwell at the opening ceremony of ApolloCon 2007

About the economics of book sales. Apparently, mainstream books sell much worse than genre books. Of all 5 books nominated to the National Book award one year, none of them sold even a 1000 copies. Meanwhile it's a rare SF hardback that doesn't sell at least 2000 copies. Hartwell quotes Norman Spinrad, who said that publishing a SF novel that's a complete failure would be as unlikely as constipating yourself by active will.

Hartwell juggled some numbers, converting word count into dollars. For example, an extra 20,000 words translate into extra $2 added to the price of a hardcover. So if a 120,000 word hardcover would cost $24.95, a 140,000 hardcover would cost 26.95; and that means bookstores would order 25% fewer copies of it. (Or something like that. I'm not sure I am quoting those numbers right.) He shed light on the complex relationship between book distributors and publishing houses; a major portion of books are sold through supermarkets and other superstores, and if a superstore stops buying books from a publishing house, that publishing house may go bankrupt. Basically, he said, most books are now sold through superstores rather than small bookstores, which means that most of America lives 40 - 60 miles from a bookstore.

Hartwell says one of the best things one can do to promote the genre of science fiction, to keep it alive and thriving, is to write book reviews, an publish them somewhere. No matter how obscure is a web site where it's published, someone will find it and read it. It's especially true when you are reviewing an author's first novel. Even if the review is negative, if it is engaging and well thought-out, it will do a lot to promote the new author. 500 -- 1000 word review is better than a 300 word review. A 1500 word review is even better.

I feel so validated! My verbose book reviews are therefore worthwhile -- at least in Hartwell's opinion!

Here are more of my blog posts about Apollocon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

ApolloCon 2007: opening ceremony

The ApolloCon 2007 opening ceremony was short and simple. The convention chair, Mark Hall said they started ApolloCon because they wanted to have a con in Houston they wanted to go to. After 2 years of being the ApolloCon chair he will take the next two decades off, because this is a con he wants to go to. He added: "at least I think there's a con going on out there. Let me know if there isn't."
Mark B. Hall, David Hartwell, and C. S. Friedman at the opening ceremony Mark B. Hall, David Hartwell, and writer Guest of Honor C. S. Friedman at the opening ceremony of ApolloCon 2007. Here are more of my blog posts about Apollocon.
Introducing David Hartwell, Mark said: if David is wearing a tie, and you're an epileptic, you should truly try not to stare at it. I don't know if Hartwell's tie made anyone sick, but his voice must have soothed the audience's brain waves when he sang them a song "Teen Angel". Then the filk Guests of Honor Graham and Becca Leathers sang another song.
Graham and Becca Leathers at the opening ceremony Filk Guests of Honor Graham and Becca Leathers sing at the opening ceremony of ApolloCon 2007. Here are more of my blog posts about Apollocon.
The con has been reasonably fun so far. It started when an eminent Austin fan K and his wife M gave me a ride to Houston. We had some good conversation along the way. Then I hung out at some panels and room parties. All has been good so far, but not without a glitch. I found out I have forgotten my camera's cradle at home. A cradle is a thingy my camera must be docked into for transferring files into the computer, and for recharging. Forgetting it at home is a bummer. Fortunately, I have 2 spare batteries, so if I'm frugal, I may have enough juice to take pictures tomorrw and Sunday, but just barely. It's hard to break a habit of snapping away with abandon. As far as transferring the pictures, one guy offered to put my camera's memory card into a slot in his computer, and to plug in my external USB hard drive into his computer too, and that way transfer the pictures from one to the other. So that worked. Then again, that guy may not be here tomorrow, and I may not have another opportunity to transfer the pictures. Here are more of my blog posts about Apollocon.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I finished my story for the ArmadilloCon writing workshop

Yesterday I finished a story for the ArmadilloCon writing workshop and mailed it. What a relief to be able to actually finish a story after 2 weeks worth of intense late night work! (And that wasn't writing -- it was just the editing.) What an excitement to know that a little less than 2 months from now it will be ripped into shreds... err, constructively criticized. :-)

Yes, I would be very excited to look forward to the workshop, except for this little bummer. My story is more than twice the 5000 word count limit. It's over 11,000 words. So I did what the Writers' Workshop instructions suggest to do in such cases: I cut it off at roughly 5000 words and put "the story continues" at the end. Even though that's clearly an undesirable option, because, to quote the workshop guidelines, "We recommend that you do not go over the word limit if writing a short story as it will not be representative of the work as a whole." Of course it won't. But what can I do if I am incapable of writing short fiction? I tried. Every time I start out to write a story, I think I can sum up its idea in 3 sentences; it's like, what will I fill those pages with? Then I start to write an outline, and lo and behold -- the outline itself takes 3 pages! :-) Then when I start writing the actual prose, I end up wondering if this wouldn't work better as a novel. :-)

And so it was with this story. I wasn't kidding when I said I spent the last 2 weeks just editing. The story itself was written half a year ago, but back then I was unable to finish it. Which is to say, I had written all the text that was supposed to go into it (and much, much more :-)), but I stopped short of reshuffling blocks of text to give it a linear structure. It had a beginning and an end, but I wasn't sure what the right sequence of events was, if that makes any sense. Back then I lost my focus and took a break from it. During the last 2 weeks I reorganized the text from an undirected graph of events into a narrative. :-)

In the process of editing / reshuffling, I cut, cut and cut. Oh, how I cut! It turned out it wasn't worthwhile to try to rewrite chapters of Wikipedia as dialogues between characters. :-) I cut them all out. 3/4 of "cool" science and technology that I thought was crucial to the story at first, turned out to be non-essential, so it all ended up in the trash. After all this butchering, the story still was over 11,000 words! This was insane. Realizing I'll have to cut it off at 5000 words, I was at least hoping those 5000 will come right around the cliffhanger (whatever passes for a cliffhanger in a story that reads like a troubleshooting script. :-)) But no, even that wasn't possible. After another pass of ruthless slicing, I had to cut it off at a point before things get really interesting (OK, so "really interesting" in my story is a relative term :-))

It's pathetic. I can't expect to get a meaningful critique of this story. Without having read the ending, the only meaningful input the critiquers can give me is on my writing style (dry), and characters (bland). But what can I do if I'm just not cut out to write short fiction? It would be a very good skill to develop, but I don't know if I can. What's worse, even as there are very few markets for short stories, there are fewer-to-none markets for novellette-length stories, such as mine! I really need to transition to a more marketable format. Don't know how to do it short of a complete brain rewiring. :-)

Anyway, I'm still proud of myself for finishing this story.

The funny thing is, before I could even mail the story, I almost acquired a reader. :-) An employee at Kinko's who helped me find the right envelope for mailing the story, picked it up and started reading it while I was writing the address on the envelope. A youngish Hispanic woman, she did not seem like a stereotypical reader of hard SF. I almost panicked: OMG, she'll think I'm weird! Most of my stories contain words that are not in the dictionary. ;-) Resisting an impulse to mutter "don't read this, it's for weird people only!" I politely pulled the sheaf of papers out of her hands. :-)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Paul Park "A Princess of Roumania": FACT reading group discussion and my review

On April 17th, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed "A Princess of Roumania" by Paul Park. 11 people attended the discussion. Everybody had started the book. Only 5 or so finished the book, but the rest were going to finish it. Only 2 people read Paul Park before. One of them had also read two sequels of "Princess Of Roumania", and his comments gave an impression that "Princess Of Roumania" is a lot more enjoyable in retrospective, once you know what happened next, as the events in the sequels explain a lot of things in the first book. Eventually others had to restrain him from revealing plot snippets from the sequels, although he was doing it only to be helpful.

Everybody liked it for different reasons

... most of which I couldn't relate to.

Majority of the group liked this book. Some of the group members derive a lot of their enjoyment of a book from its literary and political references. One of those people found a treasure trove of such references in "Princess of Roumania". He thought the magic (which was based, he said, on Gypsy tradition), was interesting, and the political situation in the alternative Europe, where Roumania is a major power, fascinating. He was also intrigued by the gnostic undercurrents in Paul Park's writing and an unusual version of Christianity that exists in the parallel world of the novel -- it's not the Christianity we know.

In contrast, another reader thought the alternative Roumania was not so fascinating as to intrigue somebody who knew very little about the actual Romania. "I don't know much about Romania," said a reader. "An alternate history of a country I don't know much about doesn't do much for me. [The author] didn't pull it off for me. He didn't make me interested in Romania."

People gave Paul Park credit for attempting an ambitious story ("He's trying to marry a children's adventure story that kind of reminds me of Philip Pulman, with alternate history stuff, and I think it's an interesting idea," said a reader) and breaking fantasy stereotypes. "This is not Tolkien," said another reader who praised "Princess of Roumania" as one of the best fantasy works he has ever read. "Tolkien created the stereotypes we follow, and I wish more people broke out of sterotypes like Paul Park has. The thing that fascinates me about this story is that it is talking about what happens to real life people when they do their best given the information they have. And the world is out there with a response that's based on a different set of information." Indeed, the plans of some of the main characters are continuously stymied, since they act on incomplete information.

The Baroness was the most interesting character

One thing most people could agree on is that they "liked" the Baroness. Not that they found her a likeable character in a conventional sense (she certainly is not), but most people found her interesting to read about. On one hand she is a sociopath who kills casually, almost spontaneously, when her plans are thwarted, and considers herself to be above the rest of the humanity; on the other hand, she is miserable and full of self-hatred. Readers thought her conflicted psyche made her human.


There were some criticisms voiced by one or more members of the group:

The pacing is pedestrian, most characters not very engaging

  • Readers felt distanced from the characters. Several people mentioned they did not find a character to root for or to become attached to.
  • The sudden shifts of viewpoint were confusing. Sometimes it wasn't immediately obvious which character is the viewpoint character in a particular chapter.
  • One person did not think the characters' behavior was credible. "One of my issues with either fantasy or SF where someone is taken from our world, and maybe I'm just way too egocentric, but it would take me pages and pages of my own mental dialogues to say, why me? I didn't feel they were incredulous enough in that situation." he said.
  • One person thought the beginning of the story, where we meet Miranda's parents, held false promise, as it was shaping up to be a story about kids who live in a college town and whose parents work at the university. He was disappointed to find out it wasn't the case. "I thought their parents were very interesting characters, only they don't appear further in the book."
  • Several readers remarked that the story was rather slow. "His pacing is very pedestrian," said one reader. "Very slow. He just doesn't get on with it, even three quarters into the book. His writing style is not bad, and his prose is fairly good, but his storytelling is, for me, pedestrian. It's very hard to keep going because he doesn't progress anything."

I agree with the last criticism. I found this book incredibly sloooow and tedious.

The Miranda storyline wasn't going anywhere

Paul Park at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
Paul Park at the World Fantasy Convention 2006

There is hardly any fantastic element in Miranda's storyline, apart from her initial disappearance from our world into the parallel universe. Park spends hundreds of pages recounting Miranda's and her friends' journey through the woods, and their encounters with various interested parties: first good guys, then bad guys, then good-but-not-so-good guys, then bad-but-maybe-not-so-bad guys, etc. Miranda's wanderings seem pointless and tedious.

It is understandable that Miranda doesn't know who to trust in this situation, and I've read many stories where the protagonist doesn't know who the good guys or the bad guys are, and in some stories a major part of intrigue is figuring it out; but in this book it is not so. The mystery of who is on her side and who is against her does not move the plot forward; on the contrary, it causes the plot to stall.

Readers puzzled by glowing blurbs

It doesn't help that the blurbs in the book compare Paul Park to famous contributors to the alternate history genre, such as Roger Zelazny. The comparison was found unwarranted by some people. "As far as alternate history I will admit that there were some really good books I read, [Charles Stross'] "Family Trade" and [Roger Zelazny's] "Nine Princes of Amber", and the first chapter of "Nine Princes of Amber" had more cool things than this book. Certainly more action than this whole book. Paul Park is a good writer, but he's not at Zelazny's level yet. He's being compared to Zelazny, but maybe it's because if you write a robot novel, you would be compared to Asimov," said another reader.

Other people, while agreeing the pace was kind of slow, thought it may have been adequate for the kind of story Paul Park is telling. "Nothing he writes is action adventure. It's intellectual puzzles," said a reader. Despite the slowness, most people found the story good enough to enjoy, and many were planning to read the sequels.

Still, some people felt the novel did not quite live up to the expectations raised by the glowing blurbs. For the second time in the recent history of the reading group, the discussion of a book ended up with a meta-discussion of why that book was so highly praised by famous writers (in this case, Ursula Le Guin or John Crowley). Some people also didn't think "Princess of Roumania" was outstanding enough to be nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2006. A reader suggested this book may have been nominated for the following reasons: "It's trying to be literary, it has downtrodden people in Eastern Europe, and it was written by a college professor."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Logical" may be in the eye of the beholder

There is this interesting article in this month's Scientific American.

The Traveler's Dilemma by Kaushik Basu

"When playing this simple game, people consistently reject the rational choice. In fact, by acting illogically, they end up reaping a larger reward -- an outcome that demands a new kind of formal reasoning"

Here is a long quote from the article, describing the game and the "paradox". (I put "paradox" in quotes because I don't think the behavior the author characterizes as illogical is at all illogical.) The quote is long, and the article itself is 5 times as long, but I found it rather interesting, myself, and the mathematics involved in it is very simple; it does not contain a single equation. :-)

The rules of the Traveller's Dilemma game

Lucy and Pete, returning from a remote Pacific island, find that the airline has damaged the identical antiques that each had purchased. An airline manager says that he is happy to compensate them but is handicapped by being clueless about the value of these strange objects. Simply asking the travelers for the price is hopeless, he figures, for they will inflate it.

Instead he devises a more complicated scheme. He asks each of them to write down the price of the antique as any dollar integer between 2 and 100 without conferring together. If both write the same number, he will take that to be the true price, and he will pay each of them that amount. But if they write different numbers, he will assume that the lower one is the actual price and that the person writing the higher number is cheating. In that case, he will pay both of them the lower number along with a bonus and a penalty--the person who wrote the lower number will get $2 more as a reward for honesty and the one who wrote the higher number will get $2 less as a punishment. For instance, if Lucy writes 46 and Pete writes 100, Lucy will get $48 and Pete will get $44.

What numbers will Lucy and Pete write? What number would you write?

Scenarios of this kind, in which one or more individuals have choices to make and will be rewarded according to those choices, are known as games by the people who study them (game theorists). I crafted this game, "Traveler's Dilemma", in 1994 with several objectives in mind: to contest the narrow view of rational behavior and cognitive processes taken by economists and many political scientists, to challenge the libertarian presumptions of traditional economics and to highlight a logical paradox of rationality.

Traveler's Dilemma (TD) achieves those goals because the game's logic dictates that 2 is the best option, yet most people pick 100 or a number close to 100--both those who have not thought through the logic and those who fully understand that they are deviating markedly from the "rational" choice. Furthermore, players reap a greater reward by not adhering to reason in this way. Thus, there is something rational about choosing not to be rational when playing Traveler's Dilemma.

I was stunned that the author would consider the number 2 to be the rational choice.

This is how the authors explains it

To see why 2 is the logical choice, consider a plausible line of thought that Lucy might pursue: her first idea is that she should write the largest possible number, 100, which will earn her $100 if Pete is similarly greedy. (If the antique actually cost her much less than $100, she would now be happily thinking about the foolishness of the airline manager's scheme.)

Soon, however, it strikes her that if she wrote 99 instead, she would make a little more money, because in that case she would get $101. But surely this insight will also occur to Pete, and if both wrote 99, Lucy would get $99. If Pete wrote 99, then she could do better by writing 98, in which case she would get $100. Yet the same logic would lead Pete to choose 98 as well. In that case, she could deviate to 97 and earn $99. And so on. Continuing with this line of reasoning would take the travelers spiraling down to the smallest permissible number, namely, 2. It may seem highly implausible that Lucy would really go all the way down to 2 in this fashion. That does not matter (and is, in fact, the whole point)--this is where the logic leads us.

But logic doesn't really lead us where the author says it does

Logic would lead us there only if Lucy's goal wasn't simply to get a big sum of money for her antique, but to get more, or at least no less, than Pete, at any cost, even at the cost of impoverishing herself.

The rest of this long article attempts to explain why most people, when play this game, behave "illogically", and -- gasp -- reap bigger rewards than if they were behaving "logically" and named 2 as their number. To me, the reason seems both obvious and easy to summarizein a couple of sentences. Most people's goal when playing this game isn't to beat the other guy, but to maximize the amount of money they get. I suppose they are perfectly fine with naming 100 and getting 98, while the other guy names 99 and gets 101. It's still a much better outcome for them than naming 2 and getting 2.

"Maximize" is probably the wrong word here. As long as they can get "close enough" to the maximum possible sum any one player could get (101), they don't care about attaining the absolute maximum. Of course, "close enough" is not easy to quantify mathematically, even though it can be interesting to try. My master's thesis was about heuristic algorithms in mathematical optimization, and heuristics are all about finding a "good enough" solution without worrying about the best.

Anyway, just because the actual human behavior can't be easily (or at all) explained by game theory, it simply means game theory is not perfect at modeling human behaviors (even in very simple scenarios such as this), not that humans behave irrationally.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I fixed Gallery -- sort of

Fixed, fixed, fixed! Yay!... was my first thought. (It was tempered by a dose of reality later.) The fix was actually rather simple, and of a different nature than what I thought it would be. That is, it did not come by figuring out what to change in the Gallery2 code. I tried that first, but in the process of debugging the code I hosed it even more than it was already hosed. :-) Basically, I dug myself into a hole, and then dug myself out of it by taking a different route. I won't post the details of the fix here, since they are too tedious for my this blog. I have posted them on my web site instead, so that perhaps someone someday could benefit from my experience.

I was about to celebrate the fix by adding a new, funny image to Gallery. However... trying to upload an image I got an error. So much for joy. Well, at least it is possible to view the images that are already there. That's better than nothing, but still... if it turns out that my fix broke Gallery in a way that makes it impossible to add new pictures, it won't be much of a fix.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Science fiction writers versus NYTimes science writers

It's time, again, to grumble, marvel, or snicker at the New York Times Science section. Today's essay by Dennis Overbye, The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding, says that our successors (make that very, very distant successors. Like 100 billion years from now) may have no way of finding out about the Big Bang and the expanding universe.


Because the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate,

[Physicists Lawrence Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer] calculate [that] in 100 billion years the only galaxies left visible in the sky will be the half-dozen or so bound together gravitationally into what is known as the Local Group, which is not expanding and in fact will probably merge into one starry ball.

Unable to see any galaxies flying away, those astronomers will not know the universe is expanding and will think instead that they are back in the static island universe of Einstein. [...] Observers in our "island universe" will be fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe.

From there the author jumps to a conclusion which made me think that science fact writers are a bit lacking in imagination compared to science fiction writers. :-)

Such as...

It is hard to count all the ways in which this is sad. Forget the implied mortality of our species and everything it has or has not accomplished. If you are of a certain science fiction age, like me, you might have grown up with a vague notion of the evolution of the universe as a form of growing self-awareness: the universe coming to know itself, getting smarter and smarter, culminating in some grand understanding, commanding the power to engineer galaxies and redesign local spacetime.

If not for the line "all the ways in which this is sad", this paragraph would seem to indicate Dennis Overbye has read enough science fiction to be optimistic about the fate of the humankind and the universe. But then in the next paragraph he says:

Instead, we have the prospect of a million separate Sisyphean efforts with one species after another pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down and be forgotten.

Wait, hasn't he read, for example, Charles Stross? Does he not know that long before 100 billion years are over, the humanity is destined to experience a technological singularity and transition to a post-human state, where (if they so wish) they will live in the forms of digital consciousnesses and travel through wormholes, thereby overcoming the light speed barrier? :-) But... since Dennis Overbye claims to be "of a certain science fiction age", maybe Charles Stross falls beyond his personal horizon. Perhaps the writers who came after the golden age of science fiction are as invisible to him as those distant galaxies that are flying away at the speed of light will be invisble to our successors. :-)

Otherwise, I would agree, the picture would be sad, if it's true that

As this universe expands and there is more space, there is more force pushing the galaxies outward faster and faster. As they approach the speed of light, the galaxies will approach a sort of horizon and simply vanish from view, as if they were falling into a black hole, their light shifted to infinitely long wavelengths and dimmed by their great speed. The most distant galaxies disappear first as the horizon slowly shrinks around us like a noose.

But really, I think that in a 100 billion years the humanity (though not in its present form, of course) will have both seeded the distant galaxies and mastered FTL communication.

Besides, why assume that our successors will have access to none of the knowledge the humanity has accumulated so far? Given how plentifully scientific knowledge is documented, there is a good chance it will survive for posterity.

And overall, how can you meaningfully speculate about what will happen a 100 billion years from now? For comparison, the current age of the universe is only 14 billion years. Most science fiction writers I know think you can't meaningfully speculate about the future beyond, let's say, 50 years from now. I don't know what is this "certain science fiction" age of which Dennis Overbye claims to be, but time seems to flow many orders of magnitude slower for him. :-)

Overall, though, he makes an interesting point. If you assume that the current astrophysical knowledge won't survive into distant future, then it's possible that, in the words of Dr. Krauss, quoted in this article, future cosmologists "will puzzle about why the visible universe seems to consist of six galaxies. [...] What is the significance of six? Hundreds of papers will be written on that." Moreover, the same thing may be happening today. Our physics and astrophysics research may be leading us down wrong paths because the evidence that would lead to right conclusions simply doesn't exist. Maybe we are already living too late to find critical evidence that would explain why the universe is the way it is. This aspect of the article is interesting. But the hand-wringing over the sad fate of future humans... gimme a break.