Saturday, June 30, 2012

Raise the Gipper!: Chapter 9: A suit without faith, is up and lurching.

The most fun about writing this chapter was getting to write in the voice of Fox News.  My brain started to hurt a little toward the end and my hair became kind of stiff, and I had the oddest desire to wear high heeled pumps and glare into the camera as if I could hear people muttering 'bullshit!' at me, but it was fun nonetheless.  

The chapter opens with the Fox news broadcast, and then moves into terrifying Santorum, refrigerating Reagan, humiliating Mitt, and getting Joe and Aura closer together, so there's something in there for sadists, morticians, anybody who was ever bullied, and those of you who just like a nice love story about two nice people.   Sadisticpreviously bullied morticians with a sentimental side should especially appreciate it.

An excerpt from the Faux News coverage:

“Well, Jeremy, of course on line polls are not at all scientific, in fact they’re pretty much completely bogus and in this case it’s one that was made up on the spot by a high school student, but we all know that misleading non-information is always better than dead air, so here goes. The earliest survey taken since the rather startling resurrection of the former president is looking awfully good for the challenger and awfully not good for President Obama.” The young blonde woman’s head was bobbing vigorously but her chin-length hair never moved. “Preliminary results of a completely unscientific Facebook pool conducted by Britney Fern of Passaic Southwest High School appear to allegedly show that sixty-four percent of the members of the junior and senior classes think zombies are much cooler than black guys, and that includes an amazing twenty percent of the black guys in the poll, although Britney does note that the other four African-Americans she polled all say that Alfonce Wiley is kind of dumb and might not have understood the question. Now over to Mike Rotchitchiss at the Supreme Court, where, since it’s a Sunday and court will not be in session for several more weeks, he’s going to stand in front of a locked building and speculate.”

A brief squee about something cool

Allen Kaster's brave little operation at Infinivox has continued to produce some of the best audiobooks ever, despite this being kind of a rough time for audio, and I've been delighted in the past with how they've handled my work, but Adam Epstein's reading of my story "Martian Heart" (originally in Life on Mars) is just plain brilliant.  It's a very oral story, meant to be a voice speaking more than words on a page, and Epstein got that voice, leaving me so pleased my eyes are a little damp.  Yes. Just right.  Bravo.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 8: A tea-party of ghosts, is up

Raise the Gipper!  Chapter 8: A tea-party of ghosts:

This is an unusual chapter of Raise the Gipper! in several ways.  For one thing, it's the only one that has generated any negative fan mail; a couple people thought it was some form of just too mean, although the person who used that phrase also added but not inaccurate.

I found that George Orwell quote irresistible for reasons that ought to be apparent.

Also, it's one of just a couple of chapters in this book with no scene breaks; funny generally means short, which generally means starting a scene as late as possible, so the scenes throughout are very short and cut to the chase very quickly, and the average scene is probably only about 1500 words.

So this is one of the few "long shots" (movie sense, i.e. the camera is continuous, without cuts to other cameras and angles) in the  book.  Nevertheless I took the long shot, because, frankly, it's the chapter where I get to beat up Newt Gingrich, and who wouldn't want to spend some extra time on that?  The Newtie Toot Toot might be the best comic foil since Dick Smothers and possibly since Oliver Hardy, but I'd rather watch him work with Moe Howard, actually.

Or maybe I just like the idea of a long shot.

And for those of you who are kind of thinking of this book as a civic duty, because you like my writing, or you like zombies, and you don't like Mitt, or Republicans, or you want to support politically progressive satire (oh, god, please, not that), this chapter is probably the single best chapter for pretending you read the book; you'll be able to say "I hope this isn't a spoiler but I loved the part where ...."

Of course a zombie novel kind of intrinsically has spoilers, now doesn't it?

If nothing else, read till the end to find the place where Callista Gingrich reveals which part of Newt is an exceptionally teeny little target.

(Big hint .... from another literary classic by another chronicler of the fantastic ...

But I think that the most likely reason of all  ....)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sneaking the Hobo Queen Into School

My recent piece "Hobo Queen of the Sciences" actually drew what, for me, is a deluge of email—fourteen of them. Five were various flavors of attaboy which I have put in the ego reserve for bad days; four were "Kids these days, they just can't think, and they're on my lawn," with the interesting note that two seemed to be from conservatives and two from liberals; three were from teachers who spotted a little bit about rhetorical/enthymemic listening, which does produce large improvements in listening comprehension and retention in formal, academic sorts of settings (in classroom lectures, of course, but also in situations like listening to campaign speeches, business presentations, law courts, classroom discussions, and so on).* They wanted me to say more about how that works and what I would do to teach it.

Well, I can't teach you how to teach rhetorical listening in one blog post, or in ten. I might someday do an ebook about it, or something of that sort, but at the moment I'm not sure how I'd approach teaching it at various grade levels, let alone lay out a curriculum in it; I'm not even sure how much applicable educational research has been done on it (if it's like most subjects, there are ages below which most kids can't get vital aspects of it. On the other hand, often kids can get much more than we give them credit for.**)
Also, my gut feeling is that it should probably be part of a larger curriculum in "informal logic and what to do with it" that would also embrace skills like close reading, outlining for writing, and much of what should be in critical thinking curricula.*** But with those provisos, here's what it's about and how I think I might tackle the task if I wake up and find myself Chief Pooh Bah**** of Education.

First of all, how and why it works:
The common reasons (that are within their personal control) why people don't understand or remember much of what they hear in a public, one-to-many situation are:
1. They only sort of want to (in exactly the same way they only sort of want to know the stuff in the textbook); they're not trying very hard.
2. If they do want to try harder, they don't know how to try harder. Watch academically challenged kids "study" and you'll see what I mean. They furrow their brows. They tense their muscles. They look real serious. They read sentences aloud very, very loudly. But they don't actually do anything that moves things off the page and into memory, or reshape their understanding of anything with any idea they encounter. Many people trying to listen better do the equivalent: they sit forward, squint, berate themselves to pay attention, lock their gaze on the speaker ... and don't listen because they're not sure how to do it.
3. They're too smart (we all are). Everyone thinks 3-6 times faster than a public speaker talks. So 60%-90% of the time, we're killing time waiting for that person at the podium to continue, and while waiting, we think of something else to entertain ourselves. Naturally what people think of is inevitably more entertaining than the subject of the speech, so that by the time they need to listen again, they're already thinking about/invested in something more interesting, such as when lunch is, whether their parents had any idea how rude that was, or who has the nicest hair in the front row.
4. They don't connect it to anything. An often neglected consistent result in reading research is that a poor decoder, reading about something in which s/he is passionately interested, learns and retains more than a fluent decoder reading about something of no personal interest. The same applies even more so to listening. The best preachers have always tied the lesson to the parishioners' lives every few seconds;special ed teachers are forever being astonished by how much a student comprehends about football or music (if that is where the passion is); connection is everything.
5. Their model of knowledge is a "fact pile" model; they think smart people are people who know large numbers of facts, rather than the connections between them.***** So they listen to heap up facts, and the heap overflows storage pretty quickly, especially with no connections between things, and furthermore since much of what there is to know is the connections, they miss much of what there is to know.

The commercial and noncommercial, widely-distributed learning systems almost always work for a while, because they really do match up to the listening problems:
1. If the student goes to the bother of taking the class, then either the student or the student's parent wants them to listen better; motivation is guaranteed because it is self-selected.
2. Just having something to try, effective or not, means the student feels less discouraged and less like it's impossible.
3. Having a system to work means that the student is working the system instead of wondering when lunch is; it keeps them closer to what's being said.
4. Nearly all systems, beginning with the ancient Greek "Palace of Memory", systematically create associations. Any association is better than none, and it immediately improves memory.
5. And while the associations may be goofy (and therefore, sometimes memorable) and are generally not the ones the speaker was aiming for, they do enable the student to keep more facts and more statements of the basic idea on the fact pile at the same time, so the student can feel him/herself retaining more facts, and feels better.

However, most of the standardized commercial (and student-learning-center promoted) systems wear off fairly fast, for predictable reasons that are also tied to those five problems:
1. If a student learning by listening does not become a positive experience in its own right, the student will stop as soon as parent, teacher, or self-pressure is withdrawn. It's like reading or exercising because it's good for you; the kids who experience intensive listening as all broccoli and no pizza will slack off as soon as authority, even their own personal and internal authority, turns its back.
2&3. As soon as the system becomes fully automatic, it's like freeway driving or working a counter: people can do it with a third or a tenth of their attention, and they do, thus losing much of the benefit.
4&5. If the associations are at variance with the meaning, the student learns things wrong, or has to memorize a separate set of corrections. Furthermore, as the set of associations becomes more familiar, it loses its power of surprise/goofiness, and becomes less distinctive; the first time you remember the presidents by picturing them in your favorite bawdy house ("Washington upstairs doing the books with the madam ... Teddy Roosevelt playing the piano ... Woodrow Wilson coming downstairs in his red heart boxers ...") it may stick with you forever, but by the twentieth time you use that, to learn, say, the elements in atomic number order, it may not have the sticking power ("Molybdenum tied to the bed and waiting for Rhoda ... no, wait, maybe that's rhodium is tying Molly to the bed ...")

Rhetorical or enthymemic listening is more effective than most or maybe all of the commercial systems, but it's harder, because the thing you're learning to associate to actually is part of the speaker's meaning and the information being communicated to you, so you need less unlearning, have more accurate learning in the first place, and just generally get more of the message. It doesn't get old (a person who has really learned to read fiction, poetry, or reportage well has more pleasurable entertainment available than s/he can consume in a lifetime; a music fan with deep and precise musical knowledge never runs out of good speeches; it is the same with listening to the spoken word).

This is all great and a major advantage, but the heart of what makes rhetorical listening better is something very hard: you have to become not just acquainted with, but so deeply familiar with informal logic, that it's in your bones, so that you invoke it and use it as automatically as you compute Bug for 7x5=Bug or mentally correct typhogrephical errrers. It's that stuff athletes drill about, so that if you're a shortstop you're moving the right way, based on the batter's stance and swing, before you know you're moving, and the reason why a guitarist's fingers know which fret is E on every string in a given tuning, and can find it before s/he can think "E," and a fact that some crossword-loving friends tease me about, that because I have been a touch typist since age 12, when they ask me to spell something, I rest my hands on the table and say aloud what my fingers are keying.

Having enthymemics down cold and automatic is not as bad as it sounds. There are only at most about 25 enthymemes (depending on how you count and divide them) and each of enthymeme is made up of no more than about five elements; there are fewer total elements than there are characters in either the katakana or hiragana syllablaries, or in multiplication tables up through twelves, and way fewer than most languages have irregular verbs and nouns. But at least some drill and practice is necessary; it needs to be automatic rather than baffling that
an analogy consists of a known and a partially known,
the part of the known corresponding to the known part of the partially known is meaningfully like it, and
it is therefore argued that the unknown part of the partially known can be predicted from the remainder of the known.
And at first, like that business about square roots and alright triangles and hippopotamuses, or the difference between a cross-threaded gerund and a leaping participle, it's all confusing terminology that doesn't seem to relate to anything. (Better terminology will help but won't eliminate the problem).

My guess is that pushing enthymemics all the way into the mind so that the subject is automatic is every bit as much fun as teaching long division, subjects and predicates, and so forth, and teachers and kids will love it just as much. But the potential rewards are very large, and since I'm not aware of any large-scale attempts to make learning the subject fun, I may be quite wrong. Maybe some inspired teacher out there will invent the book that does for enthymemics what The Cat in the Hat, Go Dog Go!, and Captain Underpants do for reading.

Once the student has the enthymemes down cold, the student simply incorporates them in some version of the famous Cornell-System listening (Review-Relate-Anticipate) by taking each point as s/he hears it and breaking it into:
•What's the point being argued?
•What facts (if any) support it, and are they true?
•What enthymeme connects the facts to the point?
•Are all the parts of the enthymeme present, or reasonably implied, and are they valid?"

It's not really any harder than evaluating a pop song, quarterback, used car, or entree that you haven't encountered before; and if you're proficient, you do it as automatically as a gardener looks and sees peonies or gladioli rather than "flowers," a birdwatcher knows a barn owl from a great horned, or a serious fashionista knows whether that will work with her skin and existing wardrobe. And you may note that after a walk through a garden, a birding trip, or a shopping expedition, any of those people can remember dozens or hundreds of things they saw.

Because the enthymemics of the spoken word is different every time (it's the difference between a choreographed stage fight and a real one, a choreographed First Dance at a wedding and being actually able to dance, or having memorized Goodnight, Moon and being able to read) it doesn't go stale; because it's demanding intrinsically (like rally driving as opposed to keeping the car in an interstate lane), it doesn't become too easily automatic; and because it is built on the structures of meaning, it draws attention to and focuses the effort of memory on the speaker's points and ideas rather than on stray facts. The one thing it can't fix, directly, is whether the listener wants to listen (though even there, people generally like to do things they have become proficient at, and if there are real rewards for comprehension, there will probably be enough motivation for the job).

Now, how would I get that into students? Some things I think are obvious, and then some things I'd do because of them:
1) Kids younger than about age nine or ten don't seem to have most of the modules for logic (with exceptions, but we're designing a one-size-fits-most curriculum here); at about that age they become interested in things like meta-jokes and frame-breaking, and able to handle math ideas like sets and functions. So we start in 4th grade. (Other systems may translate as needed...)
2) About 8th or 9th grade students in academic programs begin to have lecture-heavy classes, and without getting into it here, a good lecturer addressing good listeners is still more effective than most "innovative" teaching methods. (It's just that good lecturers are if anything scarcer than good listeners, and we don't do much to develop either).
3) So we want to start them in 4th and have the complete set of academic listening skills in place by the end of 7th grade, with 8th grade probably a review-and-refresh year to make sure it sticks.
4) With about a 20 enthymeme-system, I'd sort the enthymemes into logical groups with some considerations about complexity, and teach my way up the ladder, a few per year, aiming to have the easy ones taught twice and the hard ones taught at least three times. So to have all of them in place by the end of seventh grade, I'd have to introduce the easy ones in fourth grade, review easies and add hards in fifth, expand and elaborate hards in sixth, and review hards in seventh. That would mean covering about an enthymeme every three weeks in fourth and fifth grade, and probably every two in sixth and seventh.
5) At the same time I taught each enthymeme, I'd teach how to spot it in listening, reading, and visual communication, and have students use it in their own writing, classroom presentations, and art.
6) Right from the beginning I'd start teaching that enthymemes chain together to make arguments, arguments chain to make cases, and cases chain to make up things like philosophies, disciplines, areas, etc. This would probably get me into brawls with parent groups because, for example, it would clearly explain why evolution is central to biology, why military and economic history are ultimately more determinant than cultural and literary history (or what Marx called the superstructure, in the good old days), and why quantum mechanics doesn't mean that wishing will make it so and you can attract checks and fly if you really want to.******
7)In 4th and 5th grade this would focus on arguments and cases in student compositions and in understanding them down at the micro level; by 6th grade they should begin to apply enthymemics to learning one or more specific academic subjects, and by 7th grade should begin revisiting some of the subjects they had previously learned as small children to incorporate and expand the enthymemics.
8) In 8th grade, I'd offer two one-semester classes: one that was a general review of enthymemics with many, many small applied problems (the get-it-ineradicably-into-their-bones course) and another that demonstrates the foundations of informal logic in formal logic (syllogisms and all that) as a way of expanding and deepening understanding.
9) Now, who would teach all that? What I found at the college level was that most bright adults could get enthymemics on some level in one semester course, and become proficient in about another one or two. Learning to apply enthymemics was highly variable, with most students seeing and using applications immediately but some students really fighting to see what all this was about (rather like story problems or like one college roommate of mine who couldn't see why in physics class we were analyzing circuits that "didn't do anything.") Once the teacher candidates have got it themselves and are proficiently using it to learn their academic material (incidentally that will make their lives easier, and may help to sell them on the whole thing), then probably a one-semester course in "teaching enthymemics" with an emphasis on "don't teach rules, teach what it is."

Could it be done? Yes, surely. Will it? Not soon. Should it? Well, yeah, I think so. Don't forget to write me in for Chief Pooh-Bah at the next election.

*One letter was from a teacher who apparently read the whole piece as being about "empathetic" rather than "enthymemic" reasoning, and just wanted to let me know that empathic listening is so important because it helps us understand each other. I shall keep that in my good day bring-down file, for whenever I find myself too cheerful, and try to remember to give the Lions Club a few extra bucks this year.

** A classic example of this which I shall write about sometime, somewhere, is the New Math of the mid-1960s. People who write about education like to shriek, in tones of mild hysteria, that they were teaching set and number theory (previously grad school topics) to third graders, instead of making them memorize how many inches are in a furlong like Grandpa did. Inevitably the people who hold up New Math as the model of educator cluelessness miss two key points: a) kids that age take naturally to set and number theory, and many students in remediation who struggle with basic arithmetic improve drastically once they have the theory behind it, which is not intuitive for everyone; conversely many bad teachers of grade-school math are bad exactly because they don't really know how or why it works, they've just memorized recipes (like the sort of cook who isn't sure whether you can substitute Jif for Skippy in a peanut butter cookie recipe). The New Math was barking up the right tree, but to make it work, they needed to retrain the teachers, thoroughly (and perhaps get rid of the few who genuinely couldn't get it, as opposed to just being thrown in over their heads). Which brings me to the second ignored point: b) In several nations where there was a national standard curriculum, teachers were simply paid extra to retrain during vacation time, so that the teacher knew what s/he was trying to teach, and in those nations, New Math was adopted with very little stress, and its descendants are still in use, and several of those are the nations whose students consistently beat the pants off American kids in international math comparisons.

*** I've seen some excellent critical thinking textbooks and programs, and also some that seem to confuse critical thinking with "copping an attitude about things your teacher doesn't like." It's not a problem that students can't tell the difference, at least at the beginning of the term; they're there to learn it. Not a problem, either, if parents can't; they'll just have to have kids who know more than they do, and isn't that what progress is? But if the teacher or the textbook author or publisher can't, that's ominous. The most effective place to entrench against the forces of ignorance is at the generational line.

**** If they appointed me Secretary, Minister, Czar, or High Commissioner of Education, I would immediately, as my first act in office, change my title to Chief Pooh-Bah. I know my moral character and I need to stay away from temptations to take myself too seriously. Also, all my press conferences would end with an intern striking a gong and shouting, "The Pooh Bah Has Spoken! Tremble, grovel, and comply!"

***** This is perfectly normal in younger children; when Stepson #2 was ten, he thought he was the smartest person in the family because he knew the most names of dinosaurs. Jeff Foxworthy's "Are you as Smart as a Fifth Grader?" hilariously relies on this; you could reverse the results (but it wouldn't be as funny) just by testing life skills instead of general knowledge. I returned to this topic about a year after, in my "Smart People Who Make Themselves Dumb" essay.

****** Good thing I'm Chief Pooh Bah; a few parental heads up on pikes beside the hug-and-go lane should suffice to quell the disturbances, and from then on, if public meetings become disorderly, I shall simply have the lackeys release the hounds.

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 7: The diagnosis, is up.

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 7: The diagnosis:

Dr. Bronson: I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your boy is very sick. He’s lost a massive amount of blood, and his pulse and retinal response are poor, and as you can see there’s an axe sticking out of his head.
Big Chuck: He’s not sick, you idiot, he’s dead!
Dr. Bronson: Oh, everybody’s a doctor. You think maybe I could make the diagnosis?
The epigram today is a quote from a very underrated movie comedy.

Reagan is decayed, Romney is dismayed, our hero is healed, the Evil Bug is concealed.

Come back tomorrow when even more is revealed. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 6: A large group of professionals (in which the Gipper finally rises, just like we've been promising!)

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 6: A large group of professionals:

Chapter 6 is up, free like all the others till July 27.  I freely admit that titling a chapter in which bazillions of jellyfish wash up on the beach "A large group of professionals" makes me happy.  

At long last, the Gipper rises!  

In this chapter, Joe finds out just how bad it really is; it's a good thing Aura's on the job, and that she has what you might call the Ultimate Backup in an Appropriate Pickup.

Since line clips from the chapter, both here and in Twitter, proved popular yesterday (and a couple of you nice people dropped me notes to tell me they were exciting, and even suggested one or two more you thought I should have used) .... here's some more line clips.  Imagine this as the movie trailer with quick cuts between them:

Schar’hukk C’desto’dha was concerned and attentive, not afraid or confused; he was a professional.

He strode up the aisle between seated big dogs, wigs, kahunas, and enchiladas.

The next innocent-seeming monkey, an apocalypse-obsessed closet-case Lutheran pastor from Aisselle de Dieu, Wisconsin, had the requisite innocence, but it was the kind of innocence associated with a holy fool, making up in fool anything it lacked in holy ....

Joe is attacked not just by monstrous alien evil, but also by a thesaurus:  Joe had been thinking, This is so weird, this is so awful, since the weird pep-rally-cum-Satanic-rite began, but when Bayle Brazenydol froze in mid-sentence, the top of his head flipped back at the eyebrows, and something like a skinned bat—no, more like a turtle pried out of its shell—then again, like a nude possum with an umbrella sewn under its skin and its face taken off with a sander—whatever it was, it made his immortal soul recoil, his mortal stomach heave, and his writer’s mind reach for words like squamous, oleaginous, grimy, and slither.

“They dare to use the Elder Tongue here,” Hayes said. “It is worse than I thought. Move away from me. I am glad I knew you.”
He was not looking his best. The flesh had shrunk, the wax fills no longer fit, the eyes had fallen in and flaps of the suit that had been lightly basted together up the back hung loose behind him—but there was no question that this was the Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan, back again. “Well,” he said, “Here I am.”
And looking down at the way the suit hung empty on his desiccated flesh, and then holding up hands to show that his right hand, and some of his fingers on his left, had dropped away, he cocked his head in the trademark grin, and said, “Where’s the rest of me?”

 No cop ever really likes conventions:  "Weirdest thing, we get this convention, and jellyfish are piling out of the sea, beaching themselves all along the shore. It shouldn’t be a problem for traffic but people react real weird when they’re confronted by all those living slimebags."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 5: See me round the bend -- now available in the continuing free version

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 5: See me round the bend:

 We see what kind of things happen when the Power gets loose (it will get looser and do even more later.  This is what us writer types technically call foreshadowing).

For some reason this chapter happened to contain many of my favorite lines from the book (ones that made me cackle with unseemly glee when I wrote them.  These include:

“Well, of course they’re worried,” Josh said. “They’re cats, not idiots.”

"I’ve been called practically everything else in the world, in more languages than most people know exist, but this is the first time I have been accused of being a dippy white chick.”

“Where did you find construction guys swapping dirty jokes in proto-Númenorean?”

More than a hundred miles out at sea, with no brains to be aware of any purpose in what they were doing, jellyfish of more than sixty species, ranging in size from armchairs to tennis balls, pointed themselves toward Tampa Bay and headed that way on their small, feeble jets of water. It would take many days for some of them, but they were all determined to get to Tampa and raise a stink, figuratively showing more brains and spines than many people with literal ones.
(Joe's goal as a right winger blogger is to sound like:) "Malkin on her meds, Coulter with compassion, and George F. Will gone wild."
The manifestations of the Power do what they want, as anyone who believed in any form of the Power could have told them.

Don't apologize or explain, just cower under the furniture like a sensible person

Much writer-reader communication, particularly in the genres with organized fandoms, goes something like this:

Reginald W. Riter (in a public venue): What I actually meant in The Name of the Work, where the words say X, was X'. I am sorry for any confusion I may have caused any readers.

Frederick Fann (in an open fannish venue): I see Reggie Riter is trying to make excuses for having said X, and now he wants us to believe he really meant X", when it's abundantly clear he actually meant X'''.

Fanny ("Ph3an") Fanne (in a tightly restricted fannish venue): Thanks for telling me that because now I know I will never have to read any of Riter's works, because anyone who believes in X''' is also going to be anti-goodness and pro-nastiness. You have saved me a lifetime of reading time. To be on the safe side, I also won't read Roger Reiter, Robert Ryter, Regina Reichter, or Pauline Bystander, because I always confuse Pauline Bystander with Reginald W. Riter.

Pauline Bystander (when it is relayed to her): Hunh? Why are people boycotting my Evil is Bad™ series?

This is the main reason why it is a bad idea for writers to issue apologies and explanations. Every apology can be read as a confession of malign intent; every explanation can be read as an excuse. (This is because the human mind is enthymemic, and always constructs, understands, and responds to more than is said*.) And because they can be, they will be.
A secondary reason for not apologizing or explaining is that it tends to matter a great deal to fans, who then want your next work to fulfill what you promised to get off the hook for your last one. 

 Fan readers remember that stuff much more than general readers, and if you write entirely for the fans who pay attention to you, you are headed down the rabbit hole of diminishing returns; the moon bunnies vs. vacuum piranhas throwaway subplot in the first novel in your series, for which you apologized because you didn't provide enough of it and wasted time on other things, eventually takes over and dictates that as your audience slowly dwindles, and you really need to cultivate new readers, you'll be desperately trying to finish a seventh book titled Moon Bunnies v. Vacuum Piranhas: Final Showdown.

In my rough draft I had footnoted the point that fans don't read much like other readers with this:

Or even very much like other fans—fandom contains everything from high speed skimmers who pick up a few keywords while running a repetitive movie in their head, so that for them all books are the same book with a slightly different cast and gadgets, to sharp-eyed close readers who put more effort into correlating all the details of a Star Wars tie-in than most New Critics used to put into the theological implications of the metaphysical poets ...

... but then I realized that it wasn't really a footnote (by my rules**) because I did want to talk about that for a while, so what it is, properly,*** is a digression.

It's really more accurate to say that both fannish and nonfannish readers exhibit nearly every way of reading.****

What does differ, I think, is the distribution of approaches to reading in that two different populations, and that makes the business of responding to complaints even trickier.

In general fans of any genre read extraneous information differently; if I tell you that my hero yawned, stretched, and set his NoCatCorp Catwhacker down by the bed, readers of one kind of literary fiction will speculate or assume that it's a bit of throwaway absurdity, a clue to his grouchy nature, and perhaps a comment on consumerist society. A mystery reader will look for hints that the Catwhacker may be the murder weapon or that cat-hatred may be the motive. A science fiction reader may visualize a future in which cats are so pervasive and dangerous that everyone goes armed against them (as in J.T. McIntosh's The Fittest or Heinlein's The Puppet Masters) and an urban/paranormal fantasy reader may think the hero is a specialist in were-cougars.

Activating genre expectations opens a whole different realm of complaints. Some people want their genre to be relatively pure; I've seen many a fan of historicals, historical romances, or medieval-themed fantasy become furious when they found out they were reading one of the other genres (since those three sub-genres can sometimes go a few chapters before it's clear which we are reading). Some feel pandered or condescended to when the genre tropes are too dense ("he's just putting in a levitating car because he thinks all sci fi has to have levitating cars"), some feel it's a gesture of respect or fan service, some may like it themselves but feel embarrassed to be seen reading a book with that trope, and on and on.

Many people are irritated by tropes that might please a person they don't like—very often a person they are imagining rather than one they actually know. You see this in music all the time; woe unto the rocker who ventures into twangy territory and sounds too country, and double woe unto the country musician who is either so overproduced as to sound rockish or so simple and acoustic as to sound like a folkie, and all the sorrows of the universe will fall on a hip-hopper whose lyrics are about working hard at a legit job to make a living for his wife and kids, the female rocker who implies that her relationships are trivial compared to her career in marketing, or the atheist-themed country singer, because at once, a large part of the core fans will feel they are being betrayed as this is clearly far to accessible to Not Quite Our Sort.

But fretting that the Wrong People Will Like This is certainly not unknown in lit&reading; numerous people are infuriated because they imagine some other reader who is sniffling sentimentally over this crap like their damned idiot Aunt Wendy over her Christian women's novels, or feeling endorsed in a sadistic desire to conquer and degrade hapless campesinos*****, or laughing at deeply serious things that are never funny, or taking notes for some appallingly excessive shopping spree, or bouncing up and down in the chair and making machine gun noises out of sheer excitement, or or masturbating like a brain-damaged rhesus monkey.

Offhand, I would say more readers in the general world seem to get worried about imaginary readers liking this offending book; this is partly because so many fannish readers seem to have trouble imagining anyone who does not read the way they do, or for the purposes for which they read, so they can't imagine anyone being pleased and merely wonder why the book was published at all. The mainstream readers, unfortunately, have a highly precise mental picture of the exact sort of swine to which this book panders. So the general reader more often phrases the complaint as "pandering to swine" whereas the fan tends to say "nobody likes that crap, the only place where it shows up is in bestsellers."

Usually you don't know which class of reader has written to you or about you, so it's best not to answer, lest you end up in the sort of confusion that Sardou wrote brilliantly—the conversation that goes for hours before anyone notices that one guy is talking about not understanding a girlfriend and the other about taking an elderly dog to the vet to be put down. ("Sometimes she just sits at the foot of the stairs and howls to be carried up to the bed." "Sounds pretty cool." "Do you have any idea what she weighs? And she slobbers all over me while I'm carrying her." "Dude, if I had something like that waiting for me at home..." etc.) Before I learned this I had some much too amusing (now) correspondence.

But the final and best reason for not responding to reader complaints is that the reader, after all, read what they read the way they read it, and if you let them, they'll give you an idea of who's out there in the seats, and what they're digging and not, and why.

As a general principle, I don't believe in apology or explanation, but as a specific, I catch myself doing it every now and then. Sometimes someone just seems very confused on a point that is easy to straighten out; sometimes someone appears to feel guilty about disliking a book or story for what seems to me to be a perfectly fine reason; sometimes someone just needs to a clear, simple explanation of a concept like, "this text would work better if you stopped reading like you had brain pan full of pus, made yourself more comfortable by moving out of that puddle of your own urine, and eliminated distractions by taking your hand out of your filthy Spider-Man jammies, you drooling ignorant result of a syphilitic Klansman molesting a radioactive skunk." Addressing the critics is one of those mistakes that I in particular should avoid, I have concluded, like W should avoid the bottle, Bill Clinton should avoid women, or engineers should avoid choosing their own clothes.

One of these days I'll have some thoughts about where that leads, but I think I've probably wandered around the topic long enough for this time. Those of you that see a point other than "don't say too much to the unhappy reader," drop me a note at the email to the right; or, maybe, complain about it in public.


*a good thing too so your mother doesn't have to explain the laws of thermodynamics before you'll get away from the hot stove.

** which are, if you're wondering, and even if you're not, that I talk about whatever I like to talk about in all these posts, so I guess the whole thing is properly speaking a digression, but if I either don't care much whether you read it, or if it's really mainly a disclaimer on something I know some people are sensitive about, it goes to a footnote so as to be out of the way of people who read to get the main point. I often have no main points, or only find them in rewrite, at which times I sometimes sharpen and emphasize them because I realize I want to make them, but also sometimes throw them out, because they prevent seeing the more interesting things on the way, in much the same fashion that the interstate avoids that interesting old fallen-down abandoned farm or challenging-to-drive-well stretch of winding road, but some people who like main points are so charitable toward writers that they will keep reading a long time looking for one, and it seems to me that the least I can do is not actually put alleys that I know will be blind right in their way, as I do for the kind of readers who love discursion, either always or occasionally, when I realize I can keep a sentence like this one going for a really, really long time, as this one has done in explaining why I think some writing should have a main point and some should not, but there are people in the "always" and "never" camps as well.

*** I grew up using the pronoun phrase "what it is" to mean "the category to which it belongs," which is common in the Midwest but also in Appalachia and the Great Plains. This leads to sentences like "What it is, is a duck" or Andy Griffith's monologue "What it was, was football." The logic of English punctuation would say not to put a comma between the two verbs but since nearly everyone who uses that pronoun phrase takes a big pause there, and it improves readability, I nearly always put it in. It also provides a handy place to park an adverb like "properly." Inveterate sentence diagrammers may now fight about which "is" that adverb modifies.

****One possible exception: the professionally offended people who skim for words and expressions by which to be offended, while barely paying any attention to the text itself. That seems to be mostly a mainstream/nonfannish activity, perhaps because a fan whose entire reading activity was skimming for unacceptable words and concepts would be laughed at. (And yes, I know that some fans are deeply offended sometimes—but I'm not sure I've ever seen a genuine fan who did not read but simply skimmed for offense, whereas I've seen dozens of nongenre readers do that. If fans did that, we'd have a convention panel titled "This Year's Books You Didn't Read That Honked You In the Bikini Area." Or maybe a whole programming track so that skimmers for swear words, skimmers for ethnic slurs, and skimmers for hackneyed phrases won't get into fights with each other.

***** You didn't know the hap crop in Campesinia failed for the last three years and the global inventory of hap is 1/10 what it was in 2000? You haven't heard of Campesinian hap worm? Don't you stay in touch? Don't you even care?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 4: a power like that of electricity, available now. The chapter, I mean, not the power. But it's a really good chapter and it won't drive you mad.

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 4: a power like that of electricity:

So finally some supernatural stuff starts happening all over the place, and we find out that a R----an might be a Republican but it might be something else, and there's a certain amount of scary stuff and screaming.  Also Joe learns that if you're going to meddle with evil, obscure powers, it's a real good idea to have a witch on speed dial.

More fun, read now while it's up!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chapter 3 of Raise the Gipper! is up, for free

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 3: A family with the wrong members in control

In this episode, Grant Hayes shows Joe the scary backrooms -- or backside -- of Republicanism.  But why is he showing him, and what is Joe supposed to see -- and not supposed to see?

Your chance to keep reading Raise the Gipper! free, and this material has not previously been available in free samples.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Newest newsletter just went out, and Raise the Gipper! just got even cheaper

I send out an irregular newsletter, usually 4-7 times per year, whenever there's enough news and enough stuff going on to make it worthwhile.  To bribe the loyal readers of the thing, I always include a personal essay which I pledge will never be published elsewhere; something about knowing I'm writing mostly for enthusiastic fans tends to allow  me to let what remains of my hair down and talk frankly about all sorts of things, and this particular one is both about a major issue in my work and highly personal.  Anyway, if you'd like to be added to the newsletter mailing list, use the email link at right, and let me know, and I'll send this one along.  As always, it also includes some bargains and goodies for newsletter subscribers.

I'm now experimenting with putting Raise the Gipper! up on line; it's getting good critical reception and a steady dribble of sales, but my feeling is that it is more likely to die of obscurity than of oppobrium or piracy, so I posted Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 today ( June 23) and will post a chapter a day from here on till the whole thing is up; I'm planning to take it down July 27. 

Why those dates?  At a chapter a day, I think some people may get hooked into reading it online.  And my feeling is that there needs to be chatter about the book at least a month before the Republican Convention, at which it is set (unlike the book, it will probably not feature either an invasion of evil batlike aliens nor the rancid resurrection of Zombie Reagan to give them all what they really want).  So let's see what happens if I turn it loose free (everyone's favorite price) for about one month, and leave it up till about a month before the convention.

Maybe it'll kill my trickle of sales, maybe it will result in an immense bestselling flood of pirate editions from which I make nothing, or maybe -- and here's what my bet is -- people who like it will buy it, for reasons ranging from wanting to pay me for the entertainment I provided, to wanting a good laugh, to getting impatient at the chapter a day price.  And I'm hoping it will get people talking.  So we'll see.  Worst that can happen, I wasted a couple days putting all this together.  Best?  Well, that's what I'd like to see.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Go support AnimeJune and the cause of honesty ...

I'll have a longer post in here fairly soonish, but meanwhile I just wanted to point out that AnimeJune, in her "Gossamer Obsession" blog, has come in right on the money on the whole subject of what book blogging should be about.  (I dropped in a lengthy comment to spell out just how right I think she is; sensible folk, go do likewise).  The book industry's current troubles may have exacerbated it, but there has always been a spirit of delighted mediocrity abroad since at least the day the ALA started to talk with publishers, and the latest manifestation is that apparently many panels at BEA were overrun with "boost don't knock," "if you can't say anything nice ..."*  and other such positions.

The idea that all reading is good and that it's wonderful as long as it's a book makes sense for the people in the industry who would really rather be selling breakfast cereal anyway.  But for those of us who want the Commonwealth of Literature to be worth settling and living in, the idea of an eternal world where everyone only gushes about how they like things is more than a little Stepfordian.

The usual counterarguments are:

 "at least people are reading"(presumably when they subsist entirely on Cheetos and Hershey bars, at least they're eating; when they swim in the Monangahela, at least they're swimming; and when they have a favorite goat in the herd, whom they like to dress in fishnets and a corset, at least they're developing individual taste and forming an emotional attachment). 

"you can't change what people like" (Sure you can. I know tons of people who read much but not well when younger, but eventually came to realize, for example, that some of their favorite tropes were emotionally manipulative, and subsequently escaped from that particular author or genre into something they liked better that widened rather than narrowed their world.  If you never hear anyone diss C.S. Forester, you might miss seeing what's great in Joseph Conrad; to hear the great music of Farewell, My Lovely you have to let go of the pounding repetitive riffs in  I, The Jury.  All great real works eventually develop thousands of bogus shadows; the harsh light of negative criticism is what clears them away so you can find the real stuff.)

"we should all support each other in the reading community" (Are gangs of thugs snatching books out of your hands? Or anyone's?  Do you honestly share all your values with everyone in the bookstore -- Ann Coulter, Anne Rice, Anne Perry, Anne McCaffrey, Ann Landers, Anne Frank, and Anne Tyler?  -- and that doesn't even begin to cover the ones named Ann(e).  Is there a terrible danger that if people don't hear from other readers daily, they will take up bocce, television, or macrame instead, and never touch a book again?  Why are we circling the wagons when no one is attacking, supporting when no one is falling, and trying to create norms and boundaries in a mob of individuals bent on escaping?  Yes, I know that the various busybody agencies concerned with enforcing dumbed-down psychology onto hapless workers, students, and citizens are deeply suspicious of reading because they want it to be a vehicle for spreading their correct values and ensuring willing compliance, but people do it on their own and away from each other and you can't watch what they're doing, so it makes the sort of people who have MA's in Busybodyness* nervous.  But the correct answer to all such people, and their censors and promoters and boosters and program-scripters, is "Shut up, I'm reading.")

So I was glad to see a spirited defense of book blasting and general negativity.  As I noted in my comment, my experience is that books sell best when the positive 4s and 5s AND the harshly negative 1s outnumber the tepid 3s (and timid 2s, which always seem to me to be oxymoronic the way that the silly D grade is: "poor performance but acceptable.") Even the best "comfy books" can and do get blasted because some readers, looking to have their emotions yanked rough and raw or their pulse raced and thundered, find themselves reading page after page in which a kindly old guy named Gramps dispenses homely wisdom to his mischievous but goodhearted grandson and are outraged at the sheer cheat that this crap was packed into book covers when anyone with any sense knows that a good book should have serial killers, wholesale slaughtered orphanages, atom bombs, desperate races against time, or at least A COUPLE OF PIRATES! and, in my totally unsupported by data opinion, when a bland book sells well it is in part because it is aggressively, even offensively, bland. 

For one thing, anything with a solid story, well told, will go right up the nose of someone who was reading to get another story entirely; some readers will enjoy literary bait and switch but others willl never forgive it. One of my favorite 1's of all time was a guy where I checked back on his Amazon reviews and found he was a passionate reader of men's military fiction; he gave a 1 to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls because he just could not see how it could possibly take so long to blow a damned bridge.

The book blogs are where real reading, and thus literature generally, are being kept alive, in what the academic critics I like best have often compared to a game.  Ideally the literary blogosphere should resemble something like Bill Cosby's Street Football, Mad's 43-Man Squamish, or that mother-banned game of my childhood, Tackle Capture the Flag.  It should definitely not resemble the PTA's bicycle safety rodeo, or the keep-no-score version of little-kid soccer. 


 *a phrase which should only be completed a la Dorothy Parker.

**often disguised with titles like as Human Relations, Student Services, Human Services, Human Resources, Community Relations, Community Services, Human Vegetation, and the Office of Moron Entitlement ...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Hobo Queen of the Sciences

Long ago, I had given an assignment in an advanced rhetoric/speech class: a two-minute speech to explain a judgment using one fact and one enthymeme.* The gist of the assignment was, just for two minutes, reason in public like an adult who respects the listeners.

It was early in the term so I got the inevitable few who treat all assignments as unrelated checklists.  "For my judgment I don't drink no more.  For my fact hydrogen is the lightest element and it is a colorless gas.  For my enthymeme I picked analogy." 

I got the solid many who struggled bravely and sort of got to about where you can expect a college sophomore to get. "I believe that marijuana should be treated like alcohol or tobacco because in this study they like, they have numbers, and the numbers are like, alcohol causes twenty thousand dollars of health damage per person and tobacco causes like one hundred thousand and marijuana causes only eight thousand, those are all lifetime I guess and I'm not sure what they counted, but anyway eight thousand is like way lower, so it should be treated the same." 

With many weeks to go in the term, this could be improved on considerably, and nearly always was.

And then I got Ms. Pounding Shouter. 

The issue, if I remember right, was gun control (and I only remember that because a year before I'd had to deal with a disturbed but probably not dangerous student bringing a gun to class) and I honestly don't recall which side she was on.  She thumped the podium, she pointed at people and accused them of not understanding her**, she ordered them to believe what she told them to.

Afterward, when I met with her for the inevitable "we need to talk" hour, I started off by asking what she thought she was doing.

"Well, I was the only one in the room doing it right."

Hmm. Please explain.

"Enthymemes are logic, right?  You say that in class over and over."

Indeed, I do.  (Note to self: perhaps I am saying it so often that some people are becoming unhinged?)  So what enthymemes did you think you used?



"I was totally  logical. I pointed things out real loud and told people they were dumb if they didn't believe it, and I yelled so they'd get the point."

We went around that a bit.  The breakthroughs to understanding came via the enthymeme of analogy: "Enthymemes are specific forms of logic, like arithmetic procedures are forms of mathematics.  If I had you doing a long division problem, and instead you tried to add the two numbers, you wouldn't get off the hook by telling me that long division was mathematics and you used mathematics.  But in fact this is a step further away; it's as if you put all the digits in alphabetical order, which isn't even mathematics.  So now we have to build our way back in, getting a handle on what logic is so that you can see what enthymemes are."

But the important thing is, she did break through.

Oddly enough, she finished the course with a passing grade, and did seem to acquire a better handle on the world around her over time.  I never did hear where she'd acquired the idea that logic consisted in sounding like a middle-aged man with an unfair parking ticket, but after that bad start she pulled things around and caught up with commendable speed (which I ascribe to commendable effort, but maybe she was just smart-but-lost).  Again, the main reason I remember that is that it was dramatic; the poised and competent young woman who walked out of the last class was not much like the unfocused and scattered one that walked into the first one.***

My private, personal, and not evidentially-founded-at-all guess is that so many people use "logical" to mean "agrees with me" that it's no surprise that their kids pick it up, and it certainly does go a long way toward explaining why, for example, you can hear loud arguments in which both people say they're being logical, but by that one person means "I am loudly repeating talking points from my side" and the other means "I am keeping an even tone of voice."  Google "logical" and "blog", skip the first 100 or so hits, and, if we accept John Stuart Mill's description of logical exposition as allowing us to proceed by smooth gradations to understanding—sort of logic as the fresh-paved interstate for the minivan of the mind—you will have found yourself Baja in a windstorm.

Which leads me to the melancholy thought that I caught and fixed one case of the problem in several years of teaching.  How many are there like her  that no teacher caught? 

Worse still, how many teachers are there like that? 

More than a few, to judge by the amount of unnecessary hollering, hectoring, scolding, and bellowing that go on in some classrooms, especially in poor areas where parents rarely complain and don't have much idea about what should be happening in a classroom.  Also, no matter what you hear from the ed department (Federal or your local college) and the teacher's unions, there are a disproportionate number of intellectually less-than-stellar students in education programs, and some of them do graduate (and end up teaching in schools where there are poor defenses against them). 

Furthermore, the bellowers, posturers, chest-beaters, and order-snappers very often have an enthusiastic following among adults who are more concerned with order than learning, either because they see repression as a way to express their loathing for both kids and learning simultaneously; or because their model of learning is bound up in their model of submission; or, if you are the principal, because at least that's one damned room you never have to call the police about.

Last and far from least, in a related course  where I used to teach listening for logic as a way of improving listening comprehension and retention****, one student asked me at the end of the class, "Why wasn't I taught this in fourth grade?"

And unfortunately, I can think of at least ten reasons (if I'm not restricted to good ones):

  1. So your old man wouldn't belt you when you noticed his illogic and "talked smart" to him.
  2. So your mother wouldn't send you into therapy because you kept telling her that she didn't make any sense.
  3. So they won't send you to church camp to get straightened out.
  4. So you won't keep asking questions that your fifth grade teacher can't answer.
  5. So when you hit puberty you'll be susceptible to peer pressure, advertising, and pop culture in general, and thereby fit in and be well-adjusted.
  6. So you won't get ideas about living differently from your parents, neighbors, or peers, and be able to evaluate those ideas rather than just see if the community likes them.
  7. So you won't remember stuff from one teacher's class and ask about it in another and cause friction.
  8. So you'll believe what your parents' preferred authority tells you.
  9. So you won't learn stuff too fast in future classes, get bored, and cut up to relieve the boredom.
  10. So you'll vote, pray, and buy predictably.

Just to point out a tiny little personal example: I lived in Gunnison County, Colorado, for some years.  The population is so small that almost everyone does some jury duty every year*****, but every time I was called, as soon as it was noted that I taught courses in logic and reasoning, bye-bye.  Lawyers did not want that sort of person on the jury.

Logic, I think – particularly informal logic, which speaks in tones of probability and support, not certainty and proof  -- is probably, like its sometime-friend truth, going to be "ever a refugee from the camp of victory."  Unlike truth, it is apt, also, to be "ever a refugee from the camp of defeat."  That, by the way, is the enthymeme of dissociation: the argument that if the outcomes are the same—i.e. that logic may be the queen of the sciences, but she is eternally a hobo queen—the input is irrelevant.
A later note: To my deep surprise, this "throwaway" piece is one of the most popular ever on the blog, and there were some reader questions about how logic could be taught in the schools as part of the basic curriculum.  I tried to supply a few answers to those questions in Sneaking the Hobo Queen Into School.


*Enthymemes, in informal logic, are the recurrent structures we use for hooking a fact to a judgment; some of the common ones are analogy, numeric comparison, definition, example, generalization, and so on.  Depending on which modern rhetoricians you like, there are somewhere between about 16 and 25 of them, and they are the elements, building blocks, alphabet, or whatever analogy you like of everyday reasoning. Enthymemes are about as relevant to supporting a point logically as a bolt, screw, or bracket is to supporting a shelf.

**that accusation was true for everyone in the room, I'm sure, but it was definitely not their fault.

***and if you don't understand why I'd remember that for 20 years, well, you've either never been a teacher, or you shouldn't have been.

****It works, by the way.
*****since it takes 12 jurors to jail one drunk-ass loudmouth Texas hunter who loves private property so much that he can't wait to trespass on it shoot whatever his sozzled brain "thought" was an elk

Saturday, June 9, 2012

If geek is the new cool, then let's ditch the cool kids and join the new geeks

Addendum in late July: the ongoing Morphing of Geekdom continues to spill across fora.  For a very different view of things, from a smart guy who epitomizes cool geek, see this post in John Scalzi's Whatever.

A few different stray things on the internet had been floating around in my mind for a while. Maybe it was noticing that most of the sf critics don't seem to have that big old chip on the shoulder anymore; it has been a while since I've seen any of them hurl "Yeah, well our books have characterization too, so there!" at mainstream or literary critics who have been ignoring them.

Maybe it was a note from a friend, a longtime science fiction fan, who was rejoicing in the fact that his Miss Popularity daughter and her friends were campaigning to have their prom have a Tolkien theme.

Or another note from a friend exulting in how much cooler he is, now, than the people who were crappy to him in high school.

Might have been the interesting diversity of responses to Losers in Space (good sampling at the Goodreads page, and in the editorial reviews in the Barnes and Noble page), which prompted me to drop a note to Sharyn saying "You know, I think the acceleration of mud may be the toilet repair of this book." (She sent back an appropriate snarf. Sharyn and I play well together).

Some of it was the conversation I'm about to report below.

The one that crystallized it for me, though, just yesterday, was Max Castera's piece, "Why Do Kids Prefer Sci Fi over Science?" in Wired's GeekDad section.

Crystallized may be the wrong metaphor. More like finding a perfect piece of backing for a quilt, or perhaps a perfect brain in a jar (the one from Abby Somebody). Castera's piece let me sew together a bunch of stray snippets I'd written, without having them add up or go anywhere, across the last year, plus the thoughts occasioned above, into a sort of a Frankenstein of a blog post, which this is. I still don't know that I myself understand it (mostly it seems to be just going "Ruuuuggggggh!"), and it's kind of an ugly son of gun, but maybe it'll rile some peasants.

About that conversation: So there I was, sitting in a bookstore coffee shop, recharging my caffeine stream and the computer's battery, when I overheard, "Einstein like totally proved that how you experience time depends on your emotions. That's just physics."

I don't know how other novelists work, but eavesdropping is part of the job for me—actually a vital part. It's essential to avoiding having characters talk like people in other books.* So when I hear something, I start spying.

In this case, the person speaking was dressed like she was going to a costume party as a hipster geek, and I was reminded again that hip geeks and geekish hipsters had sort of sneaked up on me over the last couple decades, and that for many people under age thirty-five or so, there was never a time when geekiness wasn't cool or fashionable.

Then her coworker said. "I love physics. I mean, quantum physics. Of course I hate classical physics cause its like industry and killing the Earth** and all."

And the third coworker, a male who looked twice as hip and three times as geek as the other two put together, chimed in with the opinion that quantum physics, which Einstein had "invented" because he was "totally a mystic and a pacifist," meant that "things can be whatever we want them to be so, you know, observer created reality*** we're totally free." And it went downhill from there.****

All three had the mix of clothing and personal style that is somewhere right on the cusp between the cool crowd at a science fiction convention and the local coffeehouse intellectuals, and I was driven to a melancholy realization:

Geeks were never, on the whole, particularly smart.

Even when I was but a wee tad, and there were old geeks even then, the gray-haired geeks I met were often just people with good heads for trivia; an obsession with some less-visited and less-respected aspect of pop culture like vampires, superheroes, flying saucers, etc.; chips on their shoulders about people who were more socially capable, economically successful, or genuinely educated than themselves; and personas encrusted with odd affectations that were some mixture of defensiveness, attempts to be interesting, and genuine eccentricity.

What geeks were, which was very important and did matter very much to smart people, was other-geek-tolerant in a way that opened up room for other people to be smart.

The guy sitting next to you in the propeller beanie who knew the casts (and their careers) of everyone who was ever in a Universal horror movie, or the current positions of all the planets, or all of Monty Python by heart, was often not particularly more gifted intellectually than the teenage girl who could name every backup singer in thirty bands, or the White Sox fan who could tell you all of the last twenty seasons inning by inning, or the car enthusiast who instantly recognized the make, model, and year of every car that went by.

But unlike his or her mundane-hobbyist counterparts, the real geek liked to think that when he or she was sitting on a couch, drinking something sane people would avoid after they could drink legally, he was hanging out with a genius. With a fellow-genius. Ideally with a fellow slan-level uber-genius.

Better yet, the two of them could pretend that they were both sitting next to a fellow etcetera. And if one of them really was smart, bingo, home free, and hurray, there was a friendly place for a brainy person – and such places were (and still are) scarce in our culture. The shy, awkward mathematician who was seeing deeper into the nature of reality than anyone else within a 100-mile radius could feel like somebody liked him for the genius he really was, even if the person appreciating him was just a guy who knew a lot about Green Lantern.

But things move on.

Some of that light leavening of the really talented among the geeks grew older, got jobs in the entertainment industry, and made their dreams, and it turned out they were right all along: this shit was cool. People who used to duct-tape That Poor Hopeless Dork naked and upside down in the girl's locker room were standing in line on Dec. 17 desperately hoping to get a plastic toy from the TPHDverse so as not to ruin their kid's childhood (and were perhaps troubled, in the secret moments before they fell asleep, to be aware that when they said "I knew TPHD in high school, but we were never friends," their kids looked at them with deploring, condescending pity, thinking of course not, you couldn't possibly have been cool enough).

Geekiness became mainstream, and like all mainstream stuff then fragmented (a mainstream is a stream so big that it has room for plenty of turbulence). The consumer-culture toys-and-props side of geek culture grew a hip wing of people who like the same crap but like it ironically so don't lump me in with the lumps!

And smartness went from being tolerated to being assumed to ... well. To I geek therefore I'm smart. To .... let me show you.

Meanwhile back at the eavesdropping, an older guy who dressed like me (so you may trust me, nothing remotely hip was happening in his vicinity; mothers sometimes point me out to their children and say "See what happens if some people are allowed to dress themselves?") took a seat at the counter, and after a while, it turned out that being a high school physics teacher, and perhaps dealing with New Age "Quantum=Abracadabra!" equation in his classroom too often, he endeavored to correct some of the happy babble of the baristas. They told him that he needed to loosen up and get out of all this math stuff or he'd never understand quantum physics, and after he gave up, went off into a discussion of The Watchmen and of why Neil Gaiman's being on The Simpsons was cool, and I'm very happy to say that I can find no way to attribute one iota of what was in these people's heads (or not there, more properly) to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Matt Groening.

After he left, their conversation morphed over to People Who Just Don't Get It, by which they meant not so much that guy who thought he knew physics but had probably never even heard of Deepak Chopra, as much as they meant their parents and some of their employers and teachers, who, like, never ever heard of or even thought about this stuff, so they were like, so cut off, so out of it. I noted that at least for these three little hipster geeks, the Clark Kent glasses, engine-part earrings, sleeved up tats and too-cool 'tude have become their ironclad evidence that despite knowing very little, and being unable to think coherently or cogently about the little they know, they are very comfortable with being brainitude-infested uber smart innalexshuls, to pronounce it as they tended to.***** Smartness consisted of what you bought and how you consumed it, of liking the right products and rejecting everything that didn't fit. They were smart because they were geeks and they were geeks because they were fashion-slaves to geekish peer pressure, not just in products but also in beliefs and ideas and pritnear the whole works.

And a pleasant thought overwhelmed me.

The geeks of a few generations ago, the true paleogeeks, the ones who made geekdom a safe hangout for brains in a world full of bullies, trendies, and trendy bullies, the geeks who were not always likeable or personable but still occupied the most interesting table at lunchtime – those geeks would not have been able to stand these guys behind the counter. (Heck, I would guess many of the geeks of today can't). In fact there was a good chance that that high school physics teacher, who looked like he was competing with me in the final round of Can You Be Mistaken for a Basket of Laundry?, was a genuine old-school real-thing geek, a Geek of Old, if you will.

And the pleasant thought was this: people just like the Geeks of Old are still being born. They are still being badly socialized and squeezed to the outside of school and family and peer groups. They are still growing up into a world that has very little place for them.

In fact, for the moment, the world has less place for the Geeks of Old than it did during Old, because what used to be their place has been overrun with trendy dipshits. Really, it's not even a new sort of social disaster; it's what happened to the hippies for a while, and to the preppies, and might happen to any other broad clique or lifestyle at any moment: the people who want to get what you've got without accepting what you have are essentially a ravening horde of peer-driven fashion-enforcers, and at the moment they've ravened their way into geekdom, but

1)    they won't stay, because they never stay anywhere, and
2)    when they go, they'll have destroyed a lot of bullshit, because it is exactly the bullshit to which they are attracted, and they'll discredit it for generations of geeks yet to come.

Right now, out there, some kid with hardly any friends is muttering to him or herself, "Vampires and zombies are stupid. Space ships and aliens are bullshit. Movies that are all flashing lights and loud noises and based on toys are dumb, and besides there's no explosions in space and that time machine doesn't make any sense and computers can't blow up from typing unacceptable commands any more than paper catches fire when you write bad things on it, and not to mention that a guy who spends all his time running and yelling and shooting would not have any idea how to fix a toaster, let alone a space-time continuumoscopic defenestrator. I am not going to go to the party dressed as a wizard, I am not going to stand in line till midnight to be the first to see SOUND AND FURY: The Tale Told By An Idiot, Part 7, and I am going to stay right here and..."

"... and ..."


There's the beauty!

I don't know and you don't know what that kid is staying home reading/watching/playing instead.

But we live in the world of teh interwebz, and no matter what s/he likes, or is looking for, soon that outcast kid will find another person who has no desire to be a wizard and thinks that Japanese artists may have been snorting a little too hard on the panties from the vending machines and should at least learn to draw people with smaller eyes.

I can't seem to find it online, but decades ago, reading one of Those Magazines That No, Really, I Mean It, I Read It For the Fiction, I encountered a marvelous cartoon: an immense orgy with naked people of all genders in all possible configurations in one vast sprawl, except for a young woman in a somewhat dowdy dress and a young man in a rumpled suit and tie, standing in the middle of the only clear space in that humping, rutting mob. They had eyes only for each other, and one of them was saying, "Really? I like classical music too!"

I wish I could find it because it illustrates exactly my point: that when the genuinely different – not the affectedly set-apart – find each other and discover that they are not the only ones in the world like themselves, the angels sing a capella Bach in heaven. Or perhaps hold a Dixieland parade or a hootenanny or do a kazoo performance of the 1812 Overture. You just never can tell with those angels, they're fun-loving bastards who don't care what's cool. And if that's not what angels are like I'm playing for the other team from now on.

Anyway, only slightly more seriously: this is a big reason why the indie/self-pub revolution is so incredibly wonderful, and why I envy younger writers who won't spend as many years in traditional/legacy publishing. Because there is going to be more and odder odd stuff out there to be found. Because people who like really-smart and demanding-smart more than glib-smart or fashion-smart or of-course-I'm-smart-all-my-friends-are-rich-and-we-all-agree-we-are will be able to find things they like, and through those things, find each other, and the bullying ninny ex-geek in the corner office in New York or LA won't be able to keep them from it.

One reason why As You Like It is still my favorite Shakespeare comedy is this: nearly everyone you see on the stage has realized that the wicked usurper seizing power in the capital is a perfect excuse for all the fun people to run off to the Forest of Arden, put on men's clothes if they don't wear them already, and have fun adventures for their own sake for the next four acts (and then abruptly marry each other because, shucks, it's a comedy, everybody likes a wedding at the end of a comedy).

Well, folks, I am here to tell you: the towers of geekdom are fallen to the hands of the trendroids. The cool people have seized the citadel. Usurper fashionistas sit upon the thrones of glory in Castle Geek, and true geeks creep out the back gate at night, unnoticed, unpursued, unmourned. We are once again exiles

.... in the Forest of Arden! ...

so put on your favorite role and maybe a nice men's outfit******, and join me in hanging up handbills filled with excruciating poetry all over the woods (I intend to hang up Emily Dickinson's "I'm nobody! Who are you?" on any tree that has private property post no bills on it, and maybe tape it to some ultra-serious culture-critic's back when he's not looking).

With the handbills we invite all the new people (that lost kid reading Coleridge in the corner of the library at lunch, the girl who can't tell anyone why she visits all those 19th century fashion plate websites every night, the kid who likes math because of the taste of seven and the ringing tones of primes) to all the new parties. It's gonna be fun out here, away from the usurpers. If it ever gets dull, we can hold a wedding and go sack the castle back.
*I don't try to avoid having characters talk like people in books. They should talk like people in books. They are people in books. They just shouldn't talk like people in other books, unless I'm deliberately imitating the other books. Having people talk like people in other books just because that's how you happen to write them is lazy, misses too many opportunities to do something interesting, and is probably a symptom of not having anything to say (possibly because you read too much to do anything interesting).

**actually she said something more like "kiln thuh earthen awl?" But I immediately realized she was not asking questions about making ceramic woodcarver's tools. Such are the benefits of theatre training in accents and dialects.

***pronounced "azerva crated ree-yatty." Okay, I'll stop now.

****If you don't see anything wrong with any of what they were saying, go away quickly, because I am a bad person and I will hurt you just for fun. Or at least you'll never be able to figure out any other reasons for what I did.

*****Oops. I guess that was the last time, then.

****** or whatever you like, Dr. Furter. Wouldn't want to spoil the party for anyone.