Have 5 tomatoes in the ground; transplanted some vigorous and lovely oregano that took over a planter several years ago; threw some basil, string beans and okra in the ground. Have a couple spots earmarked for potatoes and sweet potatoes – and that’s it for the space this year. The last remaining major segment of the Never-ending Insane Brick Project of Doom will provide about 30′ of 18″ wide beds that I’m planning to sneak some vegetables in. But that’s about all – space has been maximized unless I want to start cutting down walnut trees – and I don’t.
B. Marrying off the the Middle Son. Got tickets and rented a van for a week for an extended end-of-May trip for our son’s wedding. He and his fiancé live in and will be married in a Fauxvid-panicked state – veritable feet from the border of a much more sane state. The wedding will be held in an out of the way location, with the reception just across the border from Karin and her pals (we sincerely hope). This will be our second child married off during the current insanity. At least this time, plans are unlikely to change by the minute.
Americans are not the stupidest people in recorded history, I keep telling myself, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. We have been trained for this moment of mindless terror-stricken conformity for at least the last 50 years. This is the payoff moment for decades of schooling: we are all getting a Gold Star for remembering to raise our hands and ask for permission to go to the bathroom.
Sorry. Forgot we’re not bickering over ‘o killed ‘o at the moment. This is a happy occasion!
C. Rereading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, for story ideas for additional stories in the White Handled Blade universe (Universe? Neighborhood might be a more accurate term). Read as history, it’s fascinating and depressingly realistic:
King – Uther Pendragon – dies without a obvious legitimate heir;
After a couple chaotic decades during which various kings, in the traditional Roman sense of a leader who the armed men will follow, and other lords vie for power in the vacuum, a (another?) candidate is proposed – a nobody hardly anyone has heard of.
This nobody is backed by the Church, allegedly backed by a heavenly/magical sign.
The sign is repeated over the course of months, until enough knights can be assembled to back the claimant.
The new ‘king’ and his men then fights battle after battle, defeating other kings and their knights,
who either submit to Arthur’s rule – cry ‘mercy’ and are sent to Arthur to pledge their fealty – or are killed.
Arthur rules from the saddle, with a number of courts spread around his realm.
After a while, enough kings and knights have been brought to heel for Arthur to be able to send knights on quests of one sort or another. Ruling from the saddle by proxy
A story begins to circulate that he really is the legitimate heir, but, for his safety, had to be raised in secret once his mother and father were dead until he was of age.
The mandate of Heaven clearly rests upon him – but he’s doomed by his incestuous infidelity in fathering a son, then pulling a Herod to try to get rid of Mordred. (Thus, Sophocles and Scripture testify to his doom!)
The second striking part are the layers of anachronism. Malory is painting Arthur like a 1950s author might paint the Founding Fathers, projecting back on them the romanticized versions learned through myth and morality tales. The chivilary imagined for the centuries preceding the compilation is read into the stories. Yet his source materials hardly admit of such – these are violent men committing violent crimes once or twice a page, and getting away with it. Further, Arthur retains signs of what he was supposed to be: a Roman/Celtic king/chieftain. Further further, the sources have all sorts of magical and frankly irrational elements in them.
Malory mixes up a stew, in which knights, supposedly bound by a largely imaginary chivalry already ancient in Malory’s time, pursue often incoherent adventures involving magical creatures and appalling behaviors, lopping off heads left and right, as it were.
And it kind of works! He’s a better storyteller than he sometimes get credit for.
D. Writing continues at a somewhat slower pace. More on that later, world’s suicidal death spiral permitting.
…I found a bunch of stories and outlines from decades ago. Most, I remembered instantly once I saw them, a couple evoked a major ‘huh?’ response, as in, I have no memory of them at all. It’s weirdly encouraging: not only have I averaged about 150K words/yr on this blog, I also wrote maybe 200 pages of stories and outline long before this blog. So, I guess I’m a writer by the simple fact that I do, in fact, write. Now, if I can only complete the novels and publish them – that’s the plan! Anyway, for kicks:
A. Untitled Novel Outline, 8/9/90, 15 pages + diagram, handwritten. A chemist working for the National Oceanographic Institute gets involved with some illegal gold mining on the ocean floor. Insane chase scene involving a submersible and two ships. He gets the girl. I remember it being a ton of fun writing the outline. I even have a sort of roller-coaster diagram for the chase scene.
B. Notes from a writing workshop I attended, 7/8/90. No longer applicable, if they ever were.
C. Penultimate chapter to a Sci Fi novel about a run in with some insectoid star-faring race. Undated. Only about 6 pages, the escape scene. Remember having written a lot more on it – maybe it’s in this pile someplace. [update: nope.]
D. Thelma and Me. 8/95. Only 3 pages long, one of my favorite stories. Maybe I should throw it up here, since it’s hardly more than flash fiction? The 1st person protagonist notes that the odometer on his ’57 Chevy BelAir convertible, which he bough new with money from his first job out of high school, is about to hit 500,000 miles. Babying this car has been about the only thing he’s ever done right in his life.
E. The Great Desert Valley, CH 1 of Earth Wars, which is perhaps a misleading title – it was intended as a set of stories about what might be called real ecology. Think I started it in response to all the nonsensical anthropomorphizing of nature, so I started writing more ‘true’ stories. In this story, I try to recount what it would have looked like when one of the periodic refloodings of the dried-out Mediterranean basin took place – from the perspective of the life adapted to living in an extreme desert basin. Whatever destruction we might think we’ve done to the environment, Nature has done and will do much, much worse.
F. The Last Sabre-Toothed Tiger, CH 2 of the above. A story of how exquisite adaptation can spell death when conditions change. A story I don’t see in this pile is my favorite from the set: about a lighthouse cat that completes the extinction of some shorebird, by the simple accident that the lighthouse keeper had a cat, and the rock the lighthouse was on was also the only place where the seabirds bred. All the creatures – man, cat, bird – act innocently according to their natures, yet extinction of one of them results.
G. Sets of song lyrics. Did I mention that I used to be a (frankly, terrible) part of a number of garage bands? Well, I did. And I tried my hand at songwriting, with some minimal success. So in this pile are the lyrics to a bunch of songs, a few of which I recall and even set to music. In my last band, did get one number I wrote into the rotation – people seemed to like it. I am of the ‘melancholy to sad lyrics set to bouncy music’ school of songwriting. These would need some *very* bouncy music to counterbalance the depressing lyrics.
H. Undated, untitled handwritten outline, 4 yellow legal pad pages long, of some wild adventure that kicks off with a priest killing a teenage soldier. Absolutely no idea where this came from. The notes are largely incomprehensible now, e.g., “Grain rotting in the fields, on the shelves, (Bali??)” Must have had something in mind….
I. Whole folder full of Earth Wars stories, dates 12/14/1989! Printed out on a dot matrix printer, on paper with little perforations. Call in the archeologists! The outline/table of contents shows 19 stories. In the actual printout, there’s the lighthouse cat story, and a story about elephants creating grasslands from forests (you knew they did that, right?). There’s one 20-page story called The Last Cave Bear, which has to do with the encroaching ice sheets 125,000 years ago, a sort of border conflict between cave bears, who were going extinct around this time, and people, who were learning to adapt to much harsher conditions during the glaciation. It’s a really sad story. And then, the concluding chapter is Ut Animalia, a wild tale of an elderly Latin American priest serving at the ruins of a church while his mind slips away. Due to the constant revolution, he hardly ever sees anybody – but the animals of the surrounding jungle start to make the church their home.
Maybe half an inch of paper devoted to a 30+ year old project. Huh.
J. The Talley, an 11 page long short story, undated, but printed out on the same dot matric printer, so around 1989. This one is marked up, as a draft awaiting revisions. The 1st person narrator has recently been widowed; he teaches piano. On his walk home from visiting his wife’s grave, a woman whose talentless, uninterested tween son takes lessons from him, corners him. Potentially interesting things ensue.
K. Ut Animalia has it’s own folder! An incomplete draft – don’t think I ever finished it.
L. Prime Directive. Another dot matrix era bit of – ??? In this folder there is a wide piece of perforated lined paper labeled “Character/Plot Development Chart” broken into squares, characters on the left, characteristics across the top, with little tidbits in each box. Wild.
I have no memory of this.
Then, an outline, regarding a sort of graduate-level field trip to Borneo to investigate the natives. I have a character named Higgins (‘just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins!’) and a bunch of grad-school rabble. The title comes from, I suppose, the absurdity of the Star Trek Prime Directive. Then, there’s an opening chapter, where the students reveal themselves to be Trekkers.
What could I possibly have been thinking? The character outlines show a conflict between science, which doesn’t ultimately care if the people being studied live or die, a practical recognition that you might have to choose between saving the culture and saving the people, and a character who cannot see that choice.
And that’s it for that set of files. There are only two projects/stories I remember that aren’t in there – one, called The Pearl, about the gaslighting that goes on inside a truly messed up family, written in 1992, and an untitled parody of sex researchers in the wild. That last one involved an enlightened feminist sex researcher doing field work, in Borneo again, I think (I had recently read the excellent Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O’Hanlon, so had Borneo on the brain), trying to discredit the claims made by her major competitor, who happens to now be the lover of her former boyfriend. So she retraces the steps in her enemy’s landmark and tenure-securing masterpiece, attempting to replicate/discredit, as it were, the ‘;findings.’ Thus, she finds herself trying to get laid in the jungles of Borneo.
All the characters involved are utterly jealous, possessive, and needy, while of course rejecting the very idea that sex might lead such feelings. Hilarity ensued via the write-ups from the field getting published in, I think, the Atlantic? wherein the ‘researcher’ recounts her experiences, basically, trying to get laid by a bunch of tribesmen, who, as shines through her reports despite her lofty language, think she’s a curiously insane white lady best kept at arms’ length. I particularly remember writing her discussion on the desirability of pendulosity in breasts, and how it could not be that the difference between her breasts and the breasts of her competitor had lead to her failure in the field….
I think I stopped when I realized: there is no way to parody this. Anything I think of has probably been done, in all seriousness, by some maniac or other. But it was funny, you’ll have to take my word for it…
A. Spring is almost here. My seasonal affective disorder – the fancy, victim-centric way of saying sunlight and warmth make me happy – is crashing to a halt. Yay me. California is very beautiful. It’ll be hard to leave.
Doing a little garden prep.
The Insane Endless Brick Project of Doom lurks, but I need to do work on the lawn and paint the house, too….
B. On the writing front, been watching Successful Indie Author Five-Minute Focus by Craig Martelle, the 20 books to 50K guy. He recently did a thing on how many things one should work on at once. Short answer: it depends, but he finds three things the most he can productively work on at once, and must have one as the primary focus with a deadline. This seems about right to me, and pretty much what it has boiled down to.
C. With that in mind, top focus: It Will Work, with a self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2021. Added a couple thousand usable words plus a bunch of outlining and a little research (mostly, looking up names – the names are mostly plays on words from Mauri mythology and Greek. Because they are.) It’s up to 10,000 useable words as of today.
The backup projects are Understanding Science and Black Friday, the first of which is on hold until I get stuck/finished with It Will Work, the second of which I’ve done a little more research on and some additional outlining, but is basically in the bullpen warming up. So, I’m still enthusiastic. My in-bed-as-I-fall-asleep reading is Morte d’Arthur and the Mabinogion, for that Arthurian book, so I’m mentally working on that as well, even if putting nothing in writing yet. And I’m making a habit of thinking through plot points if I wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep. Works both way: by not thinking of the current and accelerating Fall of Western Civilization, I get back to sleep faster, and I have in fact worked through some plot points. Win-win!
Hit my first (since getting on this current writing jag back in January) wall: On It Will Work, got stuck on how to deal with the inescapable infodump I need in the middle chapters. There’s just some critical backstory/worldbuilding that has to take place, no way around it. I’ve tried to be clever about working needed information into the story more or less naturally, but this was not happening here. After sleeping on it, just had one of the minor characters tell the protagonist something about the history of my aliens, then will have some action, and then have some other character tell him the rest. All in all, it’s going to be about 3,000 words of backstory/worldbuilding spread across maybe 10,000 words of story. Just reading it back, it doesn’t seem like too much – but what do I know about writing books? The 1.5 million+ words I’ve written over the last decade are 90% blog posts…
D. Speaking of blog posts, keep adding to the drafts folder. I was, in fact, writing posts over the week I’ve been gone – just not finishing and posting posts. Because I started thinking, and, well, what good ever comes of that?!?
No excuse for boring you, my loyal readers, with this, but here goes:
A. Trying to keep up the momentum, I’m switching back and forth between 3-4 writing projects. When I get stuck on one, just switch. Don’t even think about, just keep writing, with the goal still being 2 novels and 2 collections of short stories ready to go (to an editor, most likely) by end of June. And that science book. Anyway, what’s in the hopper:
Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: Right around 10,000 words, on temporary hold. The comments, especially from Dr. Kurland and some of the commentators here, made me think – always dangerous. The question is not so much what science IS – which can be approached, I think, from several valid angles – but rather, in what sense should a layman care what science is. It will do little good to be technical accurate if my imagined reader doesn’t see any point to it. Ya know? So, I’m letting that one stew for now.
Working title “It Will Work” the first 6,000 or so words of which appeared on this blog as a series of flash fiction posts. (CH 1CH 2CH 3CH 4CH 5CH 6CH 7) I couldn’t seem to stop writing this, right up until I could, and it got the second most positive comments of anything I’ve written here, (1) so it seemed primed to become a short novel. It was one of the three novels-in-development in the Novels folder I set up back in January. At about 8,000 words at the moment.
Always told myself I needed to settle on an ending, so I knew where I was going with this – even though the 7 fragments were each tossed off totally seat-of-the-pants. Well, just today I started outlining what the kids these days might call the Boss Battle, the final test of Our Hero – and, it rocks so hard. Want to talk stupid? I was getting choked up telling my wife about it. I wrote it long before the current insanity, but, given the current insanity, it all makes so much more sense. As far as a “things done got blowed up good” by bombardment from space and aliens in power armor scene set on a distant moon of a far-away planet can be said to relate to current events. (answer: quite a bit, really.) Anyway: got the finale & denouement outlined, and am in the middle of the middle section. My only fear, if you can call it that – if I keep the pacing such as it has been so far, I’ll wrap it up in +/-30K words. Don’t want to stretch it simply for the sake of stretching it, but do want at least 40K words – Pulp Era novel length. Not a real problem until it is….
The White-Handled Blade – the Arthurian YA novel set in modern day Wales, the first 25% of which is the novella several generous readers here beta read for me a couple years ago. Currently sits at about 13K words. This one is exciting, but I want to do more reading in Arthurian legends and outline a longer path, as in, a potential series, before maybe writing myself into a corner. The story as it stands now is little more than a free retelling of the Lynette & Lyonesse story as told by Malory, ending right before Gareth makes his untoward advances toward Lyonesse. So, obviously, I would continue along those line BUT I want to introduce more stuff that will let me go in any number of Arthurian directions. I already have several of the important knight (reimagined as middle-aged academics, because I find that amusing), so, in future works, it will be easy to take some side-trips to Scotland or the Orkneys or Cornwall or France. I want to keep Lynnette as the heroine, because I like her, and she was designed from the ground up as someone the reader could relate to: she’s fiercely devoted to her older sister, loves but has trouble communicating with her dad, gets snubbed and bullied at school, can hold a grudge, but never gives up and is as brave as needed to rise to the occasion. And is otherwise a blank slate, so there’s nothing in the way to seeing yourself in her shoes.
So I’m rereading Malory and reading the Mabinogion for ideas. The farther back in time one goes, the crazier the legends become, such that getting a glimpse into Malory’s world – 15th century retelling of much older stories -is a lot easier than getting into the world of the Mabinogion, which are thought to be older still. Even Malory requires a bit of gymnastics to get into the moral mindset of people who seem to kill each other rather gleefully at the drop of a biggin, but not like the Welsh tales. And then there’s the French version…
Speaking of writing something I didn’t set out to write and would have never imagined writing, it seems YA fiction is mostly characterized as follows:
not too much gore
Which, frankly is a pretty fair description of anything I’m likely to write. On the other hand, Hunger Games is about children killing each other for the amusement of the powerful – I’d take a lot of sex and swearing before I’d consider that entertainment…
Anyway, it seems to be common industry knowledge that YA readership includes large numbers of adults who are just sick and tired of all the gratuitous sex and swearing and violence in mainstream stuff. So, from that point of view, pretty much anything (well, except this) I write would qualify, but I have never consciously tried to write YA. I’m putting in plenty of what I hope to be interesting non-childish philosophical and political and moral stuff. So – huh? Anyway, I’ll have to be careful of how I market this stuff. Studying up on that in parallel. Hope to get back to it soon, but it’s It Will Work is on the front burner at the moment.
Longship, the working title of the Novel That Shall Not Be Named (wait! doh!), some sections of which I’ve thrown up here on the blog, is the one that has both been percolating in my mind for a decade or two AND the one I’m having the least success in hammering into a actual novel or 4. On the back burner.
Finally, Black Friday is another bit of flash fiction fluff (well, 1400 words, so not exactly flash fiction…) that seemed ripe to expand, so I’ve been outlining that one, too. Have put in some work on it, but not in the form of adding to the wordcount.
B. This brings me to another consideration: The science and education stuff (remember that education stuff? I seem to have forgotten) I will publish under my own name. However, if I’m hoping to actually make a little money off the SF&F stuff, it would seem prudent to market under a nom de plum. I’m under no illusions that I’m anybody important, but underestimating the pettiness of our self-appoint betters is a fool’s game.
On a related note, I’ve taken a few baby steps towards hardening my superversive presence online, including a Brave/Duckduckgo browsing combo, a protonmail account and staying off Google as much as I can. I want to go :
secure website hosting
Just want off, as much as possible, the Bidenriech’s surveillance network. A know I guy…
C. The 16 year old Caboose just mentioned that his favorite books include a book on spiritual teachings from the perspective of a demon, a book on politics from the perspective of rabbits, and a post apocalyptical novel about a monastery.
Kids these days. I asked him what about that book about the short dude with hairy feet trying to return some stolen jewelry? He laughed.
D. Slept 8+ hours straight last night, the first time that’s happened in months. Felt very good. Been getting 4 -6 hours most nights since the Crazy Years became manifest – wake up, can’t go back to sleep, get us and try to do something. I could get used to that.
E. Got a few hundred more bricks. The neighbors who I, being a solid California suburbanite, hardly know, have twice now over the last few years of the Great Front Yard Brick Insanity and Orchard Hoedown, have, unbidden, offered me bricks, because I’m the guy with the brickwork. So, dude around the corner had this pile of bricks he wanted gone – 6 1/2 wheelbarrows full. Maybe a short block away.
One Load 3, I think it was, I came off the curb a little too hard and bent the metal wheel supports (it’s a cheap and old wheelbarrow) such that the wheel now rubbed against the underbelly of the tub section. I was able to brut-force them straight enough so that I could limp that load home.
So, had to repair the wheelbarrow. Two bolts that hold the handle arms to the tub section, which I had replaced a few years back with a couple far too long bolts I had lying around, had worked themselves very loose then rusted into their new loose positions. This made the load likely to shift from side to side as you rolled – no biggie with a load of dirt, dangerous and tiring with a load of bricks. But the bolts were carriage bolts, so there was no easy way to grip the head from the top. After a applying a bit of WD-40, tried to grip the excess bolt with plyers while using a crescent wrench to tighten them up. The first nut moved a little before the plyers had shredded the threads on the bolt and would no longer prevent it from turning; the second budged not a whit. Jury-rigged the ugliest solution: took some heavy wire, bent it unto a U shape, then crimped it onto the bolts between the nut and the tub – one on the side I’d gotten a little tighter, and two one the side I’d been unable to move.
And – it kinda works. Reality often fails to suitably rebuke me for my stupid ideas, thereby encouraging me to keep coming up with more of them. It’s going to get me killed someday…
Next, for the bent arms: Cut a scrap of walnut into two maybe 8″ pieces, placed them behind the bent arms, clamped them until the arms were more or less straight and in contack with the wood, then drilled some wholes and put in some tiny screws to hold it all together.
And – that worked, too. Now have a much more stiff structure and a couple inches of clearance between the tub and wheel. See what I mean? If these slapdash ideas keep working, I’m going to keep doing them.
Next step: replace the 16+ year old cheap and falling apart wheelbarrow. Once some stupid repair idea fails to work, that is.
F. Got the front yard orchard cleaned up, pruned, fertilized, mulched, copper-sprayed, and watered, not in that order. So, that’s done for now. Next, finish the brickwork, paint the house, get it fumigated for termites, replace the dying major appliances, put in this year’s vegetable garden, marry off a son on the East Coast in May, and goodness knows what else. And teach a couple history classes. Shaping up to be a busy Year 63 for me. And write two novels, put together two books of short stories, and write a book on science – in my spare time.
Yes, I am freaking INSANE.
Most positive comments: One Day. Heck, even Mike Flynn liked it enough to comment – I’m still blushing.
A. Now am working on the “What Science IS” chapter for the Understanding Science book. The first three preliminary chapters are or soon will be posted here for your review, dear readers. Probably combine them into one chapter, edit them down a little to remove repetition.
The What Science IS chapter is challenging. What I want is to engage my laymen target audience, and give them an understanding of science that will allow them filter out the high-level nonsense. I doubt the utility of going the Popper route of falsifiable propositions for my purposes – you gotta think too hard, and have more philosophy than your average bloke to really get your head around the basic concepts – at least, I think you do. If I start right in laying on the philosophy, years of government training – schooling – will kick in and their minds will perform an auto-shutdown. I think. (Math triggers the same routines in the properly schooled.)
Along a similar vein, I wrote a little ‘three kinds of knowledge’ section, then set it aside – as basic and, indeed, essential as this distinction is, I fear I will loose my imagined target audience one sentence in. Can I frame up a discussion of necessary truth, conditional truth, and art (techne) that doesn’t trigger a flight response? The necessary truth part I’d limit to math and logic – no need to go any deeper for my purposes. The important part is the recognition of CONDITIONS on all scientific knowledge, and, more subtle, how those conditions (mostly) need to be expressed in order for science to have any weight.
Then comes the point that art/techne/technology is really, really good and, for most of us, much more true – more BELIEVABLE – than science claims. Our computers and cell phones WORK – that’s their primary characteristic of interest. That working is far more convincing and interesting, for most of us, than any scientific syllogisms based on conditional observations of more abstract, less immediate phenomena.
I can say that observation of the orbit of Mercury or of starlight bending around the sun during an eclipse proves relativity – OR I can say: without relativistic adjustments, the GPS in your phone wouldn’t be near as accurate. Which is more convincing? I could say: some thermodynamic laws govern how much a given gas will cool down when it expands, and show some math – or I can point out that refrigerators work. Which is more convincing?
I gather from a lifetime of interactions with people that few wondered, as children, how that refrigerator worked, or how those huge generators in dams worked. The fridge was totally baffling to me; I figured dynamos must make sparks or something. That all these man-made things work is probably as much a driver of my curiosity as the wonders of nature. But is that pertinent here?
So, in the current draft, I went with: Science is the study of the metrical properties of physical bodies – a sound, if subtly complex, definition that seemed better to address my goals. What this definition does is put the focus on the observation of physical things, specifically, things that can be measured. Not our opinions or feelings about what we observe, not things such as other people’s feelings, which can be (maybe) observed but not measured.
I planned to use this approach to hammer home the (obvious?) point that science simply cannot dictate policy. There is no “this is what we came up with when we measured some properties of physical objects, therefore you must do X.” There are a whole lot of steps being left out in such an assertion, chief of which is a clear statement of the value judgements and moral assumptions that always underlie claims we must do something. The laws of physics say we must fall if we jump off that cliff, but they don’t and can’t say if we should or should not jump off that cliff. Falling once you jump is science and outside any subsequent act of your will; deciding to jump is not.
The subtilty lies in cases where sciences have developed by studying the metrical properties of physical objects without overtly measuring those properties. Geology is an example suggested by a reader. Early theories were developed without too much explicit measurement. Example: for plate tectonics to be true, the Atlantic Ocean must be expanding. And so it is – at exactly some number of millimeters per year, within some plus or minus. Once that measurement has been obtained, we now can back into how old the Atlantic Ocean is, within limits. Similarly, biology started by simply observing the difference between various plants and animals and describing the different characteristics, but soon moved on to measuring those characteristics, such that we know African and Indian elephants differ in size: height, weight, ears, tusks, etc.
Even the historical sciences are looking at measurable properties, even if they don’t start of measuring them, they eventually do.
The above is the sort of thing I might throw in an appendix or end note.
Anyway, I need a bit of a break from this science stuff, so:
B. Turned to the Novels in Process folder. On each of the three items in the stack, I need more planning done. An honest (as honest as I can be) assessment: one I could conceivably finish in a few months – it just needs some outlining to get it from where it is at to where it needs to go, so I don’t meander too much getting there; the other two are going to need a daunting amount of planning and research. On the one that’s been percolating for a couple decades now, I work as I try to fall asleep at night – I try to wrestle it into a series, chop it into 3-4 pieces, deal with the already large cast of characters, and try to make the ‘science’ less ridiculous. Mostly, it’s a matter of organizing the various climaxes, or inventing some, to get it into manageable stories. I add to my notes when I think of it.
So, I thought: I need another short novel to put into the hopper from the ‘ideas’ pile, one that I can get done in less time with less anxiety. (hahaha.) So – picked a flash fiction (1400 word) story that reads like the first chapter in a “world’s going to hell, unlikely heroes rise to the occasion” adventure. Our Heroes hunker down from an evil government takeover, jury-rig some awesome tech, outwit the government lackies, and overcome impossible odds, culminating in a glorious showdown – that sets up a sequel.
My model, from a structure POV, is just good ol’ Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, which is a pretty solid Dent style story I’ve always loved and admired: every chapter, Our Heroes are put into deadly danger, each worse than the last, with the stakes getting higher with each turn of the page, until THE ENTIRE PLANET is threatened!
I’ve long wanted to try my had at something like that. Once, many years ago, I wrote a fairly long outline (long hand, in a notebook) for a crazy story along these lines, with bad guys pretending to fund deep-sea research out of the goodness of their hearts, using Our Gullible Hero to find some valuable mineral deposits around some deep sea vents, then abandoning the submersible with him and the girl he’s long had a crush on at the bottom of the ocean, once they got what they wanted. A wacky escape, with proper heroics and comeuppances ensued. Boy gets girl. It was stoopid fun – at least, writing the outline was. Wonder what happened to that? I think we started having kid right around that time, so I set it aside…
Anyway, along those lines. So now I’m reading a Homeland Security document on shopping mall vulnerabilities. Because of course I am. For essential background! I swear!
C. The front yard orchard & garden needs pre-spring prep: cleanup, fertilize, copper spray, lay down some more mulch, repair/improve some raised beds. Get a few more flowering plants for the boarders. Last year, lost all my front yard viny vegetables to an insane aphid/white fly infestation followed by that nasty mold that seems to love squash. So, no front yard squash, cucumbers, etc. this year, as that stuff tends to linger in the soil for years.
Back yard needs work. Lawn needs aerating and reseeding; garden needs weeding/prep; need a few flowers for some planters. The usual.
D. Meanwhile, deferred maintenance keeps piling up: the sun beats on the house’s south-facing walls, which are now peeling and cracking. I got paint, but now I need to clear away obstructions, get some scaffolding (2-story), do a ton of prep, and then get on it while I still can. Sure, you can hire a painter, but I figure this is the follow-up to the Great Brick Insanity: something I can do for a few hours at a time, finish a wall, clear and prep the next, so that, over a summer, with my son’s help, I can get it done. A lot less hands and knees work than bricks. (Still have some brickwork to finish too, but I’m not thinking about that now. I. Am. Not.)
E. I need to write two history test, one each for the 8th and 9th graders, for tomorrow. What I’m I doing writing here? Later!
How about we team beta-read this thing? I’ll throw up chapters as I get them finished, and you all can, in your exceeding mercy, take a look and tell me where things are not clear or otherwise have problems. You will earn my undying gratitude. You can put your comments in the comments, or email them to me.
(To those who offered criticism so far – my thanks, and I will get back to you soon!)
There will be a few preliminary chapters before getting to the nuts and bolts. I need to establish why anyone should care about this, and try to put a crack, however tiny, in the stone certainty of the many.
The table of contents as it now stands, to show the order in which I want to discuss things, followed by a Goals preliminary chapter.
Table of Contents
The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense
Taming the Beast
Chapter 1: What Is This Science Thing, Anyway? A Note on Studies Some Studies to Ponder
Chapter 2: Why Should You Care About Science Claims?
Chapter 3: The Toolkit Outlined
Chapter 4: Appeals to ‘Scientific Consensus’
Chapter 5: ‘Believe’ the Science
Chapter 6: ‘Trust’ the Scientists
Chapter 7: The ‘Science is Settled’
Chapter 8: You Are Commanded to Have and Defend a Position as ‘Scientific’
Chapter 9: Science Dictates Policy
Chapter 10: Thoughts, Feelings, and Other Non-Physical Objects
Chapter 11: Model Output Presented as Evidence
Chapter 12: Some More Technical Considerations (If You’re Up For It)
Who Is This Guy, Who Thinks He Can Tell Me All About Science? About the Author
The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense
Let me break it to you up front: you’re not going to learn all about science from one 200 or so page book. But you might learn how not to get snowed by obvious nonsense masquerading as science. That’s all we’re trying to do here. These days, being able to tell the difference between science and hokum is becoming a more and more important skill. Don’t be a gullible rabbit. Think for yourself.
I’m a layman when it comes to science, and wrote this book for other laymen. You’ll need to go to the experts, and put in the years of work, if you want to know the details of any particular scientific field. Here, we’re only hoping to pass along enough understanding of what science looks like so that you can perform a sniff test on claims that ‘the science’ demands you do or believe something.
I’m here to tell you that those details, as beautiful and thrilling as they often are, are not the problem. Rarely does anyone try to snow us using the actual details of any scientific field. That’s too much work. Rather, the con men and quacks want you to believe them because they speak for science and you’re a smart little rabbit, and you know that you must do whatever science tells you to do, or you’re a bad person. This works, when it does, partly because science – actually, it’s technology, but we’ll get back to that – has delivered to us peons so many life-enhancing and life-saving tools, not to mention all the cool gadgets. iPhones are cool; it takes science to make iPhones; therefore, science is cool! Every snake-oil salesman wants you to think he’s all aglow with the beneficent aura of SCIENCE when he tries to compel us to buy what he’s selling. It behooves us all to be able to spot the snake oil, even, especially, when the dude selling it is wearing a lab coat.
But mostly, these manipulative and abusive claims made in the name of science get accepted because we humans are naturally more interested in our good standing with our tribe than with some abstraction like ‘the truth’ or ‘the evidence.’ We will tend to believe, and think it evil not to believe, whatever everybody else in our tribe believes.
If I am able to make you instantly suspicious of any claims that ‘science has shown’ this or that thing to be true, with the implied threat that you will be a stupid, if not evil, person if you don’t go along, this book will have achieved its goal. Shaming and threatening is not how science works. That’s how fraud, manipulation, and propaganda work.
Reality check: I’m putting together a book in order to make points that could be listed on 1 page. Is there any chance anyone who doesn’t see the truth in the list is going to see the truth when I pound it in with another 40-50K words? I don’t know, which means – I’m writing as therapy? Icky.
Today, I’m getting twitchy about all the fiction I’m not writing. Need to set aside the Science book soon, just to keep the other stuff moving. In the meantime, I’m getting close to 10K words. Are they 10K good words worth saying, calling for another 40-50K more words? Stay tuned. So far, writing this is – motivating.
Also also, I could put together a page and a half of Feynman and Crichton quotations that say everything I want to say, and have the advantage of often being pithy, witty, and from the mouths of much smarter men. Here, let’s do it:
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
“Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?””
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
“We need to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.””
“Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.”
“First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and legendary Cal Tech teacher. These and many other Feynman quotations can be found here.
And now Crichton:
I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.
In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.
Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.
Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.
Michael Crichton, Author and MD. From his Caltech Michelin Lecture – January 17, 2003, which can be found here.
One more long thing from Crichton that really drives it home, from the same source:
In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of.
Let’s review a few cases.
In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth . One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweis demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent “skeptics” around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.
There is no shortage of other examples. In the 1920s in America, tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, were dying of a disease called pellagra. The consensus of scientists said it was infectious, and what was necessary was to find the “pellagra germ.” The US government asked a brilliant young investigator, Dr. Joseph Goldberger, to find the cause. Goldberger concluded that diet was the crucial factor. The consensus remained wedded to the germ theory. Goldberger demonstrated that he could induce the disease through diet. He demonstrated that the disease was not infectious by injecting the blood of a pellagra patient into himself, and his assistant. They and other volunteers swabbed their noses with swabs from pellagra patients, and swallowed capsules containing scabs from pellagra rashes in what were called “Goldberger’s filth parties.” Nobody contracted pellagra. The consensus continued to disagree with him. There was, in addition, a social factor—southern States disliked the idea of poor diet as the cause, because it meant that social reform was required. They continued to deny it until the 1920s. Result—despite a twentieth century epidemic, the consensus took years to see the light.
The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory. Saccharine, margarine, repressed memory, fiber and colon cancer, hormone replacement therapy. The list of consensus errors goes on and on.
A. Several of you, my deeply appreciated readers, have sent me comments on A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be A Gullible Rabbit (I like that title better). If I haven’t gotten back to you yet, it’s because your input a) required actual thought; b) is long; or c) both. Maybe later today.
On the actual text, not counting notes, I’m up to about 6,500 7,200 more or less usable words. Thinking about starting each chapter with a Feynman quotation and a story from science history. For example:
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and well-known Cal Tech professor
Then, maybe, tell a story – bloodletting, say, how it was the accepted treatment for a dazzling array of medical problems until the end of the 19th century – how it was the “consensus science,” how few dared to question its efficacy, how it probably killed (or at least, hastened the death of) George Washington, a true believer in bloodletting. It only took a CENTURY OR SO for the medical profession to accept the growing pile of counter evidence.
What’s occurred to me, in writing this, is illustrated by another Feynman quotation:
We have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know.
With this in mind, I’ve been working on an opening chapter that dedcribes why anyone should care – why is it not OK to just do as we’re told. File this as yet another item under: things that are obvious to me but clearly not so obvious to very many other people.
B. A major point, perhaps not emphasized enough: it’s OK, in fact, it’s preferred, to simply not have an opinion. If the science is really, truly, over your head, then why do you even have an opinion on it? Perhaps it is a consequence of the way voting is done here in America: we are made to vote for people we couldn’t possibly know, who talk about issues we hardly, if at all, understand. Yet, we seem to be embarrassed not to have an opinion on these people and policies.
Let’s say we humbly recognize that the base science is simply over our heads. What we might do, instead, is talk about the big picture. The obvious example: it would have been nice if, from the beginning, a cost/benefit analysis had been presented on the lockdowns. Clearly, before 2020, everybody, including the CDC, were very adverse to lockdowns, because the cost is so obviously high. Short of Black Death level event, it’s should be fairly obvious that lockdowns should be used very sparingly and only as a last resort.
So, say, instead of incessant panic-mongering based on supposed science way over out little heads, we instead demanded regular updates on the costs in lives, health, and money, of the lockdowns, to be compared to the presumed benefits. I’m imagining it would have been a different discussion. I imagine that’s why it never took place.
Anyway, on most science, it’s meet and just to simply not have an opinion. Evolution – who cares? Some geneticists and biologists, I suppose, but, for the rest of us, it’s simply immaterial. Yet, ‘belief’ in evolution is used as some sort of touchstone. We need to see that for what it is: an attempt to force people into line for the sake of having them in line. Same goes for absolutely everything in cosmology and astrophysics – who cares? Why should people even have an opinion on whether the earth orbits the sun, let alone the red shift and dark matter and so on? It just doesn’t matter.
I’m saying this as someone who loves this stuff. It’s just odd that, socially, you’ll be judged a lot harsher for for expressing any doubt that the earth (despite all appearances) is whipping through space and spinning like a top than you will for walking out on your spouse and kids. The balance here is wildly, insanely off.
C. So, on the chapters, here’s the problem: there are counterarguments (some made by readers – thanks again!) to some of the major points I’m making. For example, scientific consensus is a real thing, with a real purpose. It’s just not evidence. Putting it in somewhat more technical terms: under Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science, a scientific consensus is an aid to those doing normal science, but that’s all it is. These normal scientists (who might more properly be called technicians) are working out theories or discoveries they no longer question. The revolutionary scientists – scientists in the fullest sense – are working on stuff that isn’t already understood, on the ragged edges and in the holes of accepted science. The first group, it is supposed, form consensuses around evidence. If this is true, then for us laymen the thing we want to see is that evidence.
Again, the real problems are caused when the idea of ‘scientific consensus’ is used as a blunt instrument to silence us little people and force us into conformity. Sure, some theories we might like as amateurs have been beaten to death by the pros, and so they consider even bringing them up bad form. So? Is that really a problem in real life? Rather, we are lied to to shut us up: it’s the scientific consensus that, unless you panic as we tell you, and do what we tell you, and hand over the power we demand, we’re all going to die!
And so on. Similar issues arise with some of the other points I’m trying to make.
D. We’re into year 3 since I was forced out my job. Good riddance, frankly, it was death by a thousand cuts. Fortunately, for few years there, I did pretty well, so, it’s not the disaster for us it would be for most people. At some point, fairly soon, I need to figure it out. I could semi-retire, teach some school (alternative/home-school co-op, that sort of thing) and write some books. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting. But if I’m doing that, then it would be good to move someplace much cheaper than the Bay Area, perhaps some place a little less azure, a little more crimson? There are probably cantons in China less azure than certain neighborhoods out here… Texas or Tennessee I could handle. Florida – God-forsaken paved-over swamp with weather that makes Texas’s look good. Montana and Wyoming look nice, but kind of flat and cold. Idaho, I hear, has already had it with its ongoing Californication.
Poland or Uruguay might be better, but I’m not that adventurous (although far short of a worse-case scenario might make me wish I were). If I were to dump our suburban Bay Area house, I could maybe get some serious acres and build a 4,000 sq ft house on them – and break even. Depending, of course, and going completely wild/rural. Mamma was from East Texas, and Daddy from Claremore, OK, so shouldn’t I get more the coming home treatment than the damn Californian reception? Please?
I’m imagining aging gracefully on our new family spread, with enough room for the kids and their kids, if things get bad enough for them out here. Big enough house for them all to stay in, and room for them to build their own if the want. Piano room, big greenhouse, garden. My only luxury (the music room is NOT a luxury! Absolutely essential!) would be a nice kitchen. My standards for a decent kitchen are unfortunately high…. Everything else can be standard suburban quality. Enough insulation and air conditioning to ride out the 90% of the time I’m going to look outside and miss California….
E. Went on YouTube, watched a couple videos, and fixed our power mower. I am da MAN!
I’m attempting here to draft you, my kind and loyal readers, to sort of beta-test my ideas for how to approach this Understanding Science book I’m knee deep in at the moment. I’ll really owe you one if you’re able to help me out here, but not sure what that would mean. So, for now, how about gratitude? Thanks!
This book is turning out to be very difficult. My tendency to overexplain on the one hand, and to see the hard cases on the edges on the other, combine to make the goal – actually helping people to smell the rat when preposterous claims are made that ‘science has shown’ this or that – gets bogged down in probably useless detail…
So, here’s a list of signs we’re not talking science, a first pass at the tools I’m trying to arm people with. Yes, there are ragged edges, but for now I’m ignoring them.
It’s not science if:
an appeal is made to ‘scientific consensus’ – misdirection away from evidence
you are told to ‘believe’ the science – an act of faith
you are told to ‘trust’ the scientists – an appeal to authority
you are told the ‘science is settled’ – a demand to ignore the nature of scientific knowledge
you are otherwise commanded to have and defend a position – an affront to honest ignorance
the claim is said to dictate policy – policy involves necessarily non-scientific value judgements
the claim is about thoughts or feelings or other non-physical objects – valid scientific claims are always about the measurable properties of physical objects.
Model output is presented as evidence – models are an expression of prejudice.
Well? The purpose here is to arm people with proper heuristics to weed out the obviously bogus stuff. Would a short chapter on each of these be useful? Anything I’m missing?
There probably should be a related list of more technical issues, such as:
Forced rankings and related abuses. Generally, this falls under the metrical properties of physical bodies rubric – when asked to say, on a scale of 1 to 5, how you feel about something, that already fails that test. But there’s sneakier stuff, like how reasonable doubt is forced out of the evidence simply by insisting on yes or no answers. Somethings are just not certain, but our data collection procedures eliminates that uncertainty.
Use of statistics. If you don’t understand the issues at a philosophical level, throwing numbers around doesn’t improve things. But it tends to cow most people.
Problems of scale. Sometimes, a million isn’t a big number; sometimes 1 is.
Assumptions of homogeneity. People, specifically, are not atoms.
Studies are the beginning of science, not the end product. Almost all studies are wrong, especially if you’ve heard about them through the popular media.
Most people we think of as scientists are really technicians or guild members, even most who have ‘science’ somewhere on their diploma or in their job title.
Polls are not science, and only provide evidence of how a sample population answered a poll at a certain point in time.
Next, been debating whether or not to include a little epistemology, specifically, Aristotle’s distinction, by way of Thomas, between necessary truths, conditional truths, and techne or art. I don’t want to bog it down, but this would provide me a way to sort of sidestep the soft sciences by simply ascribing them to the realm of techne: rather than having to beat down psychology, say, I can just set it aside with the comment: it’s an art, not a science. We know this because it does not treat of the metrical properties of physical bodies (among other things). It may still be useful, but it cannot command our agreement in the way a true science demands an honest man’s agreement.
If I discuss conditional knowledge versus art, am I then obliged to discuss the older definition of science as merely the systematic study of anything: the science of love, say, or phrenology? Or can I just tip-toe past that graveyard where reason goes to die?
As much as I’d love to beat down the whole brain scan scam, for example, that might be more a distraction than a help. A book bashing each of the prominent cargo-cult sciences would be a long book, and probably beyond my abilities to finish in this lifetime.
Finally, I’ll need to discuss technology at least a little, how it differs from science properly so called. The important point: technology has a much stronger claim on our acceptance than science. We KNOW the light goes on, the car starts, the GPS works, the crops grow, and a million other similar things, in a way we’ll never know what an electron is or how and to what extent natural selection works. I don’t understand Einstein very well at all, but I’m told that, due to the high speeds at which satellites travel, relativistic adjustments need to be made for my GPS to be as accurate as it is. If this is true – conditional alert! – then I’m a lot more confident in Relativity.
Technology and how it relates to science properly so called is another fascinating topic – but is it helpful?
This post is just me pacing around, figuratively, as I stare at the growing pile of words in front of me…
As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I’m not a scientist, but rather a layman with a science jones, one I’ve had from before I could read. So, having read a great deal of science, and of philosophy and history, and, while no mathematician, having at least a feel for numbers and being unafraid of them, I have strong opinions about the use and misuse of science.
But – here’s the thought – whenever I try to explain why something is *obviously* nonsense, I run into the whole issue of what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to very many people. A sports analogy: I can critique somebody’s jump shooting form at a very high level, but know next to nothing about pitching – I’ve done the one, but not the other. A pitcher who, say, fails to properly rotate his hips (or whatever – ignorant, remember) might be totally obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to pitch, but I’d never catch it. But a jump shooter who fails to get properly squared up and lets his elbow wander? *Obvious*!!! And this is true everywhere: my wife can look at a row of crochet and spot the *obvious* problem, and all I see is a bunch of yarn; my daughter can wing a cake recipe, and correct the batter mid-stream – it’s obvious to her what the problem is. For two of a million such examples.
Back to science. Extreme example: when I read through the abstracts of the first few papers widely reported to *prove* the efficacy of masks in cutting the spread of certain airborne viruses, the flaws of the first few studies were glaringly OBVIOUS. To me. So obvious I never got past the abstracts – why bother?
But then, try to explain it in words laymen can understand. The first study was a meta study, a survey over time of the effects of mask use across a number of states and times frames, which revealed, if I recall, a 2.5% decrease in the rate of case growth in a state where masks had been most rigorously legislated versus a state where mask wearing had been less rigorously called for.
This is obviously stupid, right? Right? What sprang to mind unbidden:
A vast array of factors figure into case growth – you really think a meta-study is going to properly account for them state by state, such that mask-wearing is going to then account for the remaining difference? How? Bloody unlikely.
What are the underlying dynamics of the spread of the virus? How can we assume they are the same from state to state, or, indeed, from block to block, such that masks can be credited with effectively changing them?
Data consistency: measuring numbers across time and space, on different groups with different people doing the measuring in a highly stressful situation? Unlikely to be very good, consistent data. Like, not going to happen.
Compliance: who cares what the rules are – are people doing as they are told? In any crowd, I’ll see a large range of interpretations of ‘wearing a mask’, from the dude with a paper mask not covering his nose, to people with 2 masks and a clear shield, and everything in between, including my pirate t-shirt scrap hanging down to my sternum. How would you even begin to account for such differences?
Did we take ALL the states into account? If we left some off, why? The temptation to simply pick a few we like and consciously or otherwise skew the results must be prevented.
2.5% You got to be kidding me. Well within the range of ‘noise’.
And so on.
Thus, every time I’ve tried to explain, for example, that not just the list of variables, but order in which they are analyzed, will largely determine the outcome of a regression analysis – um, not so obvious, right? Or that the implicit assumption of homogeneity across patently heterogenous populations – like, for example, talking about *a* population fatality rate – is insane? Clear? Or that scale matters – that you have to have a clear baseline against which to measure change, or your numbers are meaningless?