Someday I will write a post that summarizes all the wisdom I’ve acquired in my life

accomplishment_pictureBut not right now.

Meanwhile, Theodora Goss has already done it, in this post.

The item that struck me the most was: Everything you want to accomplish takes longer than you want it to take.

That’s very true. Everything I’ve accomplished in life has taken much more work than I thought it would. Every year I’ve been writing (from day one), I’ve thought, “Oh, within a year or so, I’ll reach the point where I’m selling almost every story that I write.” I still am not even approaching that mark. At least 80% of what I write does not sell.

Stuff takes time and effort. People say that when you’ve earned something, you value it more. I’m not sure that’s true. I feel like the things that I value most in life are the things that I don’t feel I deserve. When I earn something, I feel like, well, alright, I deserve this. I made this happen. Like, I don’t feel gratified when my computer boots up. It’s supposed to boot up. That’s what I bought it for.

Anyway, it’s not a big deal, though, because (after awhile) the process of trying becomes fun in and of itself

The Best Yahoo Answer Ever

I quit smoking with only minimal side-effects (other than wanting to smoke cigarettes). It’s only after about three or four weeks that I have started to suffer real withdrawal effects, like a pretty durable sore throat or the insomnia that has me posting this at 4:30 AM.

The major effect that quitting smoking had on me is that I’ve become far less utopian about the internet. Any google search, no matter how specific, will bring up almost no honest and sincere information about quitting smoking. Almost every hit is some kind of search-engine-optimization article that parrots every other SEO article in an attempt to drive hits to some kind of nicotine patch or quit-smoking pill. I think that some of these sites were also funded by Phillip Morris as part of their tobacco lawsuit settlement.

There is basically only one large highly-ranked quit-smoking site on the internet that does not want your money, and that is whyquit.com. This is a not unhelpful site…but it is a little idiosyncratic (and also quite ugly and hard to navigate).

The downside of this is that any real information about what to expect when you quit smoking – real concrete stuff like, uhh, what is going to happen and what will it feel like? – is drowned in a sea of copied articles and alarmism that is designed to get you to buy nicotine patches. I’m not saying that good information is not out there, but generally the PageRank of the useful stuff is sufficiently low that it’s not that easy to find. And even the “useful” stuff tends to have kind of a low information density (its blog posts and forum threads stuff like that).

Except for one golden, shining place…Yahoo Answers.

Yahoo Answers, for some reason, has an incredibly high page rank. For some other reason, it has not yet been invaded by people trying to sell you shit. And for some third reason (or maybe these are all for the same reason), it doesn’t have the social component to it that afflicts most blogs and forums, which generally makes comments more about performing some monkey ritual of interpersonal contact than about actually exchanging information.

There’s also an inductive quality to Yahoo Answers that contrasts strongly with the more deductive sort of answers that most internet sites attempt to give you. Most sites basically take conventional medical wisdom and attempt to render it in layman’s terms. It’s a one-size-fits-all strategy that is in many cases exactly as frustrating as the platitudes that doctors tend to hand out.

But Yahoo Answers is about people using the knowledge they’ve acquired in their own lives – when handling problems remarkably similar to yours – to try to understand what is happening to you. A perfect illustration of the difference is this Yahoo Answer I just found, which bears absolutely no relevance to me, but happens to be the greatest answer in the history of answering questions from strangers.

Question: Smoking = sore throat?

OK so I quit smoking 4 years ago and just recently I started again, but not really, more like 2 or 3 a day. I don’t need lectures, I know all about it, I quit before and I’m planning on stopping very soon. I just had a little relapse, that’s all. Anyway, since I started smoking again my throat has been incredibly sore. I am not sure if it is just coincidence or if the smoking has caused it. When I smoked before, (for 10 years) I never had a sore throat due to smoking, ever.

Has this happened to any of you? Can smoking cause a perma-sore throat? Or maybe is this coincidence (it is allergy season, after all).

 

Best Answer – The first time you smoked a cigarette, you didn’t inhale deeply, you might have coughed like crazy, but you took it easy and gradually began drawing in harder. This time, you had the habit already ingrained, so you didn’t work up to a deep draw, you just started off immediately doing the same thing…no surprise that it made your throat sore.

Source(s): RN [Registered Nurse]

I don’t know if this seems as great to someone who’s never smoked cigarettes, but this answer rings very true to me. But can you imagine what a doctor would say if you asked them this question? Or what you’d find if you did an internet search on it? Or if you posted on a forum about it?

Doctor: Umm cigarettes are poison, they are slowly killing the cilia in your throat?

Person: But why didn’t that happen the first time?

 

Internet Search: Use chantix! It’ll help you quit smoking no problem.

Person: Okay…that wasn’t even remotely relevant

 

Forum / Comment Thread: Oh man that sucks, I quit smoking myself a year ago. You just got to stick with it!

Person: Yes I know, I’m gonna try again soon…but it still would be nice to know the answer to this question….the one I actually asked.

In my imagination, the entire internet used to be like Yahoo Answers. But I don’t think that was actually the case. I can’t wait until something like Yahoo Answers arises that is about a thousand times better than Yahoo Answers. Because as good as Yahoo Answers is, it’s basically only the barest sketch of what it should be, it’s the Myspace of question-answering sites, and when someone develops the Facebook of question-answering….I am going to buy some stock in it.

What is it about the lottery that a certain class of intellectuals finds so unfathomably difficult to understand?

In an article yesterday, for the Guardian on “statistical illiteracy”, Cory Doctorow wrote:

in the US, its slogan is “Lotto: You’ve Got to Be In It to Win It”. A more numerate slogan would be “Lotto: Your Chance of Finding the Winning Ticket in the Road is Approximately the Same as Your Chance of Buying it”. The more we tell people that there is a meaning gap between the one-in-a-squillion chance of finding the winning ticket and the one-in-several-million chance of buying it, the more we encourage the statistical fallacy that events are inherently more likely if they’re very splashy and interesting to consider.

Yes, I agree. You are almost unfathomably unlikely to win the jackpot in the lottery. And yes, the odds are so low, that it actually is difficult for a human being to conceive of them. But that does not mean that buying lottery tickets is stupid. A Powerball ticket is a dollar ($2 if you select the multiplier). That is not very much money. And what you buy for that money is the fantasy that in two days you might become unfathomably wealthy.

Now, that is a fantasy that many Americans have, even without the lottery. Personally, I have a fantasy of all kinds of very unlikely writing-related things happening that will gratify various social slash monetary desires. I find this fantasy to be extremely pleasurable, and I would not willingly sacrifice it.

Furthermore, I spend an incredible amount of time and money on writing to keep this fantasy alive. Some people choose, instead, to spend a few dollars every week to do the same thing…what is so stupid about that? If someone spends $10 on a movie ticket, people do not seem to find that repulsive or irrational. At the end of a movie you haven’t gotten anything tangible, other than a memory. A lottery ticket is exactly the same (only cheaper).

I actually don’t want to say mean things about Cory Doctorow, or other people who maintain these sorts of views, but I really do wonder at it. Is it so easy to believe that hundreds of millions of people are doing something just because they are stupid? Is it so easy to believe that if they were only lectured at a little bit (the title of Doctorow’s piece is “promoting statistical literacy”) then they would understand the error of their ways and stop spending their own hard-earned money on something they want? Is it so hard to believe that people do something because they gain some pleasure from it? And that the very fact that they are willing to continue to spend that money for that pleasure indicates that the pleasure is worth more to them than the money?

There’s an additional argument here, which is that it might make good sense, in terms of maximizing your happiness, to buy a $1 ticket that gives you a 1 in five million chance of winning a million dollars, if the utility you derive from having $1m is more than five million times the utility you get from having $1. This is not at all strange, if you think about it. No matter how many $1s most people save, they are never going to have $1,000,000. A million dollars represents a kind of security and safety that most Americans will never achieve. And if a person looks at their life, decides they really want that, and realizes that the only way they will ever achieve that security is by winning the lottery, then it might make good sense, economically-speaking, for them to buy lottery tickets.

Indeed, isn’t that the gamble that many of us are making, in some way? People who quit their jobs to start businesses know that they are likely to fail (and many of them do fail), but they desire what a successful business can give them so much that the risk is worth it. A dollar, by itself, is meaningless. A dollar, or a million dollars, only has the value that human beings put on it. If someone spends a dollar for something, then by definition, it is worth a dollar. In some ways, this assumption of Doctorow’s is as empty as criticizing someone for paying money to see a movie you don’t like, or a book you don’t like. Yeah, if they understood things the way you understand them, then spending that money would have been a waste. But it is precisely the fact that they did choose to spend that money which shows you that spending it was not a waste. Let’s try to have some more faith in the reasoning abilities of our fellow men.

Disagreement Is An Absolute Defense To Literary Criticism…but criticism is not an attack.

A week ago, I tweeted my bafflement regarding this xkcd. And, in the course of explaining the muddled premise of the strip, an acquaintance turned me onto xkcdsucks, which is a blog devoted to dissecting and skewering xkcd.

I found this blog refreshing and highly fascinating. But I was also somewhat repulsed by it, because, like pretty much every person, I know that there’s not really any sort of objective standard for quality in art. I might enjoy a work or not. I might find it complex or simplistic. I might find it discerning or idiotic. But the things I see in it are not inherent in the work, even down to the most micro-level.

I might say that the phrase “Tanya thrust the thruster into overdrive and blasted out towards the farthest reaches of the universe,” is terrible writing because “thrust” is repeated and “farthest reaches of the universe” is a cliché and the two clauses have different subjects (Tanya in the first clause and her [implicit] ship in the second clause). But if someone was to say to me, “No, you’re wrong about that, the thrusted thruster is a poetic repetition that calls to mind the sexual act, and the “farthest reaches of the universe” is meant to call attention to the banality of her ambitions vis a vis the scope of her opportunities” then what am I going to say? What meaning does our analysis really have? All we’re describing is…nothing, none of what we said has any concrete foundation. There is no evidence that repetition is banal, or that it is poetic. There is no proof that clichés are bad writing. Nor is there any possible way to acquire this evidence. All we’re doing is producing mental chaff. That is why I often steer away from any sort of criticism.

Disagreement is an absolute defense to criticism. For instance, I think that if this xkcd strip is about porn characters acting in an uncharacteristic way then that is a really confusing and bad premise because porn is already about ordinary archetypes acting in uncharacteristic ways (i.e. the pizza delivery man doesn’t just deliver your pizzas like he normally would…he also has sex with you), so if a porn character acts in an uncharacteristic way, wouldn’t that just mean that the pizza delivery man would deliver your pizzas?

But someone could easily reply to me, “Oh, no, it’s a brilliant inversion of what you’d expect. It’s a Dada marvel.” And what do I say then? Any attempt to provide some underpinning to my reaction, no matter how clever or even brilliant, can easily run up against the wall of just a single person saying, “That’s not true for me.”

That’s why I am always uncomfortable about criticizing any book or work. Because…those criticisms are usually just not true on the face of it. What does it mean for someone to say that Twilight is bad? Millions of people enjoy it. You might have tons of reasons for why it is bad. But if even one person enjoys something, then there is proof that what you’re saying is wrong.

Again, this is not any sort of new notion. It’s something everyone has thought about. And in fact that’s why there’s a FAQ response on xkcdsucks addressing this very comment. And I think that response is actually pretty smart.

I think the best way to describe [the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity in criticism] is to explain what a critic means when he says “this is bad.” Ideally he goes on to explain himself, but this is not an example of pure subjectivity. What he is saying is this: “many of the objective elements in this are ineffective or badly put together, or the ideas, feelings, and thoughts they tend to evoke are otherwise negative.” This is partially subjective, certainly–but I will then go on to describe why I think that something is put together. If I dislike the pacing, I will explain how the pacing doesn’t flow very well, and tends to be highly disjointed–this is an objective description of the pacing. It does not rely on me as an observer to make it a valid statement. I will then say that I think the pacing is ineffective because of its disjointed flow. This is a subjective statement! You may think the disjointed pacing lends the story a really brilliant, fragmented flow. But when you have finished with a criticism, you should be able to identify precisely what it is about the story (its objective qualities) that evoked that subjective reaction in the writer.

Of course that doesn’t really capture the complexity of what he was saying, because it’s hard to even say the “the pacing is disjointed” without being pretty subjective. But, as I was thinking about this over the past few days, I realized…”This is totally beyond the point.”

I don’t really care about trying to convince others about the quality of a particular work. I only care about my own reactions to it. And I use these notions of objectivity and subjectivity, which really only matter in terms of a larger audience, as bugbears to scare myself away from the notion that for me, there is good and bad.

When I read a book, I do have some reaction to it. And there are reactions I enjoy, and reactions that I do not. There are books that I enjoy more and books that I enjoy less. I don’t need to worry about this hypothetical person who might disagree with me, because I am not really concerned with trying to get him to agree with me. What I am concerned with is finding out what kinds of things I enjoy, why I enjoy them, and how to utilize those elements in my own writing

(Although I am slightly uncomfortable with the word I use here — “enjoy” — since it seems slightly facile and concerned with immediate emotional reactions rather than the sort of long-lasting imprint the book leaves on me, which is what I am really talking about. I think a more honest and appropriate word would be “love”. Although an even better word would be ❤ because what I am really talking about the books I ❤ and why I ❤ them. Of course, that’s slightly ridiculous, so I will just go with “enjoy”.)

Because when I put aside my baggage about subjectivity, and go into a book and try to think about why I enjoy it, I can often find reasons. Often it’s about the worldview or ideas expressed by the book. Sometimes it’s just about the style of writing. And what’s more, I find value, for myself, in thinking about those reasons. Even though what I’m engaged in is a rather silly game, it does provide some insight into myself.

Of course, other people could object to what I say on a variety of levels ranging from “uhh, what you see in this book isn’t really there” to “I also see what you see in this book, but I don’t think that thing is very good”. And that would be crushing, if I cared about convincing them.

Which is not to say that sharing one’s criticism can’t be valuable as well. I just don’t think that the purpose of doing it is to “convince” other people that they are wrong. Clearly there is some universality in our subjective reactions. In fact, there is a huge amount of universality. Two people, watching TV in distant apartments, can laugh at the same joke on the same sit-com. That’s incredible, when you think about it. They heard the same words, analyzed the intention, pondered the intended reversal or disjunction or whatever makes humor humorous, and found it enjoyable.

So if I say that I see something in a work, there is a very good chance that someone else has seen it too. But there is no reason why a given person has to see it as well. In fact, it’s rather more incredible that anyone agrees on anything ever. That’s why I think that criticism really only works when it’s conducted in good faith, and I don’t mean good faith on the part of the critic. The critic is documenting his own reactions, as are we all. I mean good faith on the part of the reader.

Because it’s really easy, for me, at least, to say “I don’t see it.” And there is no way to disprove me. Sometimes I am doing it unconsciously. I am willing myself not to see what someone else is talking about. Sometimes I am just unwilling to put in the work to try to understand. And sometimes I’m just pissed off by someone shitting all over something awesome (like Mars Attacks) and I’d rather take refuge in my one unassailable defense. But usually, if I try, I do understand a little bit of what a person is talking about, and I can see a little bit of what they see, even though I am not required to.

Have I ever before linked to something just for being amazing?

From Catherynne M. Valente’s  blog:

Vampires should be pretty much like mean girls, all the time, only amazing at it. Flawless. They’ve had time. Like when you put a penny in a bank account and a thousand years later you’re rich. Social capital, it is the same. Those high school kids should never know what hit them because they are amateurs. Vampires should not be at the approximate social stage of a particularly awkward 14 year old with anxiety issues. They should be devils in blue dresses. This is the metaphor: the cool kids are all vampires, and they fuck with you because it’s fun. Because they’re demons and they like it. They keep going to high school over and over not to pick up some awkward 16 year old virgin, but because they can get away with shit in the maelstrom of high school that adults would never put up with. They are Chuck Bass. All of them. All the time.

Reflecting on this absurdly annoying Stan Fish article

Breaking my long posting silence to write about an NYT article that has annoyed me so many reasons that I think I could create an entire blog centered around why I dislike it.

Just to start off with, large portions of the comment section to this article is devoted to people bitching about their waiters.

What is with this weird hostility and tension between customers and service staff. I mean, hasn’t America evolved to the point where everybody is someone else’s service staff? Like, sure someone is your waiter, but you’re someone else’s lawyer. We all have clients and we all are someone’s client. Like, in this one particular moment I might be paying you money for something…but in a little while, someone will be paying me money for something.

And I don’t really see that there’s any major necessity for either of us to be servile / condescending / or unnatural towards each other. Like, there’s no particular reason for me to be nice to you, or for me to demand that you be nice to me. I’m sure that I’m unconscionably rude to service staff all the time. People are rude to me as well. And sure, whatever, that sucks…but you know. I’m sure some of you have heard me complaining about it at some point. But I don’t think it’s _wrong_ for people to be rude to me.

Because you know what? I’ve always gotten my hamburger, and I’ve always paid for it. And as long as that happens, who cares about the little verbal signifiers we use to try to place each other into a pecking order based on who, temporarily, is holding the money.

Are we in a depression? Who cares?

Here’s Robert J. Samuelson splitting hairs over the state of the economy. He’s talking about whether or not we’re in a “depression” as opposed to a “recession”. And his article is kind of bogus. Because, although recessions are clearly defined (two or more quarters of negative GDP growth), a depression really isn’t. It’s just kind of a short-hand for for a bad or long recession. Basically, this article is exactly the same as an op-ed where we discuss whether the Dark Knight was “wicked awesome” or just “hella cool.”*

What matters here is not whether this recession is going to be as bad as the Great Depression (hint, it won’t be. That’s like saying that the Iraq war won’t be as bloody as World War II). But people are not stupid. They can kind of smell when things aren’t going well. Instead commentators ought to try to tell people what is actually going on, and what is actually going to happen. Telling them to sit back and shut up, because everything is going to be alright and this is just a normal part of the business cycle isn’t going to cut it. We can smell bullshit. They also said that the years from 2002-2007 were years of steady growth…but that didn’t cut it either.

*Not that I can’t imagine an op-ed just like that.