Category Archives: Books

What is Fiction?

robert-fordAt one point in HBO’s Westworld (don’t worry, no spoilers) Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) gives a speech about stories, about the value of fiction. He references a belief that fiction elevates — or at least illuminates to good value — the human condition. The belief also holds that those who read a lot of fiction are in some sense “better” people.

The idea is controversial on several grounds. Firstly, it’s hard to define what makes people “better,” and you can’t measure or test what you can’t define. Secondly, even if “better” is defined, not everyone will agree with the definition. Thirdly, there’s a nature-nurture aspect that makes comparisons like this very hard to tease out of any data you can gather.

Maybe a place to start exploring the idea is to first define “fiction” and go from there…

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Greg, Neal, and Hannu

Snow CrashFair Warning: Next week I have some political and social foaming at the mouth to do over current events and modern society, but that can wait. The weather recently has been too nice for my hot-collar wardrobe. The swelter is supposed to return next week; the forecast is for serious ranting with scattered raving.

For the weekend, for Science Fiction Saturday in particular, for all my disdain of movie and TV science fiction (especially TV SF, most of which does nothing for me), literary science fiction is very alive and quite well!

Recently I’ve been enjoying three authors in particular…

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Ends With A Fall

typewriterHere’s something that caught my eye: Researchers at the University of Vermont, in the Computational Story Lab (!), did an interesting word content analysis on 1,700 stories downloaded from Gutenberg. Each story had been downloaded at least 150 times by readers.

The researchers used “sentiment analysis” that measures the positive or negative emotional impact of words. Using a sliding window they attempted to characterize the “emotional arcs” of each story. Their goal was to see if there were common patterns.

Turns out, there are!

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What We Wrought

His Masters Voice
In the last quarter of the 19th century — USA-centrically, call it 139 years ago — we began to experience having the sound of strangers’ voices in our lives, even in our homes. Not just voices, but music from concert halls and clubs. And other sounds, too: the clip-clop of horse feet, the slam of a door, a gun-shot. Less than 100 years go, those sounds went electric, and we never looked back.

At the beginning of the 20th century, we started another love affair — this one with moving images on rectangular screens, a dance of light and shadow, windows to imaginary worlds. Or windows to recorded memories or news of distant places. When sound went electric, those moving images took voice and spoke and sang. No one alive in our society today remembers a time when moving images weren’t woven into our lives.

Here, now, into the 21st century, in an age of streaming video and music, from cloud to your pocket device (with its high-resolution display and built-in video camera), I can’t help but be impressed by how far we’ve come.

The iPad

A long way, indeed.


reblog: Slow Reading Makes You Smarter

So what are the odds of reading two posts in short succession, both of which just demand to be reblogged? As I commented on the original post, speaking as a life-long deep reader, I agree with every word.

James Kennedy

books open random pages“Why bother reading?” is a question I’m asked occasionally by students, and “reading makes you smarter” is my standard response. This week, I want to expand on this fact and give some evidence for reading being a major contributor not only to academic success, but to success in many other aspects of life as well.

Reading improves your IQ and EQ

Firstly, there’s convincing evidence by Mar et al., (2009) that people who read fiction have greater ability to understand others’ emotions, emphasise with them and view the world from their perspective. In other words, reading increases your emotional quotient (EQ).

Second, there’s convincing evidence that reading increases your vocabulary. Cunningham & Stanovich (2001) penned an excellent analysis that includes evidence from many other studies that a person’s vocabulary is increased fastest by reading, particularly reading books outside of school hours, than by learning lists of vocabulary on their own.

Improving your EQ has obvious benefits. But what are the advantages of increasing your vocabulary? Increased vocabulary has been…

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From the Far Side

Larson-0Those with a life-long interest in what is now called STEM are almost universally fans of cartoonist Gary Larson. It is almost unheard of to walk into the work space of any science or technology worker and not find a few of Larson’s cartoons posted.

For me, Larson is up there with people like Terry Pratchett as being brilliant observers of the human condition and also brilliant in their ability to express their observations. Some of Larson’s work is just plain funny (really funny), but a lot of it is philosophical and extremely insightful.

For some Friday Fun, I thought I’d show you some of my all-time favorites.

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Storytelling: The Betrayer

Diane Duane-0The punchline is that I was suddenly struck by how modern fiction seems to have conditioned me to expect an apparent White Hat to secretly be a Black Hat. The question I find myself asking now is whether fiction has actually changed (and if so why) or is it just me? The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think modern fiction has changed.

If so, does that reflect a modern sensibility about people today? Does the rise of the modern anti-hero bring with it the idea of the betrayer? Do we expect so little of people anymore that our heroes need to be dirty and double-agents seem matter of course?

This all started with Diane Duane

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2014 (redux)

JanusPerhaps it is a personal penchant for irony-leavened paradox that has me pen a post titled 2014 that turns out to be more a look backwards. The dash of irony comes from the explicit mention of not being one who spends much time looking back!

But, also as mentioned, there is a time and place for most things, and January is a more ideal place for that than you may realize. The month is named after the roman god,  Janus, god of beginnings and transitions, who has both a backward- and forward-looking face. The turning of the year is the time and place for both.

So here is a bit more looking back and looking forward.

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It’s Dead, Jim

Star Trek RedshirtsHaving penned a perplexing pair of Python posts, and planning a putative pair of POV-Ray posts for the pending week, I feel the pressure to pause and ponder some other puzzle for a period. Like words that start with “P”, for instance. Or something more profound, like peas in our time. (And pass the potatoes.) Perhaps something personal would please?

I can’t write of cabbages or kings. I don’t care much for the former (except in egg rolls), and I wrote about chess yesterday, which is almost about kings. Nor can I write of sealing ships or sailing wax. (Wait… how did that go?)

But it is Science Fiction Saturday again!

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Better Vampires

Dracula TapeNovember shouldn’t pass with just the one post. I intended a post last Science Fiction Saturday to rave about the new Doctor Who episode (celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who), but the day slipped to Sunday before I got the writing motor started. I’ll rave about it now: it was really, really good! A wonderful, delightful milestone marker and, as always, built on a damn good story.

I’ve not been idle lately! Dedicated post-retirement loafing finally shook the work dust off my shoes, and I’ve gotten back into personal project work. Seriously into it. In the 16-hour sessions, sleep and eating are unwelcome distractions, not knowing what time of day (let alone what day of the week) it is sense of seriously.

And I read some really good vampire novels!

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