Monday, October 31, 2016

Eyes – Part Five

Here we are again, returning to my serial short story. This is the fifth part, and you can find the first four under the “My Words” label. There’s only one more part, so that’s exciting. Right?
I don’t really have much to say, beyond this: enjoy, and feel free to comment your thoughts!

Eyes, Part Five

I live in a tiny apartment on the third floor of an apartment building in a small town in North Dakota. No one knows my name, no one speaks to me. The government gives me money, I spend it on things. Clothes, decorations for my house. Art. Even a cat. But the cat ran away last week. I never have to buy food, the mask sustains me. When the government worker stops by to giving me cash, she fills the feeder in the mask.
I am free, but in chains.

The neighbor boy likes to help me carry my shopping bags up the stairs. He’s nice, I guess. Three years older than me, ugly. His nose is too big and he’s got a lopsided grin. Too many freckles, dull colored eyes. Calloused hands, dirty-colored hair. And he always forgets to shave during the week, so scraggly little hairs blend in with the freckles.
I sit in my apartment most of the day and watch the television. Or my screen. I talk to myself all the time now.
Get up and do the dishes.
I don’t HAVE any dishes.
A pause, a moment of real silence.
Get up and do SOMETHING.
There’s nothing to do, here. Just flat fields of grain or grass or sunflowers. Nothing worth seeing, not even the ruins of Mount Rushmore. I live hours from those and they’re not even in my state. Maybe I’ll hitchhike over there, someday. I fiddle with the strings on my hoodie and shrug my shoulders. This hoodie is my favorite, my only one. I wear it with a pair of shorts most days, wash it on the weekends when I stay in bed all day and don’t bother getting dressed.
It’s your birthday in two days.
Well that’s a boring attempt at conversation. Usually I’m better at it than that. Months ago I stopped caring if some scientist saw what I was thinking. Or anyone else, for that matter. Haven’t clear the screen in days.
I’m going to be really old.
Twenty-two. You can drink now, you know.
I can’t drink ANYTHING.
Whoops. I stumped myself. There went the only reason to party on my birthday. My hands stray to the muzzle, feel the smooth metal. Each time the government worker drops by, she makes empty promises, saying that the mask might come off someday.
They’ll never let me speak. Ever.
I stand and shut the television off. Nothing on, anyway.
Yeah right.
That screen is decidedly sarcastic. Sometimes I forget it’s me thinking both sides of that conversation. I walk into the bedroom and poke around through my closet. Clothes, clothes, a long-empty cat bed.
Stupid cat.
My life is boring, now. No chases, no starvation, no machines. Nothing. My heart flutters at the thought. A real life, that was. Always on the run, always watching over my shoulder.
Then the pain stabs me right in the stomach. They caught me. They chained me up and tested on me. Locked me up in a lab, tried to pick me apart. No, that wasn’t a real life. A farce, a play that felt real until the curtains closed and left me with this.
The clock by the door chimes two. I smile and sit down on the bed. My favorite time of day. Then, my eyes blink. Dimness surrounds me, near black. Countless seconds of swirling emptiness. I almost imagine that I said that final word. But then my eyes open again, the tears swirl back and away. Moistened eyes, back to unblinking.
I sigh, let the happiness dissipate to nothing. Five hours till the next time I can blink. That government lady also promises I’ll get to blink more often someday.
The doorbell rings.
Oh. Him again. I stand and wander to the front door and open it. Arnold stands there, smiling.
“Did you blink?” he asks.
I nod. He’s the only person in this town who knows I can only blink three times a day. Everyone else probably assume I just stare a lot because of my mask.
“Can I come in?”
I shrug, let him brush past me. Arnold. He’s got an ugly name, too.
“There’s a football game tonight,” he says as I close the door, “you coming?”
No. I hold the screen out so he can see the word.
He frowns. “You can’t drink anything? Really?”
Oh. I turn the screen away and sit down on the couch next to him. Then, I clear the screen and hold it back out to him.
“Oh. I thought maybe you took the mask off, sometimes.”
I shake my head.
They won’t let me take it off, ever.
“Who are they?”
They see what I write on this thing.
He fidgets and looks around. We go through this most of the times he comes to say hi. He’s got a short memory to go with his short stature.
“Can they hear me?”
I shake my head. Of course not. Idiot. But Arnold sighs like I told him new information.
“That’s good. Let’s see… is it the government?”
This again. He never can guess it quite right. I nod. He’ll get close, then give up. Always does. But at least he talks to me.
“Hmm… The Pentagon?”
I shake my head.
He blinks at the screen. “I thought-“
Not an important word.
“Oooooh. Right. Uhm… Top Secret?”
“Department of Human Secrets?”
I stare. He… he got it right.
He laughs, shouts, stands up. “I got it!” he shouts.
I take a deep breath, look around. It’s strange, now that he knows. Maybe they’ll look me up again. Wipe his memory, punish me for letting him guess. Don’t tell anyone, I write on the screen.
Arnold cuts off mid-laugh and his face turns very serious. “I won’t say a word. Are you sure they didn’t hear or see?”
I nod. They took the camera off my mask when I moved here. Said they did it because I was so obedient.
“What now?” he asks.
I shrug. Who cares, he guessed it.
What about that football game? I write.
“You really want to go?” He smiles, skewing up his ugly face even further.
Sure. But… I don’t know how to get there…
“I’ll take you!” He stands and looks around. “It starts at… uh… seven. I think Maybe six-thirty. We should leave at like… six. Or something.” He stuffs his hands into his pockets and looks down at me. “You really want to go?”
If it makes him happy, I guess. Besides, it’s a celebration. He finally got it right. Only took him two months of visiting and guessing. I’d go to half a dozen football games if he wanted me to.


The football game was pretty exciting. I don’t know what really went on, but everyone was cheering and shouting and our team won, I think. It was hard to tell. Either way, no one around me seemed to care for more than a second that I was wearing the muzzle. Besides, it was cold and I had a scarf covering most of it anyway. Arnold tried to explain everything, but it was hard to hear him above all the shouting people.
Best night ever.
Maybe I’ll go to the next one, too. After learning more about football.
I stop outside my door and glance over at Arnold. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, then clears his throat.
“Well, goodnight,” he says. Then he turns and walks down the hall to his apartment.
I stare after him. The cursor on my screen blinks rapidly.
Goodnight Arnold.

Friday, October 28, 2016

World Blip – Culture, Part 2

Last week, I talked about culture in worldbuilding, why it is important, and why it is complex and nearly impossible to create completely. Today, I’d like to look at one particular aspect of culture as I defined it, and how one goes about developing it. 

The Persons

I mentioned last time that there’s this facet of culture I like to call the “socio-self” aspect. It’s the part of culture that requires individuals and their interaction. It’s the individualism or collectivism perpetuated by society and self.
You’ll find these two parts – society and self – intertwined in our own world and lives. This part of culture is so important that psychologists and their studies tell us that society can have a profound impact on our personality and our actions. In fact, it’s clear that certain psychological disorders are dependent on the culture. Because they’re defined by society, these disorders can rise and fall as people define and redefine what is “normal” and what is “abnormal”. (As a side note, my blog follows exactly zero of the formal writing styles, so I’m not even sure how I go about citing sources… But I know this information because of a psychology textbook by Dr. David G. Meyers. I’m sure it will pop up in a Google search if you’re interesting… anyway.)

When it comes to writing, what are these two parts manifested as? Who is the self, and who is the society? In short, your main cast is the self, the rest of the people are society. In other words, whichever character you’re following is the self. It’s important to note, however, that everyone is the self, and everyone is society. All those other people who pop up in your book are also people. They have lives and they are complex characters with fears and hopes and dreams. You can treat them as society only as a whole.

Depending on whom you make the self, society will look different. We all have unique outlooks on life and on those around us. One of the hardest things to develop when it comes to culture is how your character perceives culture and how culture perceives them. It’s certainly a process. A long, long process.

Two Perspectives

I’d like to give you an example from my writing. In my most recent project (Agram Awakens), I have five main characters and seven minor characters whose POVs I use at least once. Each one of these characters follows an arc that takes place in completely different countries. They’re all in the same world, and their stories eventually intersect, but each is hundreds of miles from the other at any given time. These miles cross political and cultural boundaries, which means that each character sees and interacts with a different culture. They’re of different races and religions and family backgrounds and on and on go the differences. It made writing the book difficult, because I had to undergo a radical shift each time I wrote a different point of view. In fact, I often had to stop at the end of one point of view and wait until the next day to start the next scene, because the mindsets are so different.

It was hard, but this diversity allowed me to explore the idea of culture in so many ways from so many perspectives. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I wrote from the point of view of a girl who’s been so pressured by society to be one way that she’s adopted it as herself and when it’s stripped away from her she doesn’t know how to react, how to be something other than the self thrust upon her by society.
I got to write from the point of view of a man who was – in essence – damned by a sect, and from the point of view of someone in that sect who has to deal with racism from the outside. Through these differing cultural and selves, I was able to touch on such a harsh topic from both sides of the equation.

How? How did I work my way to a point where I could write these things?

Personally, I started with the society. You can start with the self, if you’re more of a character-based writer. Whichever works for you. I started with the worldbuilding side of culture and moved on to the personal side of culture.
For me, this meant taking the map I created for my story and examining it. I took into consideration every country that would become important in my story or where any scene would take place. Then I developed basic parts of those countries that shape culture. Of these, the ones that had the most impact were (in no particular order):
--- Government/Politics
--- Clothing/Fashion
--- Education
--- Familial Relations
--- Religion
--- International Relations
--- Ethics
I wrote down basic notes on each of these things, and then as I wrote, I let the countries develop further in the creative juices of my brain.
How do each of these things affect culture? Well, society creates “norms”, the acceptable behaviors of the individual. Each of the categories above helps to shape those norms. A place where one religion is prominent will create religious norms that everyone is expect to follow or at least pretend to follow. A country where family is vital will form around a norm where family is close and they probably live in the same house with their extended family and children are everywhere.

Personally, I suggest developing that short list of basic notes on each country and then apply them to your main character. Ask yourself: how does the government of this country affect my character? How does the lack or excess of education change the way my character interacts with others?

These things are the beginning of the first part of culture.

The second part of socio-self requires less work for some of us, and more for the rest. If you’re a wordsmith (a character-based writer), this will be the easy side of culture. This is where you sit inside your character’s head and consider all the ways they interact with the rest of the world. It’s the way in which your character acts in certain circumstances. It’s their prejudice and preconceived notions and their thoughts on the world and others.
It’s hard to explain how to develop this, because it varies for each character. It’s that sixth part of character development I mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s the complexity of interaction that is hard to describe even for yourself.

Meshing Two Parts

All right. We’ve developed these two parts of culture. They’re one half of what culture is. How do we make them one complete piece?
It’s simple: write your story.

Wait what?

The only surefire way to mesh the social and the self is to write it. Write your society and your character interacting. You can’t just jot down notes, you have to stick your hands right into the goop and sort it out as you go. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll have epiphanies. You’ll contradict yourself and you’ll deviate from your notes.

And you know what?
That’s okay.
That’s how true worldbuilding works. Worldbuilding creates a foundation and then morphs itself to fit the needs of the stories and the revelations of the creative mind. Culture is a liquid: it’s ever shifting. It sits on the cusp of change: on one side it’s ready to flash to a gas at one change, on the other it will mold into a solid with the right pressure. It’s constricted by the view of others, molded by the thoughts of the self.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Why Math isn’t THAT bad

I realize that my audience is mostly writers. I also realize that math can be a sensitive subject for writers. However, I’m going to tread through the landmines and attempt to talk about it anyway. LIAA today is going to take a different turn than usual.
I’m gonna get persuasive on you.
Sorry about that.

In short, I’m here to convince you that math is actually an art.
Goodness did I already lose? Or can I try anyway?

The Purpose of Math

Everyone reading this can probably do math. If you know how to read, you also know how to math because basically zero school teach only reading and no math. Even if you can only add simple sums or do basic multiplication, you can math. Or maybe you went all the way through algebra and geometry. If you’re an overachiever, you took pre-calculus or trigonometry in highschool. Good for you.

In short, educational institutions ensure your basic understanding of math. Some of you can do more than others. You smart people, you.

Myself, I’m currently taking Differential Equations, which is basically Calculus 2.5 (because for some reason, they decided that you take it before Calculus 3, but it’s not Calculus 3… I don’t totally understand it either, it’s okay). Recently, I had to write a rather short (1,400 word) paper on the following prompt:
“Can differential equations be used to predict the future?”

I don’t have time to go in-depth into what differential equations are and what they do, nor is this blog the place for me to give you a 1,400-word essay that answers the question, so let me sum up: differential equations are models that involve rates. Acceleration is a rate, for instance, as is velocity (speed). Population growth, flow of chemicals into a vat, airflow around the wings of an airplane, pollution change, climate change, weather patterns, and many more physical phenomena can be “modeled” by these equations, and they’re often quite complicated.
Because they model rates with respect to time, many of these equations can predict values for future times. When you watch the weather, what you’re really watching is a visual representation of a differential equation which is a mathematical representation of change air pressure and moisture movement.

Did I lose you yet? Did you fall asleep? (It’s okay if you did… I’ve almost fallen asleep during my class… whoops.) I mean… what is the point?
It might be obvious that people like me (engineers, mathematicians, scientists, etc.) need to know math, but what about the normal people, the people who don’t have to spend their days modeling weather patterns or stress balances on bridges? Few writers need to know how to derive acceleration from velocity and use it to determine the impact experienced by a skydiver given the size of a parachute and the skydiver’s weight. We writers don’t need to know calculus to write books.

Let’s not even go all the way to calculus, let’s stop at algebra and geometry.
X and Y. Proofs. Sine and Cosine and Tangent and those other three we don’t talk about, and the six hyperbolic functions no one really knows about. What is the point of these stupid things? I mean, who cares if the triangles are congruent by the Side-Angle-Side theorem and that the two angles are congruent by virtue of their being exterior alternate angles of two parallel lines cut by a transversal?
I’m not even sure what half those words mean, so what good are they? I mean, we can just as easily take a rule out and measure the sides of the triangles to show that they’re the same, if eyeballing isn’t enough.
Not to mention X and Y. They’re like a pair of long-separate lovers, always trying to find one another and the solution to one is always related to the other. Turns out algebra is basically just a sappy love story about two characters who struggle with their identity and somehow end up together by the end. If we’re lucky, there’s an occasional love triangle happening with Z. Yay.

I don’t know about you, but my daily life rarely consists of comparing triangle sizes and finding X and Y. I dunno, maybe your day does. If so, great, good for you. The rest of us, however, may not see a point in these maths. Are they made for their own sake?

To tell you truthfully, there are three basic sets of math: foundational math, cornerstone maths, and application maths. Everyone takes foundational math. If you’re in school for more than a year, you take foundational math. Elementary math. Your basic sum and difference and multiplication and division, with fractions and decimals on the side. Geometry and Algebra and pre-Calculus are all cornerstone maths. They are based on the foundations (and without the foundations, you’d fail at all of these), and provide a strong support for the real maths.

Wait what?
Real maths?
What are these real maths I speak of?

See, most people stop there. When they go to college, they’ll take college algebra or pre-Calculus or “Math for the Liberal Arts” or maybe an intro to statistics. Except… the point of math is missed.
To truly understand and realize math’s potential, you can’t stop two-thirds of the way through. You can’t lay a foundation and slap a cornerstone at each corner and call it a house. If that’s all you do, you’ll complain when the rain gets you wet. Don’t blame the math you’ve taken; they’re doing their best.
So what are the application maths?
You’re not gonna like it, but they’re the hard ones. Calculus (all of them), Statistics (like actual applied statistics, not just learning how to push buttons on a calculator and copy the solution), Stewardship/Accounting maths, and the maths beyond constitute the application maths.
Here we find the true reason why people hate math: they stop too soon. When you stop before you finish the house, you’ll be unsatisfied with the results.

The purpose of math is to build an array of tools until you finally have enough to tackle the complexities of life.

Art in Math

Good art tells a story. I once gave a persuasive speech on art, and how all true art tells a story. Again, it’s essentially a 1,400 word essay I don’t have time to share. Let’s just assume that I’m right (I realize that this is a huge assumption, but bear with me), that art tells a story. I also claimed above that math is an art.

Well, based on the idea that art tells a story, is there art in math?
I say yes.
All story-problems aside, where is the story in math?
Consider the following equation:

(note: all equations written in Mathcad Prime 3.1)

This is a simple equation. It may look complicated, but when you solve it (thanks, calculus 1), you find a simple numerical answer: 2.773.
Where did I get that answer? What does it mean? Why does it matter? How is this art? How does this tell a story?

One of the points I made in my speech “what is art” was this: sometimes the story is behind the art, instead of the art itself.
Let’s consider another equation:

Can I solve this one?
There is no answer. Or perhaps there is every answer.

Now there’s an interesting story. Because if you were to replace X in the denominator with X2, you’d find that the equation is equal to 1. One.

Where is the art? Enough of these weird examples, where is the art? Sure, we can admit math has purpose, but art?
I find the art of math in the stories you can tell with numbers. The stories are abstract, they’re hidden beneath weird squiggly lines and Xs and “dx” and that scary infinity. The story of math isn’t a traditional story. It comes from the beauty in natural patterns. You find the art of math in the way it flows through every part of our lives without our conscious awareness. It’s in the subtly that math possesses when it interacts with you.

Let’s conclude by going back to differential equations. This interesting (and slightly tedious) section of math is all around you, all the time. It’s manifested in the way you breathe, in the way your heart beats and the way your muscles and tendons and bones react to impact. The neurons firing in your brain that enable you to read and comprehend (at least somewhat) this sentence flit through the realm of math.
You are surrounded and engulfed in math, even if you don’t know it.