What’s Your Writing Critique Horror Story?

October is poised on the eve of NaNoWriMo. The month itself cools in preparation for what is to come; the frenzy of too many words and too much caffeine. October is the hushed breath just before the plunge.”

Did you like that? That’s what I’m going to be doing all next month for NaNoWriMo: writing terrible sentences without any sense of shame or literary decency. Look, there’s a reason why it’s taken me years to rewrite the story I wrote for my first successful NaNoWriMo in 2009.

Come to think of it, that’s probably not a resounding endorsement.

Anyway, I’m trying to get myself geared up for NaNoWriMo 2013. It’s been difficult to get my brain working, what with the World of WarCraft addiction and my grad school and such. I’m trying to get writing back into the forefront of my brain again, which you can tell based on the sudden uptick in posts last week.

I was thinking about critique and feedback I’ve received over the years. A good critique is an amazing thing, of course, and one should never ignore critiques even if one disagrees with them. Feedback is always valuable.

That being said.

Look, I think we can all agree that if you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or joined a writing group, you’ve heard some pretty stupid comments. In fact, I’m willing to go one better and admit that I have made some pretty stupid comments. This post isn’t about sharing the horrible feedback you’ve received, but horrible feedback you’ve given to another writer. At some point in your development as a writer, you have been called on to critique another story and at least once, you probably screwed up monumentally, even if you didn’t realize how bad that feedback was until years later when you finally knew better.

While I have several critiques that I’m not proud of in retrospect, there’s only one comment I ever made that I’m truly and deeply ashamed of:

It was for a college freshman poetry class. I don’t remember what the style of poem was supposed to be or even what my poem was like. All I know was that I was looking for something to say during the critique and totally drawing a blank.

One of the poem’s lines referenced Kerouac. I don’t remember what the line was exactly; something like “being on the road, Kerouac’s road,” etc.

In my critique, I told the writer that her poem would be improved if there was something in the poem that told us who Kerouac was, something that gave the reader a little more context about “this Kerouac guy.”

Yes, that’s correct; as a college freshman studying creative writing, I didn’t know who Kerouac was. And I unknowingly admitted it to my entire class.

To this day, the shame haunts me.

So what’s your writing critique horror story? Feel free to share in the comments. Please remember that we’re all friends here, so when we laugh at one another, we are indeed laughing at you rather than with you, but we’re laughing out of love.

The Flynn Effect, Or Why Idiocracy Got It Wrong

Did you ever see Idiocracy? It’s considered a cult classic these days and, although I don’t consider it to be Mike Judge’s best work, it was a good enough satire to earn both a few laughs and also a concerned eyebrow at the perceived rise of anti-intellectualism in pop culture and the potential consequences of the fact that the more education one receives, the less likely that person is to have children.

Dumber society + more dumb people having dumb kids = disaster.

Seems like a pretty solid combination that will guarantee the future is filled with idiots, right? I mean, have you seen kids today? All they think about is their social networking and their (insert appropriate music genre here). They lack an appreciation for fine culture or complex thought, preferring a sound-bite society that’s easier for increasingly short attention spans. The preceding sentence will probably be too much for anybody under the age of 20 to grasp! In other words, people are getting dumber.

Except for the fact that they’re not. People are smarter than ever. On average, each generation is smarter than the previous ones.

WHAT YOU SAY?! How can this be? How can people not be getting dumber? Look at our decrepit culture! It doesn’t make any sense.

We can thank the Flynn Effect:

The Flynn Effect is the observation that each successive generation has a higher IQ than the last. The man who observed this and after whom the term is named, James Flynn, recently gave a fascinating talk at TED on why this might be.

“If you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average IQ of 70. If you score us against their norms, we would have an average IQ of 130,” James Flynn said in his talk.

Let’s nip one thing in the bud; using IQ as a measure of intelligence. We know there are many kinds of intelligence, some of which are much harder to quantify than others. IQ can’t measure creativity or emotional intelligence. That doesn’t mean an IQ score is devoid of value, however. Even if it tracks intelligence only in the very broadest sense, we can still derive useful information from it.

The information is telling us that IQ is rising with every generation. In fact, if you look at the way the IQ score is arranged, the goal post has to be moved constantly specifically because of this inflation. 100 is always the average. If too many people score above 100 and it moves the average up, the parameters of the test are altered to compensate.

Flynn has an explanation for why this upward trend is occurring:

“In 1900, three percent of Americans practiced professions that were cognitively demanding. Only three percent were lawyers or doctors or teachers. Today, 35 percent of Americans practice cognitively demanding professions, not only the professions proper like lawyer or doctor or scientist or lecturer, but many, many sub-professions having to do with being a technician, a computer programmer. A whole range of professions now make cognitive demands. And we can only meet the terms of employment in the modern world by being cognitively far more flexible.

So, there. Suck it, predictions of an idiotic future. We’re all much smarter than we give ourselves credit for. Like XKCD says, “People aren’t going to change, for better or for worse. Technology’s going to be so cool. All in all, the future will be okay! Except climate; we fucked that one up.”

Things I Learned About North Korea From Reading The Comments Section

North Korea is one of those topics that grips my attention with morbid fascination. It boggles my mind to imagine a world so removed, so disconnected, and so absolutely alien to my own human experience. My interest goes far beyond “this is a crazy dictatorship with nuclear technology,” which seems to be as far as the rabbit hole goes for most people. For me, it’s the idea of what life is like in such a place. It seems like something out of a novel and it’s chilling to know that all the books I’ve read, like Barbara Demick’s poignant Nothing to Envy are filed in the non-fiction section.

I saw a great article about a tourist’s experiences in North Korea. The author’s own reactions are the highlight of the post: a combination of empathy and shocked amusement wrapped in a witty shell. I think shocked amusement is a normal human reaction to something so strange and unsettling; humor is one of the brain’s ways of dealing with stress, after all.

I don’t think this is cruel, superficial, or insensitive. Joking about how bizarre and weird such an experience is doesn’t mean insensitivity to the very real and very horrible human rights violations (only Eritrea has a worse record of human rights violations than North Korea). When you’re faced with something like that, the mind really has only a few options: try to laugh, try to forget, or shatter.

The reason why I’m writing about this article is not because of the article itself (although it’s very good and I think you should read it), but because of the comments the article has spawned. The author wryly notes early in the post:

Before I talk about what I learned, I’d like to quickly say hi to whomever from the North Korean government is reading this. Only the highest-level officials have access to the internet in North Korea, and I learned that the job of one of them is to scour the internet for anything written about North Korea and keep tabs on what the foreign press is saying. So hi, and haha you can’t get me cause I’m back home now and I can say all the things I wasn’t allowed to say when I was in your country.

The comments section unequivocally proves this to be true. Here are a collection of some of the best gems. Most of them are posted anonymously, although a few do have rather dubious sounding “Western” names attached. I won’t be offering any commentary as I think the rebuttals are fairly self-evident.

From “Anonymous”:

Actually, it was a rather contrived article full of swearing that was meant to make Americans feel good about their own massive police state. Enjoy feeling smug about yourself and your “free” country? Get a kick out of feeling “pity” for those poor North Koreans. Pull your head out and try fixing your own broken country, namely the USA.

From “Anonymous”:

Yes, it does sound a lot like the USA since 911. Of course, its easier to see the speck in the other guy’s eye, ya know? Not that N. Korea isn’t much worse and very sad because it is. But do take heed because they are working on making the US into the same kind of place. Current attack is against free speech under the guise of protecting “real journalists” – warning, warning, warning. We all must have the same protections.

From “Anonymous”:

Funny post, but some of it sounds pretty similar to the place where I live:
1. The leaders are a really big deal…
Like the POTUS (Mr. Peace Prize Terror Tuesday, and all the others before him), and the Fed chairman?
2. Everyone lies about everything all the time…
Like saying “the recession is over!”, or “unemployment is going down!”, or “inflation is low!”, or “the FED knows what it’s doing!”, or “college is a good investment”, or “we stand for Freedom! Yeah!”, or “marijuana is bad for you! booo!”, or “the Terrorists are going to get us!”, or “our military is killing people over there so they won’t kill us over here!”, or “the government cares for your safety!”, or “fluoride is not bad for you!”, or “the Healthcare Act was written to benefit the people, not the insurance companies who wrote it!”, or “Syria bombed its own people with chemicals, so now we need to go over there and bomb their people with even more killing metals!”, or “Iraq has WMD’s”, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.
4. Propaganda is absolutely everywhere…
Like chanting “allegiance” and singing songs about how great the country is and how the country is God’s favorite, to start every school day, and at church, and before every collegiate and professional sporting event? And parading soldiers out in front of everyone all the time to be admired? Like that?
7. The details of the leader’s birth (and college career, professional career, criminal history, etc.) is not a subject you should try to gather information on…
Hmm, too much to list on this one, about every leader this country has ever had.
8. The same physical place can be fancy and shitty at the same time…
Washington D.C., New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, etc.
9. Still talk about the Wars… all the ones we had no business starting or participating in?
12. Lacking a sense of humor about the places that hold the bodies of dead leaders… See #1…

From “Kacuncica Davidovic”:

Well in many bulletpoints North Korea is not much different than modern USA.

From “Anonymous”:

True. This piece of slanted propaganda is only meant to titillate those Americans that are already brainwashed. The biggest police state in the world is the USA. Only in the US would you be informed that you are being totally spied on and everything recorded and then not to worry about it! Mindless American bootlickers unite!

Okay. I’m going to break my earlier statement about not commenting. Let’s clear something up, just in case there was any doubts.

If you are able to complain about the “lack of freedom of speech” in a public forum, you still have freedom of speech. You’ll know when free speech is gone, because nobody will be able to say anything about it. (Complaining about the erosion of free speech is still vital, however, as it safeguards against that erosion.)

The day I know we’ve slid into an actual authoritarian police state will be the day when I do not see numerous books on the shelf in a public library accusing the current President of destroying the country, being an idiot, or just being evil in general. We won’t have a news networks that are pathologically dedicated to mocking everything the government does. Those things don’t exist in a police state. You don’t get to be a talking head on a popular news network, you get to be shot in the head.

Thus, it’s paradoxical, but I actually take comfort in seeing Fox News continue to be ridiculously anti-President (or CNN during times of Republican dominance; they like to change things up like that). As long as they’re around, I can be certain that the First Amendment is alive and well.

Yeah, there’s a lot that’s going wrong. The PRISM thing comes to mind as an example of a larger problem (although for most people, the idea of privacy is completely ridiculous considering our level of social media narcissism.) This whole “let’s play chicken with the debt ceiling” is somewhat troubling, especially since the Teabag core seems hellbent on nihilistic immolation at this point.

Still. All things considered, we’ve got it pretty good. South Koreans have it pretty good. Most of us in the industrialized world have it pretty good, admittedly to varying degrees of good.

Hopefully, someday North Koreans will have it pretty good, too.

Impending Galactic Collision? It’s More Likely Than You Think

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the impending collision between our galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy? Well, why not? Are you aware, sir or madame, that our two galaxies are rushing towards one another at speeds of no less than 110 kilometers per second? We’re caught on a speeding train that’s on the same track as another speeding train, except that we’re on the littler of the two trains and we’re certainly going to die. EVERYBODY PANIC.

Well, except for the fact that Andromeda is 2.5 million light-years away. But 110 kilometers a second is still pretty fast, right? It seems fast.

And it is pretty fast; at the current rate of speed, we only have 4.5 billion years to figure out how to avoid this galactic collision. That’s barely enough time for a star to form, a solar system to organize, a planet to evolve life, that life to evolve more complex life, and that complex life to develop intelligence, and that intelligence to develop the Internet. How could we possibly have enough time to figure out how to avoid this impending apocalypse?

Assuming it’s even apocalyptic, of course, since galaxies are mostly empty space and even though we use the phrase “galactic collision” and collision implies the hitting of things on other things, the reality is that the odds of any two stars physically colliding are tiny. Really, really tiny.

So, really, we don’t have anything to worry about. In 4.5 billion years, we’re going to have a kick-ass new galaxy that’s way bigger than all those other, lamer galaxies.

Assuming we aren’t all killed by a gamma-ray burst first. Space is awesome like that.

Why I Haven’t Posted In A Week

It occurred to me that I haven’t written a blog post since last week, since is the longest gap I’ve had in writing with the exception of the week I took in July for my grad school course. I’d love to say that I was really busy with class or that I’d been focusing on work or studying or inventing a new kind of robot-serpent that I will use to bend the world to my will. The truth is, while I was working and studying, neither of those things are reasons why I’d stop writing. The truth is, there’s only one thing that keeps me from banging out even half-hearted posts about whatever is on my mind.

Azeroth.

That’s a word that will either have you nodding in sympathy and understanding or scratching your head in confusion.

Seriously, I’ve got it bad right now. I’m worried, because although my performance at work and my grad school class haven’t slipped, virtually everything else has. I haven’t taken a crack at the manuscript for a few weeks now, even though I’m literally in the 9th inning on my rewrite with less than 50 pages to go.

On the other hand, my druid dinged 90 two nights ago. Yay, I guess.

Even worse, November is right around the corner. November means NaNoWriMo. I’ve  completed NaNoWriMo every year since my first success in 2009. Every year, I tell myself that I don’t need to do it again, that I’ve already done it and I really should focus on the growing pile of unfinished stories collecting on my hard drive. And then every year, November 1 rolls around and I think, if I don’t do it, I’ll break my streak.

The worst part is I already have a character and a title, so I know I’ll probably end up doing it and going a little (more) crazy. Alas. If only I could get my addiction to Azeroth under control before that day comes.

Hero Motorcyclist Saves Coffee Cup From Certain Death

Motorcyclists are getting a lot of bad press right now due to the road rage altercation that took place in New York a few days ago. Long story short: a reckless group of riders is swarming the streets, one rider “brake-checks” an SUV and gets taken out, group stops around the SUV, driver panics and runs over another rider on his way out of Dodge, chase and eventually violence ensue. Oh, and one of the riders caught the entire thing on his helmet cam and posted it on YouTube. So, there’s that.

As a motorcyclist myself, I don’t fault the SUV driver for doing what he did. I’ve been chased in a road-rage instance and it was a terrifying experience. Fortunately for me, it was just one guy in one truck and he gave up after a few miles. It still wasn’t something I’ll ever forget.

Still, it’s always unfortunate for motorcyclists when some of our tribe’s bad behavior makes international headlines. These guys were being jerks even before the collision that sparked the entire mess; in previous videos, they were running red lights and riding on sidewalks and just being jerks. The fact that one rider decided to brake-check a fucking SUV speaks volumes. You don’t brake-check someone on a motorcycle. You just don’t. It’s not like doing it in your old Ford pickup where you’ll get a dented bumper if the guy clips you.

Instead of focusing on those guys, however, I’d rather draw attention to a very different sort of reckless rider. Behold this video of a motorcyclist going out of his way to rescue a coffee cup from certain death.

Was it a stupid risk? Absolutely. But it’s the kind of stupid risk that makes you smile, because even though it’s pretty dumb to risk your life and your bike for something so trivial, it’s also kind of heartwarming at the same time.

Your State Is The Worst (At Something)

According to the Cartographic Research Lab at the University of Alabama, Arizona is officially the state with the worst alcoholism problem in the Union. Judging by the contents of my desk, that sounds fairly accurate.

Interestingly, even though Arizona has the worst alcoholism, we don’t have the worst rates of drunk driving (Montana), fatal car crashes (Wyoming), binge drinking (Minnesota), or poorest health (Kansas). So, there’s that. Although how we can be the most alcoholic state but lose out in binge drinking is beyond me. Maybe Minnesotans are better at holding their liquor.

If this study is accurate, I’ll definitely be avoiding Virginia (most motorcycle deaths), South Dakota (most rape), and Louisiana (most gonorrhea). Washington must be an uncomfortable place to be for dogs, sheep, and goats (most bestiality) and Mormon capital of the world Utah has the most porn usage, which actually explains a lot.

The odd part is some of the things some states are the worst at are much, much, much worse than others. Ohio, for example, is “the nerdiest state,” which is “based on highest number of library visits per capita (6.9).” Um, wow, way to be a bunch nerds, Ohio. Yeah, I bet you feel bad, don’t you, Ohio? Bunch of library-using eggheads, bookworms, and nerds, the whole lot of you!

(Editor’s note: apparently, I can’t pass a fifth grade geography class, since I wrongly accused Nebraska of having the poorest health, when actually it was Kansas. It’s possible that I’m actually a resident of Maine (the dumbest state). Nebraska still sucks, though, having the most violence on females, so it’s basically a wash.)

In Which I Agree With Jeff Flake About Something

So the government shut down today. Fortunately for yours truly, I’m employed by a level of government that has so far managed to remain functional, so I get to keep coming into work every day. I am very relieved by this fact, although I admit that the idea of not having to work did sound pretty good this morning when my alarm started chiming away.

I wanted to point out something my state Senator, Jeff Flake, said in an article, if only because before today, I don’t think I’ve agreed with Jeff Flake about anything. From an article in the New York Times:

The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress have accused their Democratic counterparts and Mr. Obama of failing to entertain even the smallest changes to the health care law, which they have said is deeply flawed and harmful to businesses.

But among the rank and file, more and more Republicans are saying they believe they have no cards left to play.

“We’ve called their bluff, and they didn’t blink,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “At this point it would kind of strain logic to assume that going deeper into this when Republicans are likely to get the blame will benefit us more.”

Bold emphasis is mine.

Last week, I was discussing the then-hypothetical government shutdown and described the situation as a game of Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em, of course). The Republicans are trying to bluff with a pair of threes while the Democrats are sitting comfortably on a nice King-high straight. The only difference between my assessment and Flake’s is that Flake suggests the Democrats kept their nerve even when Republicans called their bluff. In my scenario, the Democrats weren’t even trying to bluff. They didn’t need to bluff. They knew who did not have the political capital to keep up in this high stakes game and they knew who would be paying out the nose for the resulting fallout. Hint: not them.

The frustrating and somewhat scary part is that the Republicans played their hand anyway even though rationally, they should have folded as soon as the cards were dealt. It speaks to the level of dysfunction within a particular group of that particular party, which is frankly terrifying.

The sooner Republican voters oust this fringe element that has turned their party into a gibbering mess, the better it will be for all of us. Right now, we’re not stuck with a deep schism between a conservative party and a liberal party. We’re watching the struggle between a slightly-right-of-center party and an insane party.

Contrary to popular conservative depictions of socialist liberals such as myself, the majority of us don’t look forward to the Republican party’s spectacular and implosive collapse. Indeed, we’re rational enough to realize that in such a scenario, the deposed would do all in their power to drag everyone down with them. Which, come to think of it, seems to be exactly what’s happening right now.