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Monday, September 6, 2021

Enid: The Soulkeeper sneak peek!

 

First, a progress update.

I'm currently 78,000 words deep into the manuscript, and I've completely re-written all the content that had been lost due to the harddrive-shitting-itself incident. We're entering a new frontier now. (For comparison, my first "novel" [take that label with a mound of salt] A Spurious Hanging was only about 85,000 words total, and I've written almost that much in just the last couple of months I've been working on the re-write for this story. ASH took me over a year to finish the first draft, and in the last three months I've written almost that much.) If nothing else, the sheer output of my productivity has greatly increased.

Additionally, I'll be going back to writing essays for this blog in about a month or two, depending on how things go.

First order of business: this sneak peek will be different from the one I did in 2019 for Desolation's Reach. I thought that was a good scene at the time, and I'll keep that post up, but I was still honing my craft and had a lot more of the fundamentals to iron out before I could confidently go through with marketing and publishing that story.

I still plan to, but Enid is going to be a different case. As the April 2nd, 2023 release date creeps closer, you're going to see more updates, sneak peeks, character art, and marketing for this book. While I don't consider myself a master by any stretch of the imagination, I've solidified the basics of plotting, pacing, character development, and writing prose itself, enough to where I'm going all-in on this one. If nothing else, I can always compensate for my lack of writing experience by doing more drafts and rewrites than usual. (I say that as if I haven't written hundreds of thousands of words for both my fiction and articles like the ones on this blog, lol.) And now that I'm a real Adult™ with my own money and not just a teenager on my family computer using Open Office, I can afford to save up for an actual editor rather than just doing it myself.

Don't believe me? 

I'm so serious about this story this time that I commissioned the famous voice actor, Internet-sensation Voice Over Pete himself, do this for me:

(If it isn’t appearing in your browser, the link is right here: https://youtu.be/wBENauNa1Ys)

Best $35 I've ever spent.

So now that you see how super-serious I am--

 

--here's the sneak peek.

Some quick context for this scene to make sense:

Al-Haven and Al-Fid are two halves of one giant city, that has essentially been divided into two. Al-Haven means "City of Heaven" in the Old Liran language, and Al-Fid means "City of Mud." A huge passageway called Heaven's Gate separates the two, and has been shut for 20 years. This scene doesn't feature the main protagonist Enid, rather it follows her love-interest Theo. I chose this scene for the sneak peek because it's a great scene that was fun to write, and because it showcases a lot of world-building. There's a minor spoiler about a secondary character who dies, however that character plays such a small role prior to this scene that I don't mind spoiling their death here. Nothing in this scene spoils what will happen to the main cast.

(Unless you want to go in COMPLETELY blind, in which case, steer clear of this whole post.)

Theo is a surgeon who lives in the slums of Alfid, and Raena is his assistant. In addition to trying to provide dirt-cheap life-or-death surgery for the local residents of Alfid, the pair is also involved with a rebellion against the Queen of Al-Haven.

The fantasy setting isn't necessarily "medieval" like most fantasy stories are. It's more like the Renaissance era, with splashes of magic and wonder mixed in with hints of grimdark.

This is, also, the first draft of this scene; I went over and fixed any random typos I found, but this scene might be different in the final version of the book. But for the first draft of a scene that I literally finished writing 30 minutes ago, I think it's pretty good.

This scene takes place about one-third of the way through the story, when the alarm is sounded indicating that Heaven's Gate is being opened:

 

Theo stood in the doorway of the clinic, peeking at the chaos outside. Unbridled pandemonium filled the cramped streets of Alfid as the bells along the ramparts of Heaven’s Gate rang for the first time in twenty years. They meant only one thing—the gate was being opened. The gate had been sealed for so long that it was believed they would never open again. The last time the bells of Heaven’s Gate rang, it took 5,000 men to push it open with rams and over 3,000 to get it shut using ropes and pulleys. The last time that gate had opened, he was only three years old.
    He was much too far away to see the action from here—he worked and lived in the tightly-nit Hillside District, which was tucked into the side of several large hills on the western side of the city. When he looked to the right he could see the glowing city of Al-Haven perched in the side of the mountain. His clinic was almost a crude mockery of it—a dirty, shanty building that jutted from the side of the hill while Al-Haven stood proudly perched on the side of the little mountain overlooking the sea port, like a throne of granite.
    Theo wanted to watch the gate open just as badly as everyone else, but he wanted to rendezvous with Raena first lest they never be able to locate each other in the confusion. They had an unspoken agreement that anytime something important happened and they needed to meet up, they would meet at the clinic, and if they couldn’t meet at the clinic then they met up at Sunken Pete’s. Raena had her own place, of course, but Theo had never been there.

    A couple minutes later, a disheveled Raena appeared in a coat and trousers, crowds of people shoving past her as she went against the flow to get to the clinic.

    “Holy shit Theo,” she said, out of breath and gesturing vaguely around her.

    He nodded resolutely. “Alright, let’s go,” he said, closing the clinic doors and locking them tight.

    “There’s no patients inside?”

    “I had two patients this morning, but they both got up and left once the bells started. One of them was a fellow with a sprained ankle, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way he rushed out the door once he heard the bells.”

    Even now they rang—huge, deep bells that were loud enough to be heard from the other side of the city.
    They joined the flow of people, which practically carried them along in its current as most shoved and pushed the people in front of them. The mass of pedestrians began to dissipate into a massive courtyard in the Highborn District. It was the nicest part of the city, and the closest district to Al-Haven. It was where the richest and most elite in Alfid lived, but even the nicest parts of Alfid were likely nothing compared to Al-Haven itself. The bells became so loud that they drowned out everything else, and when Theo and Raena arrived, he was shocked to see the gate had already been opened.

    In the distance, thousands of soldiers had opened and secured Heaven’s Gate, and were keeping huge crowds of Alfid peasants at bay as they fanatically tried to get closer. Beatings broke out as a large group of Aflid peasants broke through their defenses and were immediately pummeled with shields and steel gauntlets. There didn’t seem to be any actual killings, but he was too far away and there were too many heads in the way to tell.

    A well-adorned Captain rode in on a tall, muscular destrier. He took control of the soldiers and had them fall into a triangular, wedge-like formation.

    “MAKE WAY! CLEAR THE WAY! MAKE WAY!” he chanted, his soldiers chanting the same as they pushed their formation through the crowd. They held tall rectangular white banners bearing the Queen’s sigil. They cleared a path wide enough for a few carriages to pass through, and the soldiers lined up along both sides in single-file.

    Theo had thought for sure that some people would try to force their way into the gate and get themselves killed, but none made it through the barrier of soldiers.

    Even from far away, Theo could see how well-trained and equipped they were—and there were so many of them. Despite being a single city, Al-Haven had the third largest military in the world, putting it above most countries. The Queen’s personal army, the Order of the Vine’s Honor Guard, was over 40,000 troops strong, but Al-Haven royalty was infamous for hiring massive armies of mercenaries to do their dirty work. Some estimates say that over 100,000 mercenaries fought in Kalistan and Ulia against their own people for Al-Haven gold.

    The troops were precise in their movements and formation. Their unnaturally perfect coordination made them seem more like a hive mind rather than thousands of individuals. And they seemed like gods among men in their glistening armor.

    As a flagrant display of wealth, every soldier in the Order of the Vine wore steel armor that was coated in a thin layer of sterling silver. The pristine silvery glow of their armor in the sun made them appear divine compared to the dirty Alfid crowds that surrounded them.

    When Theo first saw the army Cerigula was raising and training, he thought that the madman might actually have a shot. But now that he saw just a small fraction of the Queen’s army—their impeccable formation and equipment—he knew that they had no chance. His soldiers, while impressive by Alfid standards, looked like children playing with toys compared to Al-Haven’s unquestionable military might.

    As if to confirm this, hundreds of crossbow archers lined the ramparts of Heaven’s Gate, their crossbows aimed down at the crowd. Theo had no doubt that hundreds of spies and informants were mixed in with this crowd, disguised as Alfid peasants and walking among them.

    Suddenly, the bells stopped ringing. A claustrophobic silence washed over the crowd. People murmured and whispered.

    The sound of hooves and marching footsteps.

    First, four well-groomed men rode out on beautiful white horses, their vests covered in medals—military leaders, generals. With them, squads of soldiers with tall shields. Some people started booing and throwing rocks, but they had anticipated this. The soldiers raised their shields and formed a wall of steel, rocks bounding off of them, and the generals seemed undisturbed.

    Next, young boys and girls in matching suits and dresses came through with baskets, scattering rose pedals on the walkway as they passed.

    The booing mostly stopped as adorable children trailed behind the generals, and then a few dozen beautiful maidens in white gowns made their way through with baskets of colorful flowers. They threw handfuls of flowers into the crowd, and Alfid peasants practically trampled each other trying to catch them. Some had begun to cheer.

    Next, two large carts followed suit, each one pulled by two handsome oxen with long horns. They were covered in tarps, and what looked like ordinary farmers rode on top. But then, they lifted the tarps, and revealed the contents inside.

    Food.

    They began passing out cooked meat to nearby peasants and throwing the rest into the crowd. Steaks, patties, sausages, pork cutlets, and more. People were cheering with rabid ferocity as they tried to get whatever they could, begging the farmers to throw something their way.

    Unarmed soldiers came through with baskets of toys. They began passing out wood horses, painted toy soldiers, and dolls to children as they passed.
    I don’t understand, Theo thought to himself. What was going on here? Had he been lied to all this time, brainwashed by Alfid propaganda to think the Queen was an evil tyrant?

    For God’s sake, hundreds of servants were making their way through the street passing out quality food and toys. This didn't scream "tyrant."

    Following the soldiers with toys, open-roofed carriages overflowing with gold were brought in. The cheering elated to new heights, becoming deafening as servants began throwing handfuls of gold into the crowd. People shoved and trampled each other to collect what they could from the ground.

    The servants yelled something about not having to fight, that there was plenty for everyone—and based on the size of the carriages, this was true—but that didn’t stop the desperate fighting that ensued. 

   After the carriages of gold came through, more soldiers followed, densely packed together in a tight formation. Lots of hooves could be heard approaching, even over the crowd. A train of a dozen beautiful stallions, alternating in rows of black and white, emerged from the gateway, pulling an immaculate carriage bearing the Queen’s sigil with a few people inside. The blinds were mostly closed inside the windows, making it difficult to see the Queen. People cheered, but Theo’s throat caught in horror when he saw what was behind the Queen’s carriage.

    A cage came through on wheels, with a single chained-up prisoner inside. He had been deprived of the pompous velvet coat and all of the emerald and ruby rings, but Theo recognized the face instantly.

    It was Darius.

    The large Kalistanian man had been stripped to undergarments and was shirtless, his round gung-ho expression reduced to a smoldering blank stare. People began booing loudly, and Theo was relieved for a second. Until he realized that they weren’t booing the Queen. They were booing Darius, throwing rocks at his cage. Some of them made it between the bars and landed their mark.

    No soldiers with shields came to his defense.

    The courtyard at the end of the street had been cleared, and Theo could hardly see it from there, but he watched as the Queen’s carriage and Darius’s cage behind her made their way up to the clearing.
    Her carriage stopped, and servants rushed forward and unrolled a long, white and gold-trimmed carpet leading up to a wooden platform that overlooked the crowd. The formation of soldiers that led the carriage spread out and lined the perimeter of the clearing, keeping people from coming within 100 feet or so of the stage.

    The carriage door opened, and there was a brief silence.

    He could barely see her, but Queen Joanna herself emerged from the carriage, wearing a dark gold dress with frilly white cuffs and a tight white corset embroidered with silver. Her hair was regal—long, wavy golden-auburn locks that went halfway down her back. He couldn’t see her face as she turned to approach the stage. She walked up herself, without any servants, except for a single Captain at her side. He was bald and wore no helmet, but there was a scar running alongside the side of his face, and he had a hardened look of fierce devotion.

    “Who’s that man with her?” Raena asked.

    He squinted, trying to think of the name.

    “I think that’s Belfort. He’s basically her personal dog.” He paused, eying the prisoner behind the Queen’s carriage. “This is bad.”

    “Is that Darius?” she asked, staring at the cage in disbelief.

    He nodded solemnly.

    “Are they going to kill him??” Raena said.

    “It would certainly explain the theatrical entrance,” Theo said. If he blabbed, Raena and I are dead. He didn't seem to have any scars or marks of torture on his body--but, somehow, that was more discomforting. It might have meant they made him talk without even having to torture him.
    Queen Joanna stood and faced the crowd, while the bald Captain grabbed a scroll that was tucked into his belt. He unrolled the parchment and began to read.

    “People of Alfid: let us celebrate this momentous occasion—for the first time in twenty years, the gate linking Alfid and Al-Haven has been opened, allowing for the Queen to bless us all with her presence. And what a blessing it has been.”

    The crowd roared with excitement. Less than an hour ago, they all hated her guts. Is this all it takes to purchase their loyalty? Theo thought. Some money and gifts?

    Captain Belfort took a breath to speak again, but the Queen herself interrupted him.

    “Pardon my intrusion, but I cannot stand by and let another speak my words on my behalf. I am incredibly humbled to be here, speaking to you directly,” she began. She had a pretty voice, and she pronounced her words carefully, loudly, and with perfect rehearsed clarity.

    “It is nothing short of an honor to serve you, and I felt so compelled to do so that I risk my life, even now. My soldiers are brave and true, but should a hateful man or woman loose an arrow in my direction, it could put my life in jeopardy. And yet, that is a risk I have to take.”

    The people cheered, and many began to hoist their children up unto their shoulders to get a better look.
    “For many months I have thought about how to repair the animosity between the sister cities, and finally the answer has come to me. We must focus not on our differences, but on the commonalities that bind us. The answer seems clear to me now, for I have found that we share a common enemy.”

    Soldiers unlocked the cage’s giant lock with a comically-large key, and they brought Darius out in chains. He didn’t resist, and he followed them calmly with his head held high as they led him up the stage.

    The crowd cheered, but it was weak and quiet. Reserved, as if they were hesitating.

    That’s interesting, Theo thought. Not necessarily good, but… interesting.

    Soldiers restricted him in his chains as Joanna continued.

    “Ever since I lost my husband to the abyss almost twenty years ago, I have faced many challenges alone. I have faced many enemies—critics who challenge my rule as a woman, foreign adversaries that wish to undermine our cultural virtues, and greatest of all, local tyrants and illegitimate criminal-kings who take control of the underworld by force. These are not good people—they kidnap hundreds every year. They sell the men into slavery over seas, they sell the women into prostitution, and they murder to harvest and sell organs to heretical magic-users. Surely, you’ve witnessed the disappearances yourselves, and thought it wise to keep quiet lest you draw any attention to yourself. I will stand for none of that.”

    The cheering commenced with newfound enthusiasm.

    Most of what she said was a lie founded on shreds of truth. People were kidnapped and sold to criminals, but King Cerigula was popular because he was fighting it. Cerigula was so beloved by a large portion of Alfid because he used dirty tactics against the criminal underworld. He kidnapped gang leaders and slave traders, he tortured them to find out the location and whereabouts of their accomplices, and made them fear continuing to work in Alfid. His fierce no-nonsense dominance is what kept the criminals of Alfid in check. Cerigula had only started doing these things in the last couple of years, and yet things had been so much worse before he came along.

    He didn't like how Queen Joanna was trying to conflate the horrors of the criminal underground with Cerigula.
    “Recently, we hunted down one of the worst ones and put an end to him. You might recognize the name… Carter Miles.” The crowd exploded into cheer and applause—the loudest and most enthusiastically by far.

    So it was the Order of the Vine that busted him afterall, not Cerigula, Theo thought. No wonder they could afford to give away so much money to the crowd without batting an eye—they had Carter Miles’s near-infinite fortune on top of their usual mountains of wealth.

    “—and now, we have found another. This is Darius II, a trader who facilitates the transfer of illicit goods and money for the criminal tyrant Cerigula himself. He is Cerigula’s closest friend and confidant. And now, he will die for his transgressions against Alfid.”

    Theo didn’t hear the reaction around him—maybe some cheered, maybe some gasped in shock, maybe the crowd was eerily quiet. In that moment, all Theo could hear was his heart beating in his head, his focus solely on was what happened next.

    Without another word, Captain Belfort at Joanna’s side forced Darius into a kneeling position, unsheathed his arming sword, and swiftly sliced through his neck in one clean swipe.
    There was a fountain of spurting blood where once there had been a neck. His head toppled to the ground, smeared in red as it rolled a couple of feet on the raised wooden platform. Queen Joanna had taken several steps back, but splattered drops of blood covered her pure white corset, a couple of stray drops hitting her face and spraying the Captain’s.

    He didn’t care. His face covered in blood, his sword dripping as Darius’s corpse fell limp in front of him, he calmly pulled out a white handkerchief from his vest pocket, wiped his blade clean, and slid the sword back into its sheath.

    As the Queen watched, she looked… apathetic, her hands folded neatly in front of her lap.
    Theo’s other senses returned to him.

    Raena was crying, saying something about how fucked they were. A small portion of the crowd cheered, but most of the other noises weren’t cheering.
    They were furious.

    Men and women hurled profanities at the Queen, called her a murderer, and some had begun booing her.

    Loyalty bought at a low cost doesn’t last very long, Theo thought to himself as the crowd turned against her. Soldiers rushed up the stage to shield her, as if anticipating what would happen next.
    The crowd began pelting her with gold coins, throwing all of the money back at her. Then they began to hurl meat and wood toys from every direction, and the soldiers struggled to protect her from the hailstorm with their shield wall. The horses in her carriage were startled from the commotion—a few soldiers tried to hold their reigns and keep them steady, but the train of horses flew into a panic and charged into the crowd.

    People screamed as they tried to get out of the way, but it all happened so fast. In the blink of an eye, the horses in the front of the train trampled over several people, crushing them and sending everyone around them scattering. At least half a dozen people got trampled and crushed beneath the horses and the carriage as it plowed into the crowd, and one of the horses in front tripped and fell, causing the ones tied behind it to stumble and fall with it.

    A punch of horror struck him in the gut as a small, crying toddler was trampled to death in front of his mother, painting the cobblestone street with gore.

    Arrows rained down. But not at the crowd.

     At Joanna.

    Theo looked over his shoulder—on the rooftop behind them, several dozen of Cerigula’s archers were perched above the street, with a clear visual of the Queen. Men in front held makeshift wooden shields to shield the archers as they quickly loosed another barrage of arrows in her direction. They killed a frightened horse, which neighed loudly in pain as several arrows struck it, and most of the arrows were soundly deflected by the wall of shields. Theo thought he saw a couple make it through. He hoped the Queen was hit.

    Cerigula’s little ambush didn’t last long—the crossbow archers on the ramparts of the wall fired, and forced all of the archers on the roof across from them to duck behind their rugged wooden shields for cover.

    The crossbowmen didn’t stop or let up, and a couple of Cerigula’s archers fell, but most of them managed to retreat out of sight to safety from wherever they came.

    It was chaos.

    The oxen had begun to rampage through the street, soldiers were trying to protect the Queen while carving a bloody path through the peasants with their swords, and people rained coins and rocks at her while guards tried to secure the gateway.

    Theo turned to Raena and grabbed her wrist. “It’s time to go.”

    She didn’t protest as he forced his way through the turmoil, dragging her along back towards the clinic. They fled with many others, a chaotic cacophony of screams behind them.

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So, there you have it--the line spacing is all over the place for some reason, and Blogger won't let me change it, but that's the gist of it.

 

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Writing Update: Enid Release Date, Cover Reveal, and More

It's been a hot minute since my last post, that's because I've been hard at work writing Enid, basically like this:


I never gave a "lost progress" update on that (I only really do that for blog posts), but several months ago I was about 200 pages into the first draft of the story when the cruel hands of fate destroyed it. And by the "cruel hands of fate," I really mean my hard drive, which royally shat itself and died. You might say, "But Dylan, shouldn't you have uploaded the story to the cloud so that this wouldn't happen?" and to that I say, I was syncing it to Microsoft OneDrive, so it was supposed to be in the OneDrive cloud and not only stored on my computer, but the keyword there is "supposed to." It did not. For whatever God-forsaken reason, every single document on my computer EXCEPT for the manuscript was uploaded to the cloud. But hey, at least I got to save my old resume from like, 2017, who cares that I lost over 50,000 - 60,000 words of progress? It's a fair trade.

That being said, the rewrite is going well. A thorough outline has been done (well, it's like 95% done) and even though I'm going off of memory which ensures that this version will be different from the original 200 pages I had, I think it's actually better than the original was. But it's hard to tell because I remember really liking the original, so this could easily just be my way of coping.

Either way, I'm like 30,000 words deep into the rewrite, and it's quite exciting.

A little about the book itself; the synopsis will (of course) be readable on the back of the cover, which I'll be attaching below, but I wanted to talk a bit about what the synopsis doesn't tell you. For starters, I'm not entirely sure what genre I want to label it as. My natural instinct is to just call it YA and be done with it, but that's not really accurate. While I think teenagers would be the largest audience for the book, the general rule is that the age of your protagonist is the age that the book will be geared towards. So if your protagonist is a 16-year-old high school student, guess who the book is for?

My protagonist is 20, so I probably shouldn't be trying to lump it in with stories about teenagers.

Obviously people of all ages read YA, but the other important factor is that YA novels are coming-of-age stories, and mine definitely is not. But, then again, a lot of "YA" Dystopian novels began to lose sight of the whole "coming of age" thing and went straight to "Our 15-year-old female protagonist is going to effortlessly overthrow this government because reasons," so maybe the trend of YA beginning to be more about tone and less about whether or not it's a coming of age story gives me a pass for calling my book YA Fantasy.

I wish the NA genre became a thing. No, not Not Applicable, New Adult--publishers tried making it a thing for a while, but it never took off and no one takes it seriously anymore, now it's just a meme. Which is a shame, because there are some scenarios where it does make sense. My story has many of the calling cards of YA but has an older more adult protagonist and more heavy-handed down-to-earth realism, and while it's not a coming of age story it definitely has tonal appeal to younger readers and detail-oriented appeal to older readers in their 20s or so.

But New Adult will never be a thing, so I guess that just makes it adult. I also thought about lumping it into Literary Fiction, because the whole story is a poetic allegory, and it's chalked full of symbolism and philosophy and all of that other pretentious boring shit that most people don't like, which would make it perfect for the LF label, but generally Literary Fiction is super dry and boring as shit while my story is not, and it does have a lot of superficial similarities with YA even if its deeper themes are more literary-like (for all intents and purposes "literary-like" can probably just be replaced with "pretentious") so some readers might feel betrayed by that expectation.

I'll probably just roll with it being Fantasy genre fiction and call it a day.

Without further ado or continued rambling, here's the cover in all of its glory.




I have to hand it to Miblart for doing an absolutely gorgeous job, I'm in love with this cover.

As for the release date I mentioned, we're looking at April 2nd, 2023. Why this day? It will take me less than a year to finish writing the book (probably about 6-8 months at my current rate) but it will probably take at least a solid year of revisions to make it perfect. I'm not going to half-ass this book, it's my new baby, it gets the best of everything I can give it. I have a pretty big outline of each draft, and basically it's going to go through six or more drafts, as opposed to the usual three-draft system you sometimes see being the norm. And, of course, there will be beta readers, followed by revision, followed by alpha readers, followed by revision, followed by gamma readers, followed by more revision, followed by professional editing services, etc. Also because, if possible, I'd love for the book to hit shelves before summer for summer sales. People think that Christmas is when most books sell, and while that is a good time to release a book too (around November), it's actually only the 3rd best time. Believe it or not, January sells a shit-ton of books, more than Christmas in December. Why? Because of gift cards. All the people who got Barnes and Noble gift cards or Amazon gift cards that they want to buy books with are going to be cashing them in usually a week or two after Christmas. Yet, even so, summer remains the season with the most readers; but also because I want to release in early April, but April 1st doesn't cut it because then it's basically like saying my book is a joke, and even if it's true I can't have that, can I?

Not to mention, it's on a Sunday, which I like--it's still the weekend, but I have all day Saturday to prepare things. So, April 2nd it is.

Although, some of you may be thinking: what about Desolation's Reach? Wasn't that what my WIP was called? Here's what's going on with that; basically, Desolation's Reach is a 900-page monster of a manuscript (it's like 250,000 words right now and that's just the bare-boned first draft, the final draft will probably be over 300k) and a while back in late 2019 I did a sneak peek post of it. But I decided to set it aside for now and publish Enid first. You see, Desolation's Reach is so massive and unkempt that it would take me thousands of years to sort through all the plot holes, geography problems, continuity errors, and basic plot structure alone, let alone some of the more complicated issues like the flow of time in proportion to the size of the world being traveled.

So, I'd like to come back to it in a year or two after Enid is completed with fresh eyes after forgetting most of the story that way I can analyze it objectively from an outsider perspective. It's already working because so much time passed between me writing the start of the story and the end of the story that when I went back and read the first few chapters, I didn't recognize any of it. It was all new and foreign to me as if I didn't write it myself, purely because so much time passed since writing it that I forgot 95% of it.

Enid is going to be a "shorter" book (take that with a grain of salt) but not a short book, probably around 140k words. Definitely a somewhat long story, but it's more straight-forward than Desolation's Reach. DS is a massive epic fantasy with dozens of important characters and tons of locations, while in Enid there's only a few characters, and the world is smaller and more intimate. Because of its more straight-forward nature, I should have an easier time (not "easy," still really tough, but at least doable) revising and fixing the story to get it in the direction it needs to go.

That's the beautiful thing about writing--if you want to publish, you can publish in any order you want. I have a few stories I want to write after Enid that have to come first, but one idea I've been entertaining is going back, taking A Spurious Hanging off of Amazon (essentially unpublishing it) which would make Enid my new "debut" novel, then re-writing it and publishing it again. Because, frankly, I think I could do better. So that would make my third book Enid my first novel, my second novel Desolation's Reach would still be my second even though I wrote it long before Enid, and that would make A Spurious Hanging like my 4th or 5th even though it was my first. Weird, right?

Anyhoo, that's not all--back in May, I had the pleasure of joining Adam on the Fantastic Earth podcast, a new series dedicated to long discussions about what makes stories and other worlds great. For some reason, I remembered to post that everywhere EXCEPT here, so I'm rectifying that now for anyone who wants to give the podcast a listen. Throughout the discussion we bounce around from topic to topic, talking about fantasy, world building, verisimilitude, story-telling in cinema versus books and video games, and much, much more. It was a total blast, and we covered a lot of interesting topics and discussed different world building philosophies from several people, hopefully you'll find it all very charming and informative, I'm sure.

Worldbuilding Podcast with Adam

I'm not sure what my next essay will be about (I'm thinking POV or something of the sort) but we'll see.

Mark your calendars for April 2nd, 2023 and look forward to the release date!


And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Flow State

 
 
We often use the phrase "in the zone" without entirely knowing what that means. At a glance, the phrase seems to refer to being really focused on something, but it's not considered a physical phenomenon but merely a state of mind. Yet, this isn't actually the case. While simply being focused on a task is a state of mind, there is a much more potent physical anomaly known as flow state. The coveted flow state is not merely a state of mind, but an actual physical process that deeply affects the person experiencing it. During flow state, the recipient experiences a rush of hormones, including enough endorphins to make the person in question experience a sensation similar to morphine... except it's over 100x (!) more powerful.

What's going on here? How does merely being focused on a task give you a sort of high that's 100 times stronger than morphine?

To understand what flow state is and how to reach it, one must first understand "monkey brain". As Jordan Peterson might put it, our heads are full of the constant and incessant chatter of various demons. "Monkey brain" is our default mode of existing; it consists of countless narratives and background processes that are so numerous that they can't be completely mapped out with any degree of accuracy. There's this common misconception that we don't use all of our brain, that we only use (insert a small percentage here) and that we would reach enlightenment if we could only unlock the rest of our brain.

This isn't actually true; it's true that not all of our brain matter is used just for thinking, but there's a reason for that. Our brains are full of tissue and fluids that help it maintain and run properly. The parts of our brain that carry out cognitive tasks are always active in some way, except maybe for synapses for old memories that haven't been accessed in a very long time (ancient memories that stay dormant until you suddenly encounter something that brings that memory back to the forefront, like when you suddenly feel nostalgia from a single smell or object).

Yet, our heads are always full of irrelevant bullshit. We are bombarded with so much physical stimulation from our phaneron* that it hinders our ability to be at our very best engagement at any particular moment.
 
*Phaneron: The set of senses and cognitive processes that perceive information and relay it to our consciousness. At any given moment, you are being bombarded with millions of pieces of information. Something as simple as looking at this screen is relaying unfathomable amounts of information to you via your phaneron.

While we like to playfully call this default mode "monkey brain" because it speaks to our most base, and primal instincts (feeling hungry, or physically tired, or sleepy, or horny, or craving salt, or sugar, or nicotine, or feeling tempted to check your social media, or daydreaming about arguments you won't even ever have, et cetera), but it actually has a scientific name. It's called Default Mode Network, and it actually is a network in every sense of the word.

It's not one part of the mind, it's many. It's a complicated network of connections that are mostly active during the day when we're fully-awake, and the prime parts involved are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule.

There's a metaphor for this that I'm surprised I've never seen anyone else make, so I'll remedy that by making it here. Our Default Mode Network or monkey brain is essentially a bunch of branch predictions in a CPU.

In computer chips, there's something called "branch prediction" which is essentially a tool used to save time by keeping track of previous activity and making future decisions based on that past activity. Branch prediction is important because it speeds up the computer drastically by allowing it to predict what you'll do next, then pre-emptively starting that task for you. For example, if you were to run a program at exactly 4:00 PM every day, your CPU might develop faster load times for that program since it can now anticipate that program being run every day and it can process some of the necessary information in advance that way it will be faster to execute.

Branch prediction is necessary because otherwise, everything would take drastically longer to load since every time you opened something or started a program, it would be as if you were running it for the first time. There's a lot more involved with this process, like caching, but we won't go into that stuff.

Basically, our brains do that too. That's why Pavlovian Conditioning works so damn well on us. If every day at 2:00 in the afternoon you eat a cheeseburger, then after a while you'll start salivating uncontrollably at 1:50. Your body and mind will use its own form of branch prediction to carry out tasks based on your past behavior and lifestyle. If you always eat a cheeseburger at 2:00, your body and mind are going to start pre-emptively preparing for that burger moments before the usual time. It's not just small stuff like your salivary glands, either. Your stomach might increase the acidity of its acid in preparation for digestion, and your hunger hormones will kick in and urge you to carry out the task of getting a cheeseburger and cramming it down your gullet.

 

While those are much more specific examples, if you usually have the same few things for lunch, the likelihood of you craving those specific things later increases exponentially by virtue of reinforcement. Each time you engage in a previously established habit, your body and mind are going to reinforce that habit even further.

Your Default Mode Network is full of these habits; everything from how much you sleep to how often you have feelings of doubt and insecurity and even your breathing and posture are included. These systems go so deep that even tiny fluctuations in hormones are included. This is why anti-depressants work well on people who don't have any actual problems--usually when a person is feeling depressed and they go to see a therapist, a good thing for the therapist to do is find out if they're feeling depressed because of their problems or if they actually have depression. The reason why it's important to distinguish between the two is because a person with chronic depression will feel depressed even when everything in their life is objectively going great for them, whereas someone who's actually downtrodden might not feel depressed once their problems have been alleviated.

As JP put it, he would have people come in saying, "I'm depressed." Dr. Peterson would ask them, "Alright, how's your financial situation? How's your relationship with your family? Besides feeling depressed, how healthy are you?" and if they answered, "All my closest relatives are dead, I have no friends, I have chronic health isuses and I'm broke," then JP would know, "Alright, so you don't feel like crap for no reason, you feel like crap because your life sucks and we have to fix those problems for you to feel better."

But if instead they answered, "I have a close and loving family, I'm quite healthy and I'm financially well-off," then the problem is likely an issue with their hormonal balance. Their brain isn't releasing the amounts of serotonin or dopamine that it should be, or their receptors aren't using them correctly, so things that are supposed to make a person feel good simply aren't. This chronic lack of positive reinforcement also causes a chain reaction of negativity bias and increases negative arousal and stimuli across the board by squashing positive emotions. That being said, giving anti-depressants to a person like this will usually work wonders, but giving anti-depressants to a person with a genuinely awful life won't help much in most cases, because their hormones are functioning fine. They're just feeling like crap because they have so many tangible problems, and giving them anti-depressants won't solve those problems on its own.

Often in the mental health circle you see people recommending meditation as the antidote for monkey mind. And that's not bad advice, there is empiracle evidence that supports it. The reasoning behind meditation being seen as an escape from the Default Mode Network is the simple fact that things like breathing exercises and contemplation help relax the body and that inward reflection can silence the constant chatter inside.

But then there's me, who's shilling the exact opposite of meditation--bombarding your mind with insane amounts of mental stimuli. Whereas meditation is a way to empty the mind and soothe your thoughts, flow state is your mind handling the maximum amount of information that it's physically capable of.

The most fascinating thing about flow state by far is how your brain uses branch prediction to compute information. Earlier I mentioned that our bodies reinforce our habits through a sort of biological branch prediction, but during flow state, you can process information at blistering speeds using the same idea. How do I know this?

Because during flow state, the part of your brain that plans things, makes decisions and thinks ahead--the prefrontal cortex--is bypassed.

During flow state, a person goes straight from receiving stimuli to execution--the entire cognitive process of thinking about something is thrown out the window. This is not to be confused with hypofrontality, which is when the prefrontal cortex isn't working properly due to illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, the bypassing of the PFC seems similar to hypofrontality but with completely opposite results. A person experiencing hyporfrontality is incredibly impulsive as their brain isn't properly using the PFC to think critically about their decisions. Although flow state is sometimes called "transient hypofrontality," as it's physiologically the same as hypofrontality but only for a brief, transient moment.

However, unlike with normal hypofrontality, during flow state the PFC is bypassed and instead branch prediction kicks in to allow you to process information and make calculations at a speed of only a mere 13 miliseconds. To put into perspective how fast that is, the blink of an eye is about 350 miliseconds. Another thing that occurs is that our brains switch from beta waves to alpha theta (AT) waves. I won't go much into alpha waves, but theta waves are what largely link creative processes from separate and distant parts of the brain, so this shift in wavelength makes it substantially easier to compile creative juices so to speak.

Another thing that happens is you block out outside information, so a person deep in flow state will lose track of time and not notice things happening around them because that's just how focused they are. It can get so intense that you might not notice if your surroundings were on fire because 100% of your attention is on the task at hand.

Now, enough about what flow state is... how do you cause it?

Turns out, a metric shit-ton of research has already been done on this topic, but it looks like this: Push yourself to doing a cognitively-demanding task that is reaching the upper limit of what you're capable of for an extended period of time.

What does that mean? It means that if the task is even slightly too easy, you slip into boredom; and if it's slightly too difficult, it becomes anxiety.

However, I've always thought that the greatest and most potent form of flow state was when an unfathomably huge challenge was being tackled by someone with equally unfathomable skill. Technically if we look at proportional abilities, you don't have to be skilled at something to enter flow state; the task at hand merely needs to be perfectly matched with your current skill level.

However, I feel like the more skilled a person is at, say, a fast-faced and highly-competitive activity, the more muscle memory and branch predicitons will be at their disposal during flow state--and the harder the task is, the more information they'll have to process during hypofrontality.

An excellent example of this is watching two chess grandmasters of 2400 ELO or higher competing against each other during a blitz match (blitz matches are when you only have a few minutes on the clock and both players have to make their moves before running out of time, and if you run out of time you autmoatically lose). Both players posess unfathomable skill, however they're each playing against an unfathomably difficult opponent. I believe flow state is wide-spread in high-ranking competitive chess play, as well as esports.

I've found a few ways to reliably induce flow state on myself; one is playing a little game called Devil Daggers.

Devil Daggers is an arcade-like game where you have no lives; you spawn on a platform and endless waves of enemies are thrown at you until you  touch something, then you die. There is no way to beat the game, only the person above you on the leaderboard, as the goal is to survive as long as possible. The competition is so fierce that the leaderboard will distinguish score time down to the exact millisecond, as a single milisecond can put you above or below another player's score.

 

In Devil Daggers, there's a ridiculous amount of management. This is because there are a few specific "enemy" types, if you will. Here's how it works:

You have infinite amunition, so to speak. However, your range attacks start off relatively weak. They get stronger by killing spawners and special enemies who drop crystals. When you collect these crystals, your attack becomes stronger. However, the crystals float towards you when you aren't shooting, and they float away when you are. So you can't just hold down "fire" the entire time, otherwise you won't get any crystals and you'll stay weak and vulnerable. But you need to basically be constantly firing because there's such an overwhelming number of enemies after you.

The spawners arrive and they spawn a group of skull enemies that chase you down. If you touch any, you die. Also, they're faster than you. So you want to keep the horde of skulls from getting too big or too close because it's easy to get swarmed and killed. But you also want to take out the spawners as fast as you can, otherwise they'll keep spouting out more skulls forever until they're destroyed.

Then the giant spiders show up, and the giant spiders will eat all of your crystals (which prevents you from levelling up) and not only does it eat them, but it will turn them into spider eggs which, when hatched, will spew out tiny baby spiders all over the arena. The giant swarm of tiny spiders is very fast and can quickly cover every inch of the arena if you aren't careful.

Then the giant flying centipedes arrive, and they are packed with crystals. They're super hard to kill because you have to shoot all of the crystals in their body and if even a single one remains they won't die. The good thing about these enemies is if you kill them they drop tons of crystals to make you stronger, but the bad news is they take up a ton of space, can come up from the ground out of nowhere, and of course if it touches you then you die.

There are more enemy types like the thorns and the Leviathan but I won't really get into those. You have only one weapon at your disposal which is your hand, which shoots bones out of it once you start the game by touching the devil dagger. If you hold down the fire button it fires in a stream like an automatic weapon, but if you just click once it fires like a shotgun, giving you the ability to swap between automatic or shotgun fire on the fly. You can also fire off at the ground to rocket-jump or send richochet. However, when you hold down the trigger the crystals will slowly float away from you, and they float towards you when you aren't firing. This is a clever sort of "reload" mechanic, because you never actually have to reload--you can keep holding down the trigger forever if you wanted to--but in doing so the crystals will only get further and further away from you, so you have to choose when to fire to kill enemies and when to stop for a second to collect crystals.



 
The entire arena is just a small round platform, so you have to be careful not to fall off. So then your priority for survival becomes, in no particular order:
 
  • Don't let any of the skulls touch you
  • Don't let the swarm get too big
  • Don't forget to take out the spawners or the swarm will get bigger
  • Don't forget to take out the spiders or they'll turn your crystals into eggs
  • Don't forget to take out the centipedes or they'll hog the arena and you'll never upgrade your weapon
  • Don't hold the trigger down too much or the crystals will float away
  • Don't fall off the edge

Basically, you have to try to do all of these things at the same time and should you make the slightest error or lapse in judgement it's back to the beginning. As soon as you touch anything or anything touches you it's over and you die.

How long you last is entirely dependent on split-second decision-making, and with so much to keep track of in so little time, it perfectly scales to a player's skill. The game gets harder the longer you survive, spawning stronger enemies and more of them, meaning it largely scales to a player's skill. Because the game's difficulty increases at roughly the same rate a player's skill will increase, it matches that chart above where we see how Flow State is entered when the difficulty of a task is perfectly matched to the skill of the person carrying it out. If a task is too easy, you slip into boredom, and if it's too difficult you aren't engaged and instead feel either anxious or apathetic.

Not to mention, Devil Daggers has a leaderboard that teases you with tiny fragments of time, but it does something else that's interesting--it uploads the replay of your best run whether or not you want it to. This means that there are no trade-secrets, the best player in the world has his best gameplay uploaded on the leaderboard for everyone to watch if they'd like, allowing people to figure out tricks and techniques by watching the replays of players who are better than them. This goes both ways, whenever you beat your previous record the recording of your play will be added to the leaderboard next to your name.

This involintary publicity creates a sort of community in that everyone who's ever played the game has a spot somewhere on the leaderboard with a video of their best score right next to it. You can't talk to the other players as there is no chat function, so essentially the only connection players have with each other is the leaderboard and their replays.

Another game that's frequently caused me to enter Flow State and one that I've mentioned positively before is Celeste.

The brutally difficult platforming and tight controls make for a fast-paced and intense experience that's easy to get lost in.

 




There's something euphoric about the rush of mental stimulation experienced during Flow State. I can only imagine the intensity that esport players in the highest upper echelons feel during the highest levels of play.

The first example that comes to mind for me is seeing how Hungry Box managed to beat Armada in Smash Melee using Jiggly Puff. To the average onlooker, it just looks like he's floating around and easily dodging the attacks of Armada's Fox, but in reality he's made it look easy through thousands of hours of trial and error. Behind the scenes, if you look on YouTube, there are hundreds of videos from various events and tournaments where he gets his ass handed to him routinely just for making the tiniest imperfections in his play. Sometimes a single pixel is enough to determine victory or defeat.

A professional Mortal Kombat 11 player named Brad Vaughn spoke out about this subject. After placing between 9 and 12 in the Chicago tournaments, he made a statement about the mental health of pursuing becoming a profesisonal esport player.

To praprase, he essentially said, "Everyone thinks it's the most fun job ever--you get to play a video game for a living. But in order to keep winning tournaments (and by extension, making money and paying your bills) you have to practice non-stop. Because if you take a break for too long, you might get rusty--and what if the other guy isn't taking a break? If you take a break, he might be training twice as hard. I'm taking a break from Mortal Kombat because it's become incredibly stressful."

One thing that's fascinating is how certain music can help induce flow state, and while Devil Daggers does nothing of the sort, Celeste does by design. In a video essay titled The Anxiety of Celeste and its Music, GameScoreFanfare dives into the compositional methods used to induce specific emotions and levels of focus across its levels. The video is linked below:

 

He aptly refers to a 2004 study in which researchers had two groups of test subjects play an old iteration of Doom. The first group played with the high-intensity music and the second group played without.

What the researchers found was that the two groups performed the same for the most part, however the group that played with the music had much higher cortisol levels. This would imply that while it didn't affect their performance in this specific game, the mere difference of hearing the intense soundtrack was enough to affect them physiologically.

To summarize the video above, there are two kinds of stress, eustress and distress. Most people know what being in distress is; it's being overwhelmed with negative stress. But its cousin eustress is talked about far less frequently. Eustress is a positive, engaging form of stress, which refers to how a person feels when their body and mind are technically under stress, but happy about it and enjoying it. When you cram out an intense study session and you know you're guaranteed a good grade, that euphoric afterglow you feel would be eustress. Exercising for the first time can be distressful, but for those who exercise regularly, they feel eustress. The physical strain being put on the body actually feels... enjoyable.

Celeste's soundtrack has a lot in common with lofi-hip-hop, and lofi tracks are generally good at pulling you into a state of relaxed concentration. Look no further than this song for evidence of that and you'll see precisely what I mean:


These kinds of tracks are oozing with relaxed, focus-inducing melodies. They're also widely accessible and typically have no lyrics, making them multi-cultural in their effect. Since the laws of what notes and types of sounds induce what physiological changes in the human body are universal regardless of culture or upbringing, these types of things work on just about everyone.

Celeste's soundtrack does a wonderful job of first lulling the player into eustress and then gradually increasing into mildly distressing territory, just enough to help push them into flow state. The difficult platforming and tight-controls make it really easy for this to happen, and once you really get into it it's hard to get out.

That being said, the main factor in what types of games might enduce flow state isn't difficulty. Otherwise, it should be just as easy to enter it playing any challenging game. But I don't think I've ever entered flow state playing Dark Souls, and the reason why that likely will end up being the case for most players is because the game is slow and more tactical rather than requiring the super-fast precision of Devil Daggers or Celeste's B and C-side levels. The difficulty in Dark Souls comes from the mystery and lack of information presented to the player, as well as learning the intricacies of its deep combat system, not purely from speed and precision. Perhaps something like Sekiro or maybe Bloodborne would be a bit more likely to enter flow state in while playing since those games are faster and require more aggressive timing than the Souls games, escpeially Sekiro.
 

With that said, why might someone want to experience flow state in the first place other than to increase their cognitive performance in the task at hand?

It turns out there's a large roster of long-term benefits associated with flow, which includes but is not limited to:

  • Increased emotional regulation
  • More enjoyment derived from the tasks at hand
  • More intrinsic motivation to continue later on
  • Increased creativity
  • Faster learning and skill development

This isn't one that most sites or articles list as a benefit of flow state, but I have the sneaking suspicion it also helps with identity maintenance. To clarify, most of the time the phrase "identity maintenance" really means "persona maintenance," because it's referring to a person's indentity in a social group, AKA the persona they exhibit; but when I say identity maintenance, I mean maintaining sanity by understanding yourself and your identity, not where you fit in socially.

The reason I believe this is because engaging in things you actually care about and enjoy can reinforce the quirks of your identity that lead you to like them. An artist being highly engaged and focused on their art on a regular basis reinforces the parts of their personality and identity that led them to enjoying art, and perhaps the simplest way for someone to maintain their identity is to simply engage with it frequently.

If you ever feel like emptying your head or meditating isn't making the monkey mind shut up, consider trying the complete opposite and engaging so heavily in a cognitive task that the rest of the world just fades away.


And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Why the Idea of Soulmates is Unromantic Idiocy

This Valentine's Day I'd like to be a salty cracker and crap all over the idea of soulmates, but when I explain the real situation I think you'll come to find that the idea of soulmates isn't nearly as romantic as decades of cinema, poetry, and crappy radio hits have led us to believe. I'd go so far to say that the actual seemingly-bland reality is much more romantic when examined properly.

In order to understand why the concept of soulmates is aggressively unromantic, we need to define it first. Some might affectionately refer to their partner as their soulmate with the implication being that they ended up together and are a great match. Nothing wrong with that. If that's the case, then of course soulmates exist. When I say "soulmates" what I'm referring to is the nebulous idea that every single human being on the planet has a person crafted perfectly to their own personality and liking, who would be perfect for them in every single way because they're destined to be together; they're each-other's one and only.

To grossly over-simplify all human beings, let's recklessly cram them all into two narrow categories; those with "destiny" mindsets and those with "growth" mindsets.

I didn't coin these by the way, please refrain from going to the comments section and screeching at me that I stole this idea from (insert some other content creator here).

Those with destiny mindsets are those who essentially believe in soulmates. They believe that everything will work itself out and their beloved one-and-only will end up with them eventually. These people tend to have short, passionate flings that quickly dissolve the moment the going gets rough. Why? Because they sort of expect their partner to be perfect, and if they aren't (when they aren't), they simply believe that they've got the wrong person and that this person they're currently dating must not be their true soulmate. Those with destiny mindsets are much less likely to work hard in relationships because they believe that if it's their destiny to be with this person that things will just conveniently work out.

Those with growth mindsets are the complete opposite, they believe firmly in mutual trust and understanding and in tackling problems together and making compromises based on the other person's needs. A person with a growth mindset is significantly more likely to have longer-lasting relationships because they don't expect the universe to deliver a flawless soulmate on their doorstep, and instead they acknowledge that both partners have to make a strong effort to make a relationship work well in the long run.

To some the growth mindset sounds very dry, pragmatic and unromantic, but it's not.

The destiny mindset is really selfish and stupid if you think about it; it's essentially believing that the universe spawned a perfect being into existence who isn't allowed to be happy with anyone else since they were created for the sole express purpose of gratifying you. There's a sense of entitlement that comes from people who strongly and fervently believe there's a soulmate out there waiting for them, and even if we could quantify and measure someone's compatibility with someone else and found a perfect match, the odds that they are just sitting at home sighing into the wind and longingly looking at the stars waiting for you to come along are zero. And odds are, the more attractive, funny, and successful they are in life, the more suitors they will have, so they're likely putting themselves out there and trying to find a good match for themselves.

I've also noticed the trend of people with destiny mindsets not caring whether they're offering the very thing they want. They want a soulmate who conveniently happens to be wealthy, attractive, funny, etc., but never once stop to ask themselves if they offer all of those same qualities. Because one has to be exceptionally naive and kind of selfish to think that a hypothetical perfect person that they'd want to marry would be mutually interested in them for no apparent reason. It's an example of the protagonist effect, where people see themselves as the main character in their own romance story, so naturally there's no need to worry about what they bring to the table--they just assume that there's someone out there who would be perfect for them, and they don't need to wonder if they measure up to this hypothetical soulmate's standards because they're the main character, after all.

The growth mindset on the other hand is much more wholesome. It involves two people taking each other as they are, and working hard to understand the other person's intricacies, needs, and wants; and an unspoken rule that they will both continue to provide for what the other person needs emotionally, financially, and romantically. It also means helping them iron out some of their worst tendencies and bringing out the best qualities they possess by being supportive and constructive without being cruel or overly-critical. No matter what shitty things happen at work or university, they can come home and rely on the other to be their sturdy foundation that they can always count on for support and affection. It's a two-way street, and they're also ready to be that sturdy or compassionate companion if their partner needed it.

The growth mindset doesn't mean just taking any random bum off the street and trying to mold them into perfection, but it does mean making compromises and extending a great deal of empathy to your partner's needs, while simultaneously knowing you can count on them to care just as deeply about your own issues and needs. It involves taking someone who may not be completely ideal, but seeing that they're doing pretty decent and have most of the same values as you and saying, "Good enough."

With all that said, how many people do you think believe in soulmates?

10%?

20%?

40%?

60%?

Try 79%. That's right, basically 8/10 people (Americans at least, as the study was done in the US) believe in soulmates who they will end up with because of the forces of destiny.

But that feels so... cheap. It's like starting a tough puzzle and immediately looking up the answer in the back of the book before even attempting to solve it yourself.

What's so romantic about soulmates? What's romantic about a person whose sole existence is to gratify you? What's so romantic about not working together as a team in relationships to improve each other, and instead relying on the universe to make everything right?

It feels lazy and selfish to me.

You know what's romantic? Two imperfect human beings taking the time to really understand each other on a personal and intimate level, being unabashed about their flaws and gracefully patient and understanding of their partner's issues. Starting off with humble beginnings and cultivating something beautiful through hard work, loyalty and honesty.

True love is steadfast, studious, and pragmatic in every way it can. It's messy and completely unromantic by Hollywood standards, and that's what makes it so special.

And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.






Source: Raymond Knee, University of Houston; https://www.people.vcu.edu/~jldavis/readings/Knee_1998_implicit_theories.pdf

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Beautiful Ones


I've been thinking a lot —probably overthinking—about the differences between Orwell and Huxley. The novels 1984 and Brave New World are very similar in many ways, but it's the differences between the two that fascinates me most.

I'd also like to point out that while 1984 absolutely deserves the attention and recognition its received, Brave New World is deserving of the same treatment. I say this because as 2020 proves to be more and more dystopian, people keep crying out, “Orwell was right all along!”

There are many elements of what Orwell feared being integrated into the current modus operandi, but I'd say that it was actually Huxley, not Orwell, who was right.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books; what Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because there would be no one who wanted to read them.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared that the truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture; Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture.

In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

What Neil Postman observed in the passage above was that Orwell was concerned about the possibility of force being used to silence and control entire nations, but what Huxley feared was that force would not be necessary, because a hedonistic society would be so apathetic that they wouldn't even resist to begin with.

Although one observation that I'd like to posit is the possible and likely theory that Huxley's predictions will beget Orwell's predictions. There's this old saying; hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times, and so the cycle goes. We witnessed this very process in the rise and fall of the Greek empire, and our contemporaries have this nasty habit of never thinking history will repeat itself. "That sucks for them, but good thing I live in this modern era where something like that could never happen to me." I don't think anyone literally thinks that consciously, but I see very few people who seem even remotely alarmed by the possibility. It seems to me that nearly everyone carries the sentiment above without being entirely cognizant of it.

We are (or at least were) in the good times. We've reaped the rewards of all the people before us. Each of our grandparents lived in harsher times than we have, and their grandparents lived in harsher times than them, and through the collaborative efforts of millions of people, the people before us managed to create everything.

There's this common misconception that this generation, as the most “advanced” one, is the most intelligent one, and that hundreds / thousands of years ago the average person wasn't as intelligent as the average person today.

But this couldn't be further from the truth; because we weren't intelligent enough to invent all of these wonderful things and advancements we use, the people before us were. There's this ancient Chinese proverb: “No kingdom can flourish unless the people are willing to plant trees whose shade they know they will never get to sit in.” I think I butchered the translation, but that's the gist of it.

The generations before us were willing to sacrifice their own comfort, time, and likely sanity so that we can have all of the comforts that we have at our disposal. Through a labor of love, they went to the deserts of woefully underdeveloped social systems and planted numerous trees knowing that they would never get to reap the benefits of doing so, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren might. And now we have an overabundance of metaphorical verdant fields and trees, but instead of planting more trees for our future generations, we lounge around in the shade, point to one spot where the sun is seeping through, and curse our ancestors saying, “They missed a spot.”

Then when the going gets rough and the trees start to wither up and die, we complain about it instead of watering them and planting more.

There's no shortage of criticisms on post-modernism's effects on western society, but I'd like to tackle a different angle. Many of the complaints leveled at western civilization are actually just complaints about the symptoms of our culture and not the underlying disease. One might complain that people are shallow and superficial, another might complain that celebrity worship is pointless and fake, another that (insert young generation) is lazy / unskilled or unknowledgeable.

But amid all these valid frustrations is the aggregate of all these problems—the philosophy and way of life known as hedonism. Hedonism is inherently narcissistic; it's the belief (conscious or unconscious) that one should structure their life around seeking pleasure. This does not necessarily have to be physical, but often is. The obvious offenders would be things like drugs, sex, alcohol, et cetera, but there's a whole myriad of subtle things that fly under the radar. Fast food for example; one might say, “I don't smoke because it's damaging for your health,” then proceed to consume copious amounts of McDonalds. I admit that a little part of me is that way—I would sometimes enter a 7-Eleven, see the vast wall of various cigarettes on display, and pat myself on the back for being a non-smoker, just mere moments before buying a greasy slice of pizza or chicken wings.

Although the worst offenders are far more subtle. In my humble opinion, the worst offender is quite literally just leisurely time. But before you grab your torch and pitchfork, hear me out.

I am not implying that a person relaxing is more dangerous than a person doing drugs. What I am implying is that most people understand that drugs are dangerous, but because no one thinks relaxation is dangerous, its effects are unnoticed. Or perhaps saying too much relaxation is bad isn't accurate, and more accurate would be, "Too much relaxation with no duties is dangerous." This implies that it's not necessarily the relaxation itself that's dangerous, but rather the absence of duty and responsibility.

What I've observed is that there are massive quantities of people who only survive, and it's vital to understand that "surviving" is not synonymous with "living."

There's this one anime series that explores this difference very well, and it's called Log Horizon. In Log Horizon, everyone has all of their basic needs met. No one can die or feel pain, no one can starve, everyone is, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

What this initially leads to is a lot of people who don't know what to do with themselves. In the past, they would have had to worked for food, and the possibility of death was always a looming reminder of their mortality. But now that they don't have to worry about every dying or needing sustenance, things should be great, right?

Well, no.

Here's some historical context that shows the parallels between this show and the real world; before the advent of agriculture, individuals only had time to survive, and no time for any hobbies or leisurely activities. 100% of their time and attention was devoted to maintaining shelter, hunting and gathering food, acquiring drinkable water, and overall just not dying. They had no room for any other thoughts or behaviors.

But then, with the development of agriculture, it was discovered that one person could proficiently generate much more food than he himself could eat, and in doing so could free others to invest their time in other pursuits since they wouldn't need to worry about food if a handful of farmers could feed entire populations.

This process was repeated with everything; it was done with water in the form of irrigation, it was done with children in the form of public schools and daycare, it was done with trading with the arrival of currency and marketplaces, it was later done with the mass exchange of goods with vehicles and transportation, then with food again with slaughterhouses, and so on and so forth until every facet of human survival has been dwindled away.

It is now, for all intents and purposes, essentially impossible to die of natural causes before an elderly age without either human error or powerful afflictions. While we aren't literally immortal, the same problem from Log Horizon has come for us.

We have all of our basic survival needs met.

Yet, in the past each advancement in making survival easier freed up time for individuals to pursue other worthy ideals and goals, from exploring the arts and humanities to the sciences, medicine, philosophy, and the expanding market of inventions. We saw the renaissance boom into existence during the 1300s right after the end of the dark ages; prior to this, Europe was shattered by so many wars and plagues that survival was the only attainable goal for most people, and once these issues subsided the populace was free to explore the arts.

With this new-found free time, people began to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. It was all very odd and unusual to not have to worry about surviving every moment of every day, and for once they were able to indulge in a modicum of novelty for once. During the rise of these good times, they pursued things like knowledge, artistic craftsmanship, religion, invention, and the clash of ideas was always a prevalent undertone.

However, in the 21st century things didn't pan out this way. After WWII, sensationalism came to the forefront. And there was nothing wrong with this at the time; we saw lots of good music and television come out of these years. But it was the response to these that gave way to problems.

Ingratitude.

The adults who survived the world wars were grateful for the new technologies they had--for the first time they were able to see the wheels of progress churning.

But we've optimized too far; in a video by Mark Brown from Game Maker's Toolkit, he explores how game developers protect the players from themselves. Why would game developers need to do this? Because the developers would design a game with a certain method of play being the most fun or enjoyable way to play through it, but the players wouldn't do the most "fun" way of a playing these games. Instead, they'd optimize all the fun out of it. In games where the fun is in taking risks, they'd play it safe, focusing--not on having fun and enjoying the experience--but on winning as fast and efficiently as possible.

So instead of taking their time and enjoying the game, players would use repetitive tactics, and would always play it safe and focus solely on beating the game with as few failures or risks as possible. But most of the time, this isn't fun. There's nothing fun about only trying to win with as little risk as possible in a game that was designed to be chaotic and risky. Games like Dead Cells exist to address this problem.

"If given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of the game," said developer Soren Johnson.

The full video can be found here: https://youtu.be/7L8vAGGitr8

However, I've come to a rather horrifying realization: Have we optimized the meaning out of life?

When the the goal is optimization, and not enjoyment, meaning, or novelty, the only inevitable conclusion is rampant hedonism. Look no further than architecture to see how this is happening.

In his video The Lunatic Responsible for Destroying Every Beautiful City in the World, Thoughty2 dives into the startling history of modern architecture where it recieves an unfortunate downgrade. The goal of modern architecture (post WW2) is pure utility, not quality or beauty. What this looks like in practice is the modern attitude of: "This building doesn't have to be high-quality or beautiful, it just has to meet the minimum regulations." That's why such a large percentage of modern buildings are just big concrete cubes and bridges are just big concrete arcs.

The real tragedy is all this isn't even meeting its stated goal of being utilitarian, as there is greater utility in quality. Going back to the architecture example, the average pre-war house was typically built with brick and mortar. The average post-war house is built with wood and drywall.

The average pre-war brick and mortar house lasts around 120 years, but the average wood and drywall post-war home starts to fall apart after about 60.

That's a serious downgrade, the lifespan of these homes has effectively been halved in the name of utility. What this leads to is a litany of structurally unsound 60-year-old houses that would be cheaper to bulldoze and build a new house than to repair the existing one; compare that to a pre-war home that was built to last out of the best materials available, many of which are still standing tall from the civil war era.

Even if it costs more to build a home like this the first time, the mere fact that it won't need to be bulldozed in 60 or so years and rebuilt offsets any extra cost. It costs around $12,000 to bulldoze a medium sized home in the US, and then you'd have to double the initial cost of building the home if you inteded to rebuild it or a similarly sized home where the previous one stood.

I'm not saying homes should all be made with bricks (especially in earthquake regions), I'm merely using architecture as an example.

Now, we've gotten pretty deep into this subject and I have yet to address the title of this essay, so here's what that's about.

In 1968, a scientist named John Calhoun creates a bigger and grander version of his previous little experiments on mice, which he dubs The Mouse Utopia Experiment. I wrote "experiment" as singular, but he actually repeated the same experiment dozens of times and got the same exact result each time. Others have recreated similar experiments to Calhoun's and also gotten the same results, which are completely terrifying.

Calhoun's intentions with the experiment diverge greatly from what his observations became focused on later; he was not trying to chart the behavioral effects of hedonism, his original intent was merely to study the population density of mammals and figure out how their population size would increase or decrease in response to relaxed living conditions. But like with gunpowder and many others, some of the biggest and most important discoveries are completely accidental.

Calhoun set about to create a utopia for the mice to study their population, so he took 4 pairs of average mice and sealed them in a 9' x 4' metal mouse pen complete with easily accessible clean water, food feeders, tunnels, and comfy nesting boxes.

The mice were off to a great start. Their population boomed and doubled every 2 months. But they prematurely hit their peak population at 2,200 even though the enclosure could easily support as many as 3,800 mice. After peaking at 2.2k mice, their population plummeted into extinction even though all their survival needs were easily being met with no effort required on the part of the mice.

Calhoun's study found that this decline began suddenly and swiftly after 315 days when all of their social norms began to crumble. It first started with the female mice abandoning their young to die, followed by the male mice refusing to defend their territory and both sexes of mice becoming more volatile and aggressive.

Socially and sexually deviant behavior dilated every day, with male mice aggressively mounting other males, some mice becoming antisocial and suicidal, and female mice ignoring their young and grooming themselves nonstop.

The last thousand or so mice were incredibly antisocial and avoided any remotely stressful activity while focusing all of their attention solely on themselves.

Calhoun refered to this last born batch of mice as "the beautiful ones." They spent all day grooming and fixating on themselves, so they were much better looking than the previous generations of mice, but Calhoun notes that they were "averse to any new stimuli" and were "incredibly stupid."

With the provided abundance of food and water, the lack of predators and the lack of need to devlop the skills necessary to collect resources, the mice became increasingly complacent until they no longer cared for responsibility and by extension, allowed themselves to become extinct since none of them wanted to reproduce or raise offspring.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If some alarms are starting to go off, then we can at least thank our lucky stars that we aren't completely fargone yet.

The easiest way to reconcile these findings with mankind today is to look at a few things--of course, hedonism, but also welfare. There's a reason people are often warned not to feed wild animals; because if an animal becomes dependent on a human for food, it becomes infantilized and cannot hunt for itself.

To clarify, that doesn't mean all welfare is inherently bad, but it becomes dangerous once a large enough population becomes entirely dependent on the state for its survival. An infantilized population that relies on the state for all of its survival needs becomes a slave to that state, and is unable to survive without Uncle Sam's direct assisstance. In a way, prolongued wlefare states are actually, abjectly cruel, by coercing a vulnerable population of struggling citizens into a state of complete dependence and reliance, and, by extension, controlling them.

Our pets are sort of forced to love us because without us, they would not survive. In a way, we are God to them. A stray cat or dog born behind some bushes down the street might survive (if some predator doesn't get it first), but a cat or dog that has relied its whole life on its owner for food, water and shelter has no chance on its own. In this same way, a welfare-state makes its welfare recipients dependents who are forced to agree with and vote for (or at least tolerate) everything that state does, because at any moment if enough people stopped supporting it, the welfare could go away and they'd be screwed.

Welfare and charity does have a place in the world, but infantilizing a population of dependents and enslaving them to a political and economic system they might otherwise disagree with under the guise of being charitable and virtuous is not one of them.

And such is the case with hedonism--pleasures and fun activities do have a place in the world, but rampant and destructive self-indulgence is not one of them.

 

I swear this one was ripped straight from Wall-E.

 

Addressing the conspicuous implications of his accidental findings, Calhoun wrote:

Herein is the paradox of a life without work or conflict. When all sense of necessity is stripped from the life of an individual, life ceases to have purpose. The individual dies in spirit.

What this essentially amounts to is the actualization that meaning and purpose is not synonymous with pleasurable or enjoyable. Yet as Jordan Peterson wrote as his 7th rule in 12 Rules for Life, "Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient." We have cultivated a set of social systems wherein it is by default and with no thought or consideration that we take the expedient path; indulge in the short-term pleasures of today and give no thought to long term comittments or burdens of responsibility.

Now, there is one thing that absolutely does need to be made clear; this is not a pessimistic blackpill essay. I consider myself to be a cautiously optimistic person, because being utterly devoured by pessimism and nihilism isn't useful, and neither is blind positivity and slaktivism.

"Why even try bro the world is fucked, there's nothing we can do."
 

There is no shortage of media out there pointing at every little flaw in the world and claiming that the end is neigh, but very rarely do these people put forth any solutions. A good rule to live by is the 80/20 rule, an immutable law of nature. The 80/20 rule can be found everywhere.

20% of the pods produce 80% of the peas, for any busniess ~20% of the customers buy ~80% of the product, et cetera. When discussing problems, it's best to spend 20% of the time fleshing out the details of the problems, and the remaining 80% of the time talking about solutions. Otherwise it just sounds like negative chatter and petulant complaining. 

There is nothing productive in pointing out every problem in the world if there's no meaningful attempt to address them or propose solutions. So that's what I'm going to do here. My next essay will be by far the largest I've ever written; it will be a mouumentally gargantuan essay, perhaps my magnum opus, breaking down each problem I see and analyzing various possible solutions, but it will take an outrageous amount of research because I don't want to push any ignorant views I might currently hold onto the Internet claiming it's bonafide advice. I really want to get this right, so it will be a very, very long time before that essay comes out. I might even sprinkle in some small essays here and there while working on that one.

'til then,

May all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.