Elephant heresy

Screenshot anime Ichigo 100%

“I want everyone in the world to know!” When we have experienced something amazing and life-changing, it is natural to want everyone in the world to know. We do not care how we look, we may not even care that others may be hurt in the process. The Truth must out! But sometimes that doesn’t end well.

There is a certain irony in this, given that I am considered a heretic even among heretics. I also wonder whether I have run off to proclaim on the Internet about too many things of which I know too little, without having the required 90% of the iceberg below the surface. But still! The world needs to know this too, right? “We must say all the words that should be spoken, before they are gone forever.” Although I wish someone else would say it.

What follows is an answer I gave to a question on Quora, the moderated questions-and-answers site. I have rendered the question in italics and my answer in bold.

***

Is it better to be a heretic than orthodox on religious matters?
Doesn’t being a heretic mean you had the mental and intellectual fortitude to defy commonly-accepted norms of belief (orthodoxy) in order to know God better? Orthodoxy is stagnation and conformist by definition, right?

Heresy could also mean – and I believe it often means – that you jump to conclusions based on a little experience.

You may have heard the metaphor about the blind men and the elephant. Each of them touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with his own impression of what an elephant is. This metaphor is sometimes used about different religions, or about the varieties of religious experience. But the interesting thing in our context is that a person who has never been within a continent of an elephant may still have a better understanding of it than someone who briefly touched the trunk and then ran away, his life changed forever by his personal experience of the living elephant.

When someone has a particularly intense spiritual experience or revelation, a temptation arises to reject tradition and focus on the one thing one knows with inner certainty, downplaying other aspects. But as a religion or sect acquires more members and exists over time, it inevitably grows into the same wide range of circumstances and personalities. Having rejected the old tradition, it is now tempting to fill the blank spaces with logical extensions based on the existing body of experience. But if you fill out the entire elephant with what would be logical based on the trunk, you end up with a very different animal.

Spiritual frogs

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“It is Christmas, but Santa won’t bring me a girlfriend!” When the magic of religion fails to deliver material results, back into the pond we go to survive and reproduce.

It is kind of understandable that people turn to materialism. After all, spirituality borders directly on insanity. I still remember a young friend of me painfully insisting: “It has to be spiritual!” He was on leave from the psychiatric hospital, having had a severe breakdown some time earlier. He was one of the smartest guys I have met, and a very sincere Christian with high standards of morality, especially for himself. But he could not stomach hearing his friends and family talk and laugh about earthly things. “It has to be spiritual!”

No, it doesn’t have to be spiritual, because we humans are spiritual amphibians, like frogs. The frogs are hatched in water and grow up there, eventually being able to peek out of it, and they grow small limbs that grow bigger, while their fish-like tail shrinks over time. But even though they climb out of the water in their early youth, they never become truly independent of it as long as they live. They have to return to the water regularly, and this is also where they lay their eggs, starting the process all over again.

We humans are also born into a lower world, the material world. And we don’t outgrow it as long as we live. We need our daily bread, but we do not live by bread alone. If we do, we become beasts, much as some salamanders who spend their entire life in water like a fish. The frog spends much of its time in air, and normal humans also live in two realms: The material and the spiritual. You can live fine in matter alone, but then you are a human only genetically, if that. Most people who think they are materialists are actually far from it,

In its most extreme form, materialism is either stupid or insane. The stupid is when people say “the mind is a product of the brain”. This is about as intelligent as “My computer does not need software: I just turn it on and it works!” Before the computer age, we could compare it to a chemist who analyzes a book, finding only paper and ink, no magic component called “meaning”. If he were to weigh the paper and the ink before and after printing, he would be able to conclude scientifically that nothing was added by the printing process. In other words, reading is pure superstition, physically impossible. And yet it happens, because humans are not like your average animal. We live in an extra layer of meaning, which extends quite a bit beyond the “smell of food means food” layer of meaning we share with our furry friends.

In dogs, the sense of meaning can be extended a little bit, as in the famous Pavlov’s dogs. He would ring a bell before feeding them, and eventually they would salivate from the sound of the bell alone. But humans don’t just breach the surface of meaning, we tend to spend pretty much our entire day in that realm, returning only for survival and reproduction. My friend who insisted that everything “must be spiritual” had early developed a healthy fear of sexuality, as well he should: Few things can as rapidly pull people back in the material realm. In civilized cultures, the concept of “romance” – of spiritualizing sexuality – is one of the most difficult, and some never really get it. And this is also where a whole lot of people decide that the dry land is not for them, and jump back in the pond of materialism.

I believe it is a terrible mistake to push people into the spiritual. A lot of trouble comes from being too fast with this. Just because the tadpole has grown small limbs does not mean they should be pushed out of the water. They will follow the adults up in the air naturally, given time. But if we try to pull them up, they are not ready to live there, much less to wander far from the pond. When people move too fast and too far away from the material pond, insanity sets in, either personal or collective. Weird memes take root, and the sun and the moon are pulled across the sky by invisible pink unicorns.

Religion contains a lot of weird stuff, which is as meaningless on its own as the magical invisible component of writing is to our book-analyzing chemist. When we insist that the spiritual exist in the material world, we come up with magic. It is true that any sufficiently advanced spirituality is indistinguishable from magic, but we should take great care to not pretend that God literally “exists”. (Technically, existence is different from being.) For to say that God exists in the world would be to say “the house is in this room”, and this is both true and false simultaneously. This is why religion needs the incarnation, to represent the house inside the room of the material world. Although a philosophical religion such as Buddhism does not have incarnations, the large mass of simple Buddhists still see the Buddha as such. Some religions venerate holy books or other holy objects, or holy places. Material things imbued with the sacred. But to the salamander who never leaves the water, these things are pure superstition. And that is exactly correct, for them. If they were forced to venerate such things, it would be pure magic, like an illiterate person forced to recite the text of a book while staring at it, without having any idea of what reading and writing really is.

Spirituality is experiential. It is something you experience, or you don’t. If you have been exposed to an elaborate description of the spiritual realm while you were still a tadpole, it can actually keep you from seeing the real thing. While you are a tadpole, everything you learn about the dry land is only in your head, a mental model. And it is possible to grow up and expand and refine that mental model, becoming a theologian without ever noticing the reality of that realm, always thinking of one’s own mental model as the real thing. Even as an adult frog, living most of your workday in abstractions, you will still regard the magic system in your head as the spiritual world, and the material world as the real world.

But only an idiot or a low-functioning autist can actually be a practicing materialist. The moment we start believing in such things as truth or beauty or goodness, we start poking our head out of the water and enter a realm where our furry friends can never follow us. Certainly a dog can be more loyal than your best two-legged friend, but the dog has no concept of loyalty as such, even if he incarnates it. A bird that pretends to be wounded to lure a predator away from her nest is likewise a heart-rending example of love, and yet she has no concept of love as such. Only we can see such things.

“Proof of God is abundant for those who do not need it.” But for those who are smart and learn too much about the dry land when they are still tadpoles, there is a risk that they will first swim in the water insisting that they are on land, and later walk on land insisting that they are still in the water. And that is a damned shame, because both of these are beautiful worlds, and a mature human should live in them both.

Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.

***

Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.

***

Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.

***

Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

City of Heroes remembered

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This was my home…
All this pain and devastation
how it tortures me inside;
all the innocent who suffer
from your stubbornness and pride…

3 years ago this day, City of Heroes closed down. It was the first, best and at the time still the largest online superhero game, and had features that were not available elsewhere, such as extensive player-created content. But more than anything else, it had a community of people who found it natural to roleplay heroes. A game where it was natural to reach out and help your fellow players, teach them the ropes, guide and protect them, answer questions that had already been answered a hundred times. It was not just the best of its kind, it was also the “goodest” in the sense of the good people it drew together.

Out of the blue, publisher NCSoft announced the closure of the game and fired the developers, Paragon Studios, who had been working on the next expansion up till that day, unaware of the troubles ahead. Needless to say, this caused a lot of negative reactions against NCSoft. I doubt many of us are ever going to touch one of their games again, let alone buy anything from them. The reaction not only from current players but from the MMORPG community at large was so strong that it lowered NCSoft’s share value for some time. I stopped following it so I don’t know if that was permanent; one can only hope.

So that is why, when I watched this video on YouTube, and saw the fiery destruction of the familiar landmarks, I vividly remember a similar scene from the animated movie Prince of Egypt where Moses sadly watches fire and ice hail down on Egypt, singing the lyrics I have quoted above. Stubbornness and pride indeed. Curse the darkness!

Fortunately, it did not take long before the former players started making a “spiritual successor” to City of Heroes. Unfortunately, they started making 3 different “spiritual successors”, neither of which is playable at this time. (Although Valiance Online was playable in pre-beta for a while, and looked quite promising and reasonably familiar. Here’s hoping it will come back one day.) (Of course, I would prefer if City of Heroes came back, but, stubbornness and pride, so probably not.)

On another reasonably bright side, I have more time for studying now. I never found another game that could fill the same place in my life, or forge the same online community. But I still sometimes stop by YouTube and watch movies that verify that yes, this thing of beauty once existed. This place that thousands of imaginary heroes once called home, and still would, if they could find a way back.

MS Windows troubles

Screenshot anime Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara

This morning was absolutely crawling with chaos. It started as I turned on my home office computer, which had installed updates at 3AM and restarted itself, as it frequently does. It seems like a good idea, to install updates while you sleep. After all, you would not want to miss the latest security patches and improved functionality.

Unfortunately, the new functionality was that I could not log in. Whether I picked my usual account or the betatester account I use for testing games, there was just a brief pause and then Windows returned me to the login screen. No error message. I restarted the computer and tried again. I did various things and tried again and again. No change. I restarted in Safe Mode. Same problem. I restored Windows to last good configuration. Still the same.

I installed Ubuntu Linux, which is a pretty good alternative to Windows for most people, and free. After a little while I switched to Xubuntu (it is really just a different setup, the core is the same as Ubuntu, but Xubuntu is more similar to old Windows versions). Ubuntu is free, like most Linux versions. I use to install it on old laptops when they become too slow under Windows. This is less of a problem these days, but it was a big deal back in the days of Windows Vista.

Xubuntu is nice enough, but there were a couple problems. I had used this machine to provide Internet access to my cabled home network, which includes a Windows 10 machine for playing games, a NAS (home server) for backup and sharing files, and a small old notebook computer for uploading and downloading to and from the NAT without taking up resources on the main machines. But now I could not get Linux to share the Internet. It should be easy, really, there is a choice for it. “Shared with other computers” it says, but that actually only lasted for a minute or so, then I got a message “Disconnected from Ethernet”. (Ethernet is the cabled network, to put it simply.) I did various things and restarted numerous times to no avail.

Eventually I found an USB wireless receiver and connected this to the Windows 10 machine, then told it to share its Internet. This worked well enough, except the NAS (Network-Attached Storage) server did not show up. After changing the workgroup name by editing a configuration file, I got it to show up. But as soon as I tried to copy a file to it, it hung up and show up empty until I logged off an logged on again. This repeated itself for as long as I bothered trying.

I was kind of in a hurry to continue working on my National Novel Writing Month story. Luckily that was saved on a disk I could access from Xubuntu. I copied it to a USB drive, in case I wanted to continue writing on it on the other Windows computer (the gaming computer). I installed WINE, a program that lets you run Windows programs in Linux. I had already read a few years ago that you could run yWriter in Linux this way. (yWriter is the program I use for writing novels. It is written by a programmer and novelist and fits my working style exactly.) It did work when started with WINE, and it found my novel in progress, but the spell check did not work and it did not recognize the names and locations. I downloaded the dictionary and manually copied it to the place it should be. Now it worked except it did not recognize words when Capitalized, such as at the start of every sentence.

Somewhere around this time I decided to reinstall Windows on one of the disks. (I am keeping Xubuntu on the other.) This took the rest of the evening and will continue into the next day or two or more.

Needless to say, there was no progress on the novel this day. But then again, contrary to the slogan of National Novel Writing Month, the world does not really need my novel. Probably.

Subjective time

Screenshot anime Nozaki-kun

The time measured by clocks is constant, but the time measured by the soul is bewildering.

Time is something we are all very familiar with, and yet some scientists doubt that it exists: The equations that describe the universe work just as well without time. It seems to be just a name we have put on the increase of chaos: Intuitively if we see a video of a glass assembling itself from scattered shards, we know that it is being played in reverse. And yet, arguably, for most of our lives we are such a thing as that glass coming together. Our memories come together creating a more or less whole and balanced self. Even plants that grow are such things, being assembled from tiny pieces into an impressive whole. Life is like a countercurrent in the stream of time.

Although recent science dismisses time, and classic science presents a clean arrow of time, most humans have a more vague sense of causality. Yes, causes lead to effects, the past creates the present and the present the future. But we also feel that the future is real and influences the present. In English we even use the same word, for instance: “The reason I get paid is that I go to work. The reason I go to work is to get paid.” How can the two things be each other’s reason?

Our mind seems able to travel through time to a certain degree. Through the power of our memory, we can revisit the past and relive the joys and sufferings, although we cannot change it except in our imagination. By the power of anticipation we look into the future, although a future that is less certain than the past, and we take with us information back to the present. We study the outcome of our actions before we even act. And then we decide: “No, it is not worth it” or “Yes, it is worth it” and so the future – which does not yet exist – changes the present, which definitely exists.

Time is weird.

***

Time does not always seem to move at the same speed, either. Objectively it does, or very nearly so. (It slows down slightly when we accelerate, or so the theory of relativity says. But in ordinary life this is not measurable. You won’t live longer by speeding on the highway, possibly quite the opposite!)

When we are children, time seems to move quite slowly. A summer holiday is an ocean of time and we arrive on the other side as a changed person. In old age, the same summer is like a puddle in the road that we step over, barely noticing. Or that is the general tendency. But do all of us experience time the same way? I don’t think so. I have a strong feeling that, for some reason, my subjective time runs less fast than others my age.

“If you are a lifelong bachelor, you may not live till you are 100, but at least it will feel that way” someone said when I was a kid. As a lifelong bachelor, I certainly agree with this, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. “Don’t kill time, it is your life” said the Christian mystic and teacher Elias Aslaksen. I try to not dissolve completely into my habits and obligations, but learn something new and be aware of at least some of what goes on during my day.

Part of my subjective feeling of slow time is that I spend a lot of time observing lower worlds where time moves faster. Most notably, I have read books since I was little, although I read less novels now. The experience of the book’s characters are added to my own, giving me a feeling that I have lived much more than I actually have. (It is not just me: Old people sometimes tell of something that happened to them when they were younger, which the bookish listener will recognize as having happened to a literary character.) I am not sure if the same applies to movies, in which case most people should have this experience. I don’t watch movies much, except for some Japanese animation.

As a (mainly hobby) writer, I create worlds where years pass over the course of weeks of real time. (Not all writers do this – some my spend a year on describing a week.) I also play games such as The Sims series, where simulated humans live, age and eventually die after some days or weeks of real time. Other favorite games of my past are the Civilization series, where entire civilizations rise and fall over the course of a few days. Watching this gave me a subjective feeling of old age, which blends well with my lifelong interest in history and my reading of old books. I know objectively that I was born in 1958, but a part of me feels like I wandered the streets of ancient Uruk before Rome was even a village.

***

Yet another factor that determines subjective time may be how fast you process information. The more data that passes through and is consciously registered by your brain, the more time would seem to have passed. We know that in certain critical moments, the doors of perceptions are thrown wide open and time seems to slow to a crawl. Unfortunately it is usually not possible to make your body speed up to the same degree.

In my fourth dicewriting story, which I stared just after my previous entry, the main character seems set to become a speedster. Not on the scale of The Flash from the TV series that I believe is still ongoing in America, or the comic books of the same name. Just … living faster.

In that story, speed is one of Erlend’s five specializations, and with an expected duration of 6 years this could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing how this will unfold when we reach the borderlands of human experience. How is it like when the world slows down to half speed and a day feels like it has 48 hours? How do you interact with the people around you? If it happens gradually enough, you probably adapt seamlessly, and don’t rock the boat by being too different in everyday life.

As it happens, I have a coworker of sorts – technically his company is the client of ours, but we work together and eat lunch together – and he is highly intelligent, possibly more than me. It is hard to say: While my intelligence is exceptionally wide, reaching into thoughts that most people never consider thinking, his intelligence is fast. Ordinary humans try his patience, because he knows what they are trying to say while they are still beginning to say it, and then they just keep rambling on, unaware that he already understands it better than they do. Usually he spends his lunch break reading his smartphone. The leftover attention is sufficient to keep up with what everyone in the room is saying.  This guy strikes me as a good match for a “near speedster”, someone who lives fast in a slow world. (Of course I won’t borrow any other traits from him. My characters are all unique, not based on real people.)

The clocks keep ticking, but perhaps we each hear them tick at our own speed…

Writing a twisted character

Screenshot anime Barakamon

My main character, who incidentally looks a lot like this too, is also a failure as a human being. Then again he is not entirely human, not that this makes things any easier.

My first two dicewriting stories more or less wrote themselves, but the third has taken longer time and generally felt much harder. I don’t think I can blame the skill specialization that I outlined in my June entry – in fact, I am quite happy with it and intend to keep it for my next story, although I can see some combinations being harder to write than others.

No, the problem is the main character. He is just not a very likable person, I’m afraid. Not to the people in his world, and not to me, and probably not to most of the potential readers. While the main character of book 1 was a gentle healer with a lot of empathy, and the second was more of a classical fledgling superhero type, Rune is a deeply conflicted person and a bit of a sociopath.

The conflict is between his home and his school life. His mother loves him unconditionally and considers him a precious gift to humanity. But at school he is bullied relentlessly for almost a decade. As a result, his basic outlook is a firm conviction that humanity consists of three groups: A precious few good and innocent ones, a modest majority of indifferent people who are just passively complicit in evil, and a sizable minority of nonredeemable villains who would serve the world better as dog food or compost.

This attitude is problematic under the best of circumstances. But Rune happens to be the son of an extradimensional super-wizard on the scale of Zeus or Odin, and over the course of the 87000 words story he goes from occasionally producing some almost symbolic magical effects to achieving casual mastery of cold, darkness and sickness. Toward the end of the first book, he is easily capable of killing anyone he wants in a matter of seconds – or more slowly if he so prefers – without anyone ever knowing. His conscience is not in itself holding him back: As far as he is concerned, killing bad guys is the fastest way to make the world a better place. The only thing that holds him back is the pleas of his mother, but will that be enough when facing people who are genuinely evil and proud of it?

I think what makes this so hard to write is that I understand the character all too well. I find it hard to argue against his view without resorting to religion. Specifically, I think you have to think like Jesus on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The moment you believe that humans actually know what they do and are in control of their lives, it becomes very hard to not condemn them. It is not a pleasant mindset for me to immerse myself in. I am rather happy to be seeing the end of this draft, finally. Hopefully Dicewriting Book 4 will be less disturbing.

Dicewriting refinement: Specializations

Screenshot anime Onii-Ai

Come to think of it, many authors are quite eccentric. Even so, I may still be the only one writing with dice. I hope to change that. If more people learned to write, I might not have to write the novels I want to read myself. I could just buy them for a few dollar on Amazon. 

My last couple entries have been about writing with dice. You may think that writing is about inspiration rather than perspiration, and I assume this is true for Holy Scripture, and perhaps to some degree for a few other profound, world-changing works of timeless beauty. But for the most part, writing is an office job where you have to show up, put in some semblance of mental activity, know your tools and build your skills. The current string of entries is about some quite unusual tools of the trade: Ordinary 6-sided dice.

I have written a bit over 100 000 words on book 2 in the “Semi-demigods” series, the series where I practice my “writing with dice” technique. This book describes high school (three years) for one of the supernatural characters. I am happy with the improvement I made from book 1, but there are still some things I may fine-tune in the next story.

The series is coming-of-age stories about part-supernatural kids, in the same genre as Smallville (the TV and book series), but not very similar apart from the genre. The best part of Smallville, in my opinion, was when Clark Kent discovered another superpower. But unfortunately this experience was fairly brief. He took some days to control his X-ray vision and heat vision, but generally his powers emerged at more or less full strength and he usually could control them easily. My approach is very different: A slow creeping change, a very slowly rising tide of power. Perhaps too slowly and too broad, I think now.

***

Due to a faulty implementation of two related abilities from the GURPS Psionics set, my character ended up with two powers that were way above most of the others, in this case telekinesis and especially flight. Rather than fix it partway through, I wrote it into the story, which worked out pretty well. There was also another power that was ahead of the pack, namely mind reading. But this was because it was favored by the dice. In the long run, the dice will even out, but that turns out to be a very long run. In the first book, the dice favored healing, and I wrote that into the story as well, but I don’t know why it happened.

What I do think is that the story benefited from a couple powers emerging earlier than the rest, rather than all of them being useless and then all of them being over the top. So I am thinking that for Book 3, I am going to implement a Matthew amplifier: He who has shall be given and shall have abundance. I am still pondering how to implement it, but I am thinking of marking the top 5 skills at some point, possible the first 5 to be rolled in the first place, and giving them bonus points. Like every third round will be reserved for the Primary Skills, or nearly so. The numbers 1 to 5 will correspond to the 5 Primary Skills, while a 6 passes the turn to the stat pool with a new roll.

Obviously this might be different depending on your genre, so I am not going to go on and on about the details.

Another tool-related note: I use a spreadsheet to keep track of the various powers and skills. For each time they change, I also write a [note] in my writing program (yWriter 5). This lets me reconstruct the power set at any particular time in the story, but it would be a lot of work to do that for any random scene. So I am thinking of extracting the bare-bones stats from the spreadsheet and posting the status at the start of each chapter (not part of the actual text, obviously, but perhaps in the internal chapter description). I tend to write very bare-bones and I think this could make it easier to expand on the story later. It will let me see at a glance what the stats were at the time.

Again, this is kind of specialized for supernatural coming-of-age stories. In a romance novel you might track the relationship between the various characters at different times, perhaps on a scale from -100 to +100. In a mystery novel you would keep a map of who knows what and believes what at each stage. But for now I am writing this, and these are my tools.

Plot ideas, on the other hand, are like cats: Once you have two or three, you will soon wake up with the house full of them. Going from dream to story is the hard work, and tools matter.

Even more Writing With Dice

Screenshot anime Kawaisou, featuring Sayaka

Telepathy is a pretty nifty psychic power, except when your ability to send thoughts develops before your ability to read them, and you don’t notice until you scare the cute girl. And there’s nothing you can do because the dice decided it. (Picture from the totally unrelated anime Kawaisou.) 

Apart from short breaks for keeping up with my MOOCs at least to some degree, and a day at the local clinic with a pretty harsh heart arrhythmia, my main free time activity is writing books I don’t know until I write them. See my previous post if you want details on how I wrote the previous story this way. I’ll link to it again at the end as well.

I was not perfectly satisfied with the “game mechanics” of my novel. The story overall was interesting to me, but the balance between power and skill was off, making parts of the story drag while others became too predictable. Only as a matter of nuance, not something I could not correct for using my amazing Authorpower. But I decided to make my job easier in the next book by tweaking the balance. More about the mechanics toward the end of the post.

***

The overall plot is the classic heroic coming-of-age story seen in numerous fantasy novels (Harry Potter probably being among the most famous and well executed, although it dragged on too long for me). Also Smallville the TV series used this concept, despite having a very different flavor, so you can see it is a very generic and flexible macro-plot. The most interesting part for me is one that is usually not given enough airtime, in my opinion, and is also the reason why I frequently create new characters in role playing games. The magical time when the impossible gradually intrudes into the ordinary world: The wizard apprentice casts his first spell; the superhero discovers that he can lift a car. I want to zoom in even more, to include the time when you still tell yourself: “It could be a coincidence”, or “perhaps I just imagined it”, or “there’s got to be a rational explanation for this.”

One thing I learned from role playing games is that you need newbie zones where the challenges are realistic for your power level while you learn your role. In a way, the whole first book for each character is a newbie zone. He meets ordinary human challenges, just more of them than most people around him. This is not a time to deal with natural disasters or bloodthirsty dictators, but the way the hero deals with the baby version of the larger threats give clues as to who he will be when he is ready to put on the cape or the crown.

The first book was put on hold after about 80 000 words. It needs a rewrite and an ending that transitions to the next book, if any, but overall it was a satisfying experience. The next book is at a bit over 45 000 words now and still pretty early, though I may speed up a bit now. It is a new story with a new main character, using the same overall plot but different subplots and new dice throws. Intriguingly, the dice seem to know early on what kind of character I am writing. It is a bit spooky. I even close my eyes when tumbling the dice, and they still create patterns that suit the personality to some degree.

***

The current book is completely stand-alone and implied to be on a different world, albeit both are very close to our own, alternate timelines that separated from ours only decades ago. The background is the same: A “demigod”, a planeswalker with overwhelming psychic powers, has visited Earth in secret and begotten a boychild to protect the world through the trials to come. He then zips off, leaving his heir to grow up as a normal child, although looking a bit unusual and developing more slowly because of his longer lifespan. (The planeswalker in the two stories is not the same, although the purpose of his visit is.)

In this case, the powers begin to develop at the start of his last year in junior high school (school year ten in Norway, where this book takes place). I have also ramped up slightly the speed at which the powers grow stronger, while ramping down skill growth so that there is a greater element of uncertainty. Even with that, the psychic powers are little more than party tricks for the first year and a half, most of them even longer.

***

The dice rolls are the same as outlined in my previous entry, but there is now an exception on skill rolls. Up to an actual skill of 12 (as determined by the combination of INTelligence and skill roll) all rolls that begin with 4 (skill group 1) and 5 (skill group 2) increase the skill by one. But once the actual skill is 12, I roll another die. If it shows 6, the one-point increase happens to power level rather than skill. At skill level 13, either 5 or 6 means the point is transferred to power. And so on, although never below 1. Skill will increase more and more slowly over time, until it only rises at 1/6 of early increase. Meanwhile power will increase faster and faster until it scales at 11/6 of early increase. This is more intuitive in the results it yields, as a small increase in power will be very noticeable early on, but less and less so. Meanwhile skill determines the chance to succeed and the level of control, and these should improve rapidly at first and then more slowly. I am pretty happy with this setup so far.

I have also increased the soft limit on all physical stats (not INTelligence) to 20, which is the borderline between human and superhuman. This boosts his physical, seemingly natural abilities relative to the psionic, seemingly supernatural ones. Unlike the gentle healer of the first book, Tormod is a more robust hero and inclined to fight back, which does not necessarily end well even when he succeeds. He has some issues to resolve and lessons to learn before he is ready to save the world, or at least a small corner of it, in a hypothetical sequel.

Writing with dice, again

Screenshot anime DanMachi / Dungeon ni Deai

The status of my white-haired main character has grown a lot! That’s because I roll dice every Sunday morning. It also makes for very fast writing, as it turns out.

Since April 18th, I’ve had fun writing a fiction story. Around the end of April 26 (that would be 8 days later) I reached 50 000 words. It’s slowed down a bit since (65 000 by the end of the month), which is good because I have other things to do as well. Also to avoid repetitive stress injury from insane amounts of typing, I could not do this all year round. But it is a pretty awesome feeling when the writing just runs through the brain onto the screen.

The fiction is a coming-of-age psychic mini-superhero story using dice. The scope is similar to that of Smallville (the TV and book series) in that it follows a boy with unusual abilities from he discovers them until he is fully grown. But the tone is very different. The powers are different, and they start out very weak, so much so that at first they are indistinguishable from coincidence. There are also no truly superpowered enemies or allies – for the duration of this story at least, it is assumed that the Main Character is the only of his kind on Earth.

(There may be sequels, or maybe not. The story as first draft is extremely bare-bones and I might easily expand it not only by adding detail but also by writing scenes in between existing scenes. In the hands of a better writer, this story could easily be as long as Smallville. Then again, in the hands of a better writer, Smallville might have been worth watching more than halfway through.)

(When I say these 65 000 words are “bare-bones”, I mean as in “we only know the hair and eye color of the main character and his best friend”, “we don’t know the layout of any buildings”, “we don’t know the local plant life but the setting is said to be in northern Europe” (it is actually in Denmark, to the best of my knowledge, with a brief vacation in southern Norway which is mentioned in one of the first chapters.) It is the complete antithesis of filler. Pretty much all except the action and dialog is left to imagination, at least as of today.)

***

Now about the dice. The psychic powers are very closely based on GURPS third edition, the Psionics chapter with a little extra detail from the Psionics extended rulebook. This is a robust, realistically scaling role playing system that lets you transition seamlessly from the everyday to the fantastical given enough time. In my case, I roll the dice every Sunday morning (story time, not my time!) and increase one stat each time.

For those who want to try this approach but not for psychic powers, they may want a different time scale and a different skill set. But I particularly like psionics, so.

At the start of the story, as the Main Character enters high school, he is noticeably weaker, slower, clumsier and (barely noticeably) stupider than the rest of his class. The only stat that is above average is Longevity, which is one I added as a vital stat, which it is not in GURPS. (In GURPS there is a life extension subpower of healing, I am skipping that in return.) Because longevity has already kicked in, the character is aging more slowly than his classmates, so that at the onset of high school he is only just past puberty. This delay explains most of his weakness, which also makes him a victim of relentless bullying ever since his childhood.

Each Sunday morning (story time) I roll 1 ordinary 6-sided die first to determine the type of stat to increase. In my setup, there are two groups of psionic powers plus vital stats. The first group is variations of telekinesis and telepathy. The second group is miscellaneous psychic powers such as teleportation, ESP and healing. Each of these have a power component (the strength of the psychic power) and a skill component (the chance of success and level of precision, if applicable). The eyes of the die translate as follows:
1 = basic psychic power group
2 = misc psychic power group
3 = vital stat
4 = basic psychic skill group
5 = misc psychic skill group
6 = vital stat up to 15, after that reroll

After determining the group, a new single-die roll determines the exact power or stat to increase by 1. For example: Roll 1 = 2, which means we will increase the raw strength of a miscellaneous psychic power. Roll 2 = 6, which takes us to the specific power of healing. (As it happens, in the actual story this power got a higher than average number of rolls throughout the story, to the point where I tried to vary the way I threw my dice, including using two different dice for the two rolls, but the phenomenon continued. Make of that what you will.)

As for skills, they start at IQ-3. This is not really useful information unless you know GURPS. But it means that when the vital stat of Intelligence rises, the skill stats increase along with it but the power level does not – only the chance of success and degree of control.  So with starting INT= 9 (IQ 90) an accumulated skill roll of 1 would give an actual skill of 6, or a chance of success of 9.3%. For the first chapters, I added a beginner’s luck to the narrative to introduce some of the powers into the story, but then the Main Character naturally finds that it is almost impossible to make it happen again until months later when his skill has improved again. His powers start out almost useless and stay that way for his first year in school, where he continues to be bullied mercilessly but increasingly often get premonitions that warn him, or miraculously escapes before getting too badly beaten up. At this point he has really no offensive or defensive powers beyond running away.

The dice only determine what is possible, they do not decide the story as such. But they do push on it. Due to the early and relatively rapid growth of his healing and telepathy, it was natural to develop him into more of a healer type. Certainly his mother  sees him as such. As a result, at the end of high school he decides to become a nurse, and after a year changes studies to doctor (physician) as his intelligence continues to increase. This means that for the most part, detective or combat abilities are downplayed even when his powers reach a level where such a role would become possible. If the dice had caused a rapid increase in strength and telekinesis early on, he might have become a more classical combat-oriented hero.

***

Obviously this approach will not work for all genres, but perhaps it can help someone else escape from writer’s block. There are also many other ways in which dice can be used for fiction. In my Sims 2 blog, for instance, my simulated neighborhood Micropolis was exposed to random events from year 40 onward, such as climate change or the outbreak of a genetically modified disease. I had a list of possible events and used dice to determine which of them actually happened, if any, and in which order. I hope this can give blocked writers some new ideas. Good luck!