Growing up “meta”

Our young friend Maddie recently celebrated her first birthday. Maddie loves berries and books! We do too! And thus, my partner and I gave her three books about berries.

One is a book about colors of fruit.berry_colors

One is a counting book. Did you know that technically, grapes are berries?

berry_counting

berry_storyAnd the other is a story. A cute little mouse finds a great big strawberry, but the narrator warns the mouse that a bear who lives in the woods would also like the strawberry. Bears are big and scary! As the narrator goes on and on, the mouse becomes more and more concerned. On one page, we see that the mouse has bound the berry in chains, holding the key to its padlock. On another page, both the mouse and berry are wearing Groucho disguises. Finally, the narrator makes a suggestion. The best way to solve the problem is for the mouse to cut the berry in half and share it. With the bear, I assumed? But no, that’s not suggested at all. With the narrator! And this is done, and having eaten half a humongous berry, the mouse is quite content.

My partner read me the story when the book first arrived, and I took it at face value. Today, though, before delivering the book to Maddie, I read it for myself. This time, I realized that, uh oh, the narrator was probably manipulating the mouse’s emotions to get some of the berry for themself. And while there’s an important role in literature for the “unreliable narrator,” who isn’t disclosing all their own knowledge and motivation to the reader, it hardly seems suitable to put the person reading aloud to the child in that role. Parent as trickster? Hm.

I grew up in what I now think of as a golden age for irony and meta-awareness in children’s media. My younger sister watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street back to back, and the contrast between them was striking. It wasn’t just the pace, although that’s obviously different too, but the tone. Continue reading

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Real-life hopepunk

I’ve been meaning to write about hopepunk. One of my online friends, Susan Kaye Quinn, is a novelist in this newly recognized genre, and today she posted “A Brief History of Hopepunk.” Another online friend, the novelist P.J. Manney, has been hosting a Facebook group devoted to what she calls “The New Mythos,” recognizing the importance of giving people realistic hope for the future by showing them how people can work together ethically, even in very trying circumstances. That’s the essence of hopepunk. It’s what Aja Romano – in a terrific summary – refers to as “weaponizing kindness and optimism.”

Usually when I talk about the genres we can choose for our group-defining stories (meta-narratives), I’m talking about the directions in which we’re collectively headed. Are things getting better, like with progress? Are they getting worse – is there a potential catastrophe that we’d better avoid? But that’s not the only way we can categorize our meta-narratives. Another way is to think about what we, as individuals, can do as part of a larger group. That’s where hopepunk and its alternatives come in.

In 2017, the novelist Alexandra Rowland coined the term with this tweet: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” She later elaborated on her idea here, initially, and then in greater detail here.

Grimdark, as a literary genre, is all about cynicism and despair. There’s really no point in trying to do anything, because it will just get torn down. It’s grit, and it’s realism, and ugh. For most of the people living in the world of Game of Thrones, this is their reality. It’s common in cyberpunk, too – think Blade Runner.

But that’s not our only choice. You can also stand up to darkness and destruction, against all odds, not really expecting a final, conclusive victory, but fighting for what you know is good and right. Like the people of Ukraine. That’s hopepunk.

Putin, we are told, is in the grip of a Restoration meta-narrative, unleashing destruction to restore the borders of Imperial Russia. If the tsars controlled it, he wants it. Zelensky, by contrast, says the story of today’s Ukraine is the story of sustaining the land to which today’s Ukrainians have a personal Continue reading

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In love with the land – the real clash of civilizations

What does it mean to love the land? Two very different things, apparently.

Today I was reading Ezra Klein’s column in the New York Times, where he was talking about anti-liberalism. Remember, we have multiple meanings for “liberal,” and this one means, to quote Klein, “the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.” In general, both the Democrats and Republicans believe in this kind of “liberalism.”

By contrast, anti-liberalism is what we find on the wayyyy far right, with the kinds of thinkers who inspire fascists and who generally reject, for example, Christianity, since after all, it’s about human dignity and all that supposedly weak-minded stuff. What do they believe in, then? As Klein puts it, among other things, anti-liberalism says that “our truest identities are rooted in the land in which we’re born.”

I immediately thought back to a book my friend Doug was telling me about yesterday, Down to Earth, by the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Based on the publisher’s summary, it’s about the importance of rethinking what it means to “belong to a territory,” because being connected with the land is vitally important to being able to address ecological crises effectively.

So, on the one hand, we have identification with land being associated with scary far-right extremists. On the other, we have identification with land being important for the environment. What does this mean?

This actually came up for me a few months ago, listening to a talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s one Continue reading

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Mindset and “genius” – life lessons from the Schumanns

One of the most popular – and practically useful – concepts to emerge in psychology in recent decades has been Carol Dweck’s concept of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. Dweck, a Stanford researcher, found that in any given context, people tend to think of their abilities either as already determined and forming part of their sense of who they are, or as changeable, where their success will depend largely on their own efforts to develop their abilities. She calls these “fixed” or “growth” mentalities, and they also show up in her work as “entity” versus “incremental” ways of thinking. This is basically what people are talking about when they distinguish between talent and skill – one comes naturally and the other takes disciplined work.

In practical terms, this means if someone thinks being smart is an either/or thing (“fixed” mindset), then doing poorly on a test can be devastating. On the other hand, if being smart is a process (“growth” mindset), then doing poorly on a test is useful or even valuable, because it highlights where you should turn your attention next. The same ideas also come up in criminal justice – if you think a person is bad by nature, then prison will just be a place to keep them out of trouble, but if you think people can change, then prison should include educational opportunities and rehabilitation.

(I’m not claiming Dweck was totally original with this. It reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, in which processes are more real than substances. It’s also closely linked, I think, to the Buddhist teaching that suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept that nothing can ever last. We want some things to be fixed and certain, for our basic sense of security and predictability, but there are limits on how far we can actually go with that, given how biology works. Dweck’s contribution, I’d say, is that she gives us a practical, fairly easy way to shift our thinking that can improve our daily lives.)

Today I learned a fascinating new thing – this mindset distinction actually plays an important role in Western cultural history: the idea of the “creative genius.”

My friend Barbara Harris recently started an online book club as part of her work with the Oregon Bach Festival. It’s free, anyone can join, and it’s fun. Our first book, The Little Bach Book by David Gordon, was mostly about what it was like to live and work in Leipzig in the early 1700s. Johann Sebastian Bach was not an admired superstar during his lifetime – rather, he was a hard-working, salaried musician Continue reading

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Putin, Ukraine, and the “glory” trap

As Russia, under the determined leadership of Vladimir Putin, shocks the world with its invasion of Ukraine, Americans find ourselves wondering: Why????

Here’s what the New York Times says about Putin’s position.

“Mr. Putin has described the Soviet disintegration as a catastrophe that robbed Russia of its rightful place among the world’s great powers and put it at the mercy of a predatory West.”

and, “Mr. Putin has also insisted that Ukraine and Belarus are fundamentally parts of Russia, culturally and historically,” that is, that “Ukrainians are ‘one people’ with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been closely allied with Russia, just as Belarus is, but in 2014 they shifted toward the West and had been aspiring to eventually join NATO and perhaps the European Union.

So, in essence, the problem comes down to two motivations, which Putin has apparently decided are worth a huge investment in Russian lives and Russian economic well-being.

The first motivation is a strong desire to shift where Russians are on what we might call a fear-trust axis. Fear and trust are mutually exclusive, and Ukraine has had generations of reasons to mistrust Continue reading

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All the “porns”

mediterranean_dietThe last time I was in our neighborhood supermarket, I narrowly avoided buying the latest special issue of Good Housekeeping, full of recipes for the Mediterranean diet. Although I was tempted, $13.99 was non-trivial, and I reminded myself that if I want to eat something new, I could always unpack more of my mom’s cookbook collection.

Later I realized that my interest in the magazine had been visual – everything looked so delicious! Even things I would never actually want to eat, like cooked tuna. If that was the magazine’s real appeal, many of my mom’s cookbooks would work equally well, including those already on my shelves. I don’t actually need fresh “food porn.”

This metaphoric use of the word “porn” has been around for more than 40 years. Wikipedia says it originally drew on the “excitement” and “unattainable” themes in conventional pornography, but now it just means food that’s been beautifully photographed. (Along with whatever gratification your imagination can supply… like real porn, I suppose).

I’m also a big fan of “landscape porn.” My Windows screensaver is a collection of photos I’ve found online, and whenever my laptop’s sat idle for 10 minutes, I find myself enjoying a world tour of beauty. Most of my favorites show water and forest together, like this picture of the coast of British Columbia:

skidegate_narrows

Or this one of Lake Tahoe:

tahoe_emerald_bay

But some are forests full of wildflowers, like these bluebells:

belgium-forest-bluebells-forest-nature-or-is-it-hertfordshire

*happy sigh*

And then there’s my other favorite, “competence porn.” Although I’ve never watched it, my understanding is that MacGyver is the classic example. But my Perry Mason rewatch also qualifies. Everyone is always on top of their game: Perry, Della, Paul Drake. Even Lt. Tragg. Yesterday I was watching the episode where a glamorous novelist played by Beverly Garland (who later became the new mom on My Three Sons) had a secretary (a lovely young Louise Fletcher, more familiar to us from her subsequent roles of villainy on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). One or both of these women was being framed for murder, with a scarf left in a coffee can. Perry made the case that when he’d taken the scarf, he wasn’t removing evidence. As he told the judge, the police had examined the murder scene, and they knew how to do their jobs. If the scarf had been there then, they would have found it.

The Murderbot Diaries, a series of novellas by Martha Wells, also qualifies as competence porn. Our protagonist is a humanoid artificial intelligence with enough low-quality human tissue to provide it (its preferred pronoun) with emotion. This person (who ironically calls itself “Murderbot” but whom everyone else calls SecUnit, for “security unit”) is extremely socially anxious, constantly self-soothing by internally streaming its favorite episodes of soap operas (and I would love to get to see The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon). But it is also extremely competent. The best.

The gratification one gets from competence porn isn’t the same as looking at a luscious bowl of berries, but it’s still there. It’s about confirming our faith in people (human or otherwise) – they CAN get things right.

(Also, competence porn doesn’t mean mistakes are never made. It means people learn and try harder to get things right – that’s competence too.)

So, food porn, landscape porn, and even competence porn are about relaxation, unwinding, engaging the imagination in ways that restore the spirit. Taking a few minutes out of daily life for a brief reset. That’s great!

But this all brings me to a strange and iffy new type of “porn.” Last week on Nova, they had an episode about Arctic sinkholes – the results of underground explosions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Continue reading

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Every voice counts

I heard a fascinating talk today by Martha Bayless, who is one of our university’s folklore professors, and whose CV is full of awesome things, like medieval humor and games, food, and magic. She also curated the ongoing exhibit on medieval magic at one of our local museums.

Today’s talk was about an Anglo-Saxon queen named Eadburh, whose reputation was thoroughly trashed by the (all-male) chroniclers of her time. Her name was pronounced something like “ay-odd-burra,” and Wikipedia tells me she lived in the late 700s.

As it happens, there are no instances of Anglo-Saxon women being written about in a positive way, unless they’d given birth to some important man or devoted their life to the Church.

Eadburh’s story was more typical. First, she was said to have deliberately poisoned one of her husband’s closest friends and her husband, the king, accidentally died too – poison being the womanly way to murder people. Then she visited Charlemagne, who offered her the choice of himself or his son, and she picked the son because he was closer to her own age (with the implication that, horrors, she might be Continue reading

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Wordle, fast and slow

Like so many others on the fun, quick games bandwagon, my partner and I are regular players of Wordle. We’ve been playing for 20 days, and we each have 20 wins. In Wordle, you’re guessing the identity of that day’s five-letter word, and you get six tries. Just type in a valid word, and it tells you whether you’ve gotten any letters correct and in the correct spot (green), correct but not yet where it belongs (yellow-ish), or not in the word at all (grey). Then, use that information and try again.

You can share your process and success with your friends without spoilers, too. Today I did:

wordle

The game keeps track of how many times you’ve eventually gotten the word right, and how many tries it’s taken you. You can then calculate the average number of tries. His average is just under four tries, and mine is just over four tries. The game does not display a very different metric – how long it takes you to solve the puzzle. If it did, I’d be way ahead of him, because I zip right through it, whereas he’s careful and methodical.

Basically, we’re using different thinking styles – as Daniel Kahneman succinctly put it in the title of his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Keith Stanovich and Richard West named the two styles System 1 and System 2, where System 1 is relatively automatic and intuitive, and System 2 is more deliberate and systematic. People always use System 1, but we can choose to devalue what it tells us in favor of System 2.

This applies to everyone, even experts. Doctors are as intuitive as anyone, especially when meeting a new patient with familiar symptoms. They run the most typically useful tests and prescribe the treatment that experience has told them is most likely to be effective. At least at the first visit, they simply don’t have the time to invest in a full-scale investigation (though it’s so satisfying when they do – see Lisa Sanders’s “Diagnosis” column on medical mysteries, in the New York Times). That’s always a challenge for science – our initial reactions are usually pretty well informed, so it takes an effort to set that aside to be open to new possibilities.

With Wordle, I take an intuitive approach, usually choosing an initial word with at least two non-U vowels and some subset of T, N, R, S, L, and D. I’m not playing on hard-mode, where you have to keep using the non-incorrect letters in all subsequent guesses, so if I only get one correct letter I might try something completely different the next time. For example, ALERT first, then SOUND. Once I’ve narrowed it down, I’ll then go with any word that fits the parameters and isn’t too low-probability.

This is not my partner’s approach. He chooses a first word much like I do, but he does play on hard Continue reading

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Why we keep hanging onto the past – and what that costs us

For a couple days this week, I found myself highly motivated to hold my head relatively still, so as not to aggravate the massive headache that had wrapped itself relentlessly around it. I needed a fairly mindless way to pass the time. My partner had been playing the Storybook Brawl game, which meant I knew how it worked, and it’s free, so why not?

In Storybook Brawl, you “buy” fairytale-inspired characters from a magical shop, maybe cast a spell or two on them, then sit back and watch them “battle” another person’s characters. If your team loses, you lose “life points.” You’re playing against seven other people, and after many rounds of such battles, the last person standing is the winner.

It’s a clever game, with amusing characters. You can focus on playing princesses and princes, or tree people, or monsters, wizards, magical animals, or any combination. And when I say the characters are “fairytale-inspired,” I mean that very loosely, because they include, for example, Romeo and Juliet. That’s my favorite clever bit – if your Juliet dies before your Romeo, then when your Romeo dies, your Juliet returns! And if your team happens to have multiple Juliets and multiple Romeos, the “brawl” goes on and on.

trojan_donkeyI discovered that I’m pretty good at the beginning of the game, but by the mid-game I’m falling behind. Why is that? I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m too slow to trade in my weaker characters when more powerful ones become available. If I’ve invested a lot of spells in my “Trojan Donkey,” for example, I’m reluctant to part with him.

Which brings me to my topic for today: the sunk-cost fallacy. Usually we think about this in terms of money that’s already been spent, or effort that’s already been made. Even though our past spending and efforts are done with, people generally keep taking them into account when deciding on future spending. They don’t want to cut their losses, even though it may be the more rational course of action.

Wikipedia gives an example of a family going to a baseball game but realizing after a few innings that they aren’t enjoying themselves. Do they get up and leave, finding something nicer to do with the hour or two they regained? Or do they feel like doing so would mean they wasted the money they spend on the tickets, so they’d better stick around? Rationally, the first option makes the most sense, but the second option is all too common.

But money and effort aren’t the only resources that matter to us. Probably our most important resource of all is meaning, having something be meaningful to us. People can be willing to sacrifice their lives to Continue reading

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Fighting injustice with fantasy fiction

I read a great trilogy this past week, and I’m going to tell you all about it, but bear with me a moment – first I want to share a personal story. My late step-dad, Arnold, was in many respects an excellent human being, but like many aging senior citizens, he was reluctant to give up driving. My mom was naturally loyal to Arnold, so telling her directly that he was having a few problems behind the wheel wasn’t likely to get anywhere.

I suspect that’s a fairly universal principle – social bonds generally outrank principles, so if someone says, “Your partner did such-and-such bad thing,” your first reaction is likely to be skepticism. Or if you do believe they probably did that thing, you’d start making the case that it really wasn’t that bad, there must have been good reasons, and so on. But there’s a way to get past that, which I used with my mom.

stop_signAt our post office, there’s a main parking lot, then there’s a special lane where cars can pull up next to a set of mailboxes and you can reach out the window and put your letters into the box. This special lane has right of way over the parking lot exit – if you’re leaving the lot, there’s a stop sign for you. And one day, when I was dropping off my mail, Arnold was leaving the parking lot and ran right through the stop sign.

Did I say to my mom, “Hey, Arnold ran the stop sign at the post office”? No. I said, “When I was at the post office just now, someone ran the stop sign in front of me.” She reacted sympathetically – she was concerned about me, of course, and she agreed with the principle of the importance of the stop sign. Then I added, “…and it was Arnold.” Sure enough, Arnold stopped driving soon after.

So if you want to get people to think in terms of principles, it’s good to bring the principles to the forefront, and to show how they affect people (or fictional characters) we can care about. And one of the best ways to do that, curiously, may be through speculative fiction – science fiction and fantasy. That’s because our own identities and relationships can’t get in the way, as they can when we’re reading something set in the real world and we already know how we feel about the different “sides.”

Science fiction has been doing this for decades. Alongside all the books about amazing technologies and what we could do with them, there are also writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold who let us see what the implications of amazing technologies, or different social systems, might be.

Fantasy novels, on the other hand, have long been associated with European-style castles, young men on quests, or wizards in training – which is fun too, but doesn’t really stretch the imagination the same way.

But things are changing. And that brings me to the WitchmarkStormsongSoulstar trilogy by C.L. Polk. I had greatly enjoyed Polk’s other book, The Midnight Bargain, set in a wonderfully vivid fantasy world modeled after Jane Austen’s Regency-era England (but with magic spells and powerful magical spirits), so I decided to try the trilogy too.

Witchmark had won the World Fantasy Award in 2019, and unlike many fantasy novels, where you start a bit disoriented, this book has a low barrier to entry. The setting is very much like Edwardian England Continue reading

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