Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: September, 2010

Yeah. About those books. You see, it’s like this…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Persuasion is the art of convincing people that you had simply duped them into disagreeing with you in the first place.

Thanks for all the encouragement, guys. I’m going to press onward with the blog and see if I can’t have it both ways. Why not, when its been the story of my life this far? I still have a host of concerns, the amount of time and concentration required among them.

So, the final draft of The White-Luck Warrior is now officially ‘in press,’ as they say. All I have left to do is complete the maps. Always alot of fun, inking the maps! I have to admit, I’m more than a little disconcerted how The White-Luck Warrior, which is still several months from release, is already outselling Disciple of the Dog on both the Canadian and the UK Amazons. One of the perils of writing across genre lines is that most of your readers simply will not follow you. A lesson I learned at Neuropath‘s knee, unfortunately.

I’m also dismayed by the utter absence of any reviews, online or otherwise.  Granted, this will likely change once the book is released in the US this November… but still, troubling. I’m especially eager to see what kind of responses Disciple gets simply because I think it’s far and away the most accessible of the books I’ve written, and so the best one to recommend to the uninitiated. Even if it does fizzle, I have enough confidence that The White-Luck Warrior will pull through. A midlist author is basically a small businessman who manufactures only one product a year: if that product fails, the business fails, as simple as that. The great thing about writing a series, I’ve come to realize, is the way they stand or fall together. The Darkness that Comes Before was–against all reason, I now think–an unqualified success. As slender a foundation as it is, it has proven remarkably robust as a backlist title.

The White-Luck Warrior is still too close to be much more than a bolus of conflicting associations in the back of my brain, but I do think it makes the stakes of the greater series clear, and those stakes are cool. With White-Luck, I’m guessing–hoping–The Aspect-Emperor can claim a gravitas equal to The Prince of Nothing. People will see the scale of what I’m attempting, and will follow if only to see whether I manage to save or wreck the runaway epic train!

This strikes me as a good frame of mind with which to plunge into the writing of The Unholy Consult. I already have around 20,000 words strung out across eleven chapters, and the scenes and the storyline are burning bright enough in my unconscious for me to think I could finish the first draft within around eight months or so–which should give my publishers plenty of time to publish in Spring 2012–hopefully before the world turns into another horrible Emmerich movie.

Still, even if White-Luck manages to meet or even exceed my expectations, the overall series will never rise above the cult status it presently enjoys. Just too damn dense, too damn difficult. If any of my works possess breakout potential, Disciple of the Dog is the one. So here’s hoping for some kind of mainstream boost…

I already have the next two Disciple Manning novels plotted out in my head. That guy owns me in a way no character has in a long time.

There. I actually managed to talk at length about my books. It kind of feels like bullshit, in retrospect, but then so does pretty much everything I write! I was the kid in grade four who railed on and on about how ‘Santa,’ so-called, was simply an adult conspiracy, one meant to shield parents from taking responsibility for their crappy gifts. Was it simply a coincidence that Santa seemed to like all the rich kids so much better than us poor bastards?

I think not. That, my friends, would be God.

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To blog, or not to blog, that is the burr up my ass.

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The best thing any asshole can do is to regularly change their underwear.

Yesterday was the release date for NHL 11 – so hockey night with my buddies was a little more debauched than usual. I kicked some major ass, which means my review for the newest version of the world’s best video game is 10 out of 1o.

I have to admit, I’m still on the fence when it comes to this blogging thing. I had a long talk with my agent yesterday, who wants me to talk about the books much more, and my crazy ass opinions much less. Apparently people find them alienating. People treasure few things more than their sense of intellectual and moral superiority, and because I think these stand high among the conceits that will cut our collective throat, I find it impossible not to rail against them. So it seems to be a recipe doomed for failure. Few things are as ‘clear’ to an individual as the superiority of their cognitive and moral insight. Throughout their entire lives, everywhere they turn, they find more and more confirmation of how others ‘just don’t get it.’ 

Maybe you actually like this blog. Maybe you’ve succumbed to the consensus fallacy and think that most everyone likes this blog. But I’ve had too many lukewarm conversations with too many lukewarm observations about this thing (‘lukewarm,’ in the world of ‘tell-me-what-you-really-think’ appraisal is simply code for condemnation) not to think the opposite is the case. My guess is that the vast majority of people who come to Three Pound Brain find themselves dissappointed at best: too much author, not enough book.

Add to that, all this adolescent self-doubt…

What’s worse, I really don’t have any institutional home, no tribe that I can call my own. I keenly remember what it felt like, belonging to the academic world, that sense of moral and intellectual superiority enjoyed on a collective level. I could retreat back to that mindset, I suppose, poo-poo all those unwashed masses the institution has managed to alienate, all those poor souls toiling away in consumer delusion. I suppose I could pretend that I really did belong to a special tribe, rather than one more self-serving, self-congratulatory institution.

But those days are irretrievably lost. No tribe is special. We all play the same stupid games all the time. And we all think it’s the other guy who is pedestrian. For better or worse, I’ve convinced myself that this is a fact.

So, it really could be the case that this little experiment of mine is in fact doing more harm than good to my marginal career. The sustaining illusion of most all midlist writers is that somehow, someway, they will ‘break out,’ and build a castle next to Dan Brown somewhere in New Hampshire. The sad fact is that, aside from a few rare exceptions, the batteries on our little bullhorns slowly die, and we fade back into the obscurity of a billion piping voices – wondering what we could have done different, finding ways to blame the industry that had to have let us down.

I’ve looked at this gig as a crapshoot right from the very beginning, and all the self-promotional work I’ve done as nothing more than covering my odds on the cultural craps table…

And as much a I love ranting, I’m beginning to worry that this blog thing is actually dropping money on a ‘hard way.’

Another sucker bet.

Meanwhile,  there’s the question of time and commitment.

I Empathize… But…

by rsbakker

I liked John Fultz’s comment so much that I decided to forgo what I was originally going to post – a rant about Jonathan Franzen and the ‘literature of complacency,’ to continue discussing the humanities. John says,

Forget rationalization and reason. Studying the Humanities gives you a basic appreciation for HUMANS…it establishes and hones the natural ability to EMPATHIZE with your fellow humans. It brings you beyond the confines of your own narrow skull/body and helps you understand what it’s like to be SOMEONE ELSE. It reaffirms and enlightens the Human Condition. Studying Humanities is really studying WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN. This is its essential value. Critical Thinking skills and Rationalization and Reason are TOOLs to that end. The key to preventing tomorrow’s terrorists is Educationa and Economic Devlopment in those areas that currently foster them…i.e. giving people something to LIVE for so they aren’t content to go blow themselves up. The role that the Liberal Arts plays is to hold up a mirror so that humanity can look at itself, know itself, and ultimately come closer to understanding itself.

This, I think, is the common view of the primary critical function of the humanities beyond teaching critical thinking. The humanities facilitate understanding of the human condition, and this is primarily what short-circuits the will to harm others. I actually don’t deny this in my previous post – I agree almost entirely. The more you know about the Other, the more difficult it is to dismiss and demonize them to be sure. To the extent that a liberal arts education facilitates the ability to empathize, I would agree that it does far more good than harm.

You know, I asked my wife what she thought of the blog a few weeks back and she simply said, “I think you sound like an angry old man.” I realized the peril of what I was trying to do then. I mean, I’ve alienated more than enough people to know the risks you run when questioning critical thinking: people who consider themselves critical thinkers by dint of some kind of training, especially, do not like to be told that they’ve primarily been taught how to rationalize – especially when they feel so damn reasonable – so ‘fair and balanced.’

So I know my argument is bound to tweak any number of people who happen upon this blog. As soon as people need you to be wrong to preserve some flattering cornerstone of their self-identity, you know that the very rationalizations you are railing against will be turned against you. All those years of training. A lifetime of feeling morally and intellectually superior. An institutionally sanctified status…

A humanities education gives you a kind of identity. It makes you special somehow, or so we like to think. And along comes this asshole with a blog, a loser who writes fantasy no less, telling you that there’s precious little distinguishing you from the fundamentalist fools you love to make fun of, and that you’re only a critical thinker to the degree that you appreciate this.

I would dismiss me, I’m pretty sure. And yet, my argument still stands. Our biggest cognitive liability consists of gaming ambiguities to confirm our preexisting assumptions, and the humanities primary ‘critical’ thrust is to train us how to do this more effectively. How to rationalize.

Despite my concession, I can’t help but smell some all too human vanity in responses like yours, John. The sense that what you’re really saying is that the terrorists only need to be more like me to see their way past themselves. I mean, look how good I turned out!  The man with the hammer, as they say. Those guys from the sciences, the ones trained to doubt their conclusions from the outset, to expect to be wrong, they’re just technicians, entirely unable to see their way clear their cultural biases. They have no clear understanding of humanity.

What if the ‘image of humanity’ provided by the humanities is – as a matter of empirical fact – largely a false image? What if human beings, from the very dawn of literate civilization, have been deluded about themselves, not in this or that respect, but thoroughly, fundamentally?

The more the sciences learn, the more this appears to be the case.

For those of you still shaking your heads, I urge you to check out the research, books like Self-Insight, A Mind of its OwnKluge, Predictably Irrational, Sway, On Being Certain, Why We Make Mistakes… There is an embarrassing wealth of material that has come out in the past few years, and it’s all painting a pretty ugly picture.

And if you’re anything like me, the more you read the more you’ll come to marvel at how hopelessly inadequate and misguided our contemporary education system is. I really look at the contemporary humanities as Medieval, as something future generatations – if there are any – will shake their heads at.

Say things like, “Well, they just didn’t know any better back then.”

In the meantime, the addictions, divorces, lawsuits, murders and wars continue stacking up – all for want of human beings knowing themselves. Sounds dramatic, I know, but when you consider just how much human conflict is driven by our cognitive shortcomings…

All of it, some might say.

Terrorism and other Inhumanities

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Having a blog is like having a second dick: the more fun you have with it, the more people will think you’re a wanker.

So the Globe and Mail featured yet another essay (this one by John Allemang) extolling the humanities as a kind of critical thinking factory. Apparently its no coincidence that terror suspects tend to have science and technical backgrounds.

Human brains are rationalization machines. We begin with our conclusions when we rationalize. We start with a claim which we then try to justify after the fact with cherry-picked ‘evidence.’ This, of course, is the precise opposite of reasoning, where we use evidence to determine our conclusions. In other words, rationalization is the bane of any critical thinking worthy of the name. Given our hardwired tendency to game ambiguities for confirmation’s sake, you could say that our penchant for rationalization is THE barrier to critical thinking. No matter how ludicrous our beliefs, we inevitably find some way to confirm them.

Humans have a genius for post hoc self-justification. During my recent vacation I couldn’t help but notice the way my buddy’s three year old would continually swap through rationales every time he got busted breaking this or that rule. In fact, he did this so regularly that I couldn’t help but think that the real developmental point of ‘being a bad boy’ was to simply hone and explore his rationalization skills, rather than simply ‘challenge parental boundaries’ as the child development experts claim. For social and linguistic animals like humans, the importance of rationalization simply cannot be overstated. The sad fact of the matter is that nothing gets you laid quite like bullshit.

Rationalization starts almost as soon as language does. And the better we are at it, the better we are at getting by, let alone getting away with murder. Important stuff.

So if we were to train our children how to be the best rationalizers possible, what might we do?

Well, first, we would teach them how to clearly articulate the claim to be rationalized. Given the importance of priming listeners, we might even teach them how to frame their ‘argument’ with some introductory rhetoric. Then we would teach them how to adduce (using cherry-picking resources such as the library and the internet) and to articulate, not just their justifications, but their justifications for their justifications. Rationalization, after all, works better when it’s layered. We could teach them how to prioritize these post hoc justifications, always reminding them to save the most potent one for last to maximize their rationalization’s psychological impact. Then, we might teach them how to conclude the whole self-confirming exercise with some more me-so-right rhetoric. Some kind of concluding paragraph.

We would teach them, in other words, how to write a college essay.

This is what the humanities do: they take our rough and ready penchant for duping ourselves and refine into something articulate and efficient. Not only do they train us how to fool ourselves more effectively, they have the temerity to call this critical thinking! They churn out generations of trained rationalizers, and give each of them an official ‘critical thinker’ badge that they can use to alienate their highschool dropout relatives at Christmas–because we all know that the Authority that flatters is the Authority that is never questioned.

I’m not saying that criticality doesn’t leak through here and there. The ability to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes,’ to frame one’s own time in historical context, and the like–these are undoubtedly important ‘skills’ to possess. But they are not in ‘critical’ in and of themselves. Absent any real appreciation of the ways we game ambiguities to our cognitive advantage, they are far more likely to be yoked to the rationalization cart than otherwise. To make us better bullshitters.

Speaking of which, I should make clear the radicality of the view I’m advocating here. Every paper, every article, damn near every damn thing I read or hear–my own stuff included–I see as bullshit rationalization, as various attempts to dress up abject guesses as divine revelation. I think that the research, considered in sum, more than supports this ugly and unflattering claim.

And this is why I find the claim that the problem of terrorism requires more liberal arts education out and out preposterous. What the problem of terrorism requires is an education system that teaches people how to reason, not how to rationalize, that answers to the sorry fact of the human cognitive condition, not the flattering myth.

Flying under my own radar… Yet again.

by rsbakker

What a knob I am. Here I thought Disciple of the Dog was coming out in Canada next week, when it’s already been out for several days. Next week in the UK, and not until November in the US – I’m not sure why, though I trust my Tor editor’s judgement implicitly.

I spent some time thumbing through the Canadian edition the other day – the Cringe Game, I call it – and found a positively horrific typo: a line of dialogue inexplicably put in parenthesis. I smell a proofreading rat, something tagged for a query that never got addressed. But I’ve seen too many of these gaffes now not to realize it could have been me. With brainfarts, it’s always difficult to smell your own brand.

Otherwise I have a good feeling about this book. If there’s any book of mine that you could recommend to just about anybody, this is definitely it. I’m starting to think I should just blast out all my side projects on the fly, rather than obsess and obsess over them the way I did with Neuropath. I get dark and dense when I have too much time. The fantasies are a different story: obsession is absolutely essential with them. I’m sculpting something with them – something monumental, I like to think – as opposed to spinning yarn.

So anyways, in a bid to keep my editors and agent happy, let me repeat: Disciple of the Dog is now available at a Canadian bookstore near you, as well as Chaptersindigo.ca and Amazon.ca, though I had trouble finding them because both retailers got my name and the title wrong (you know you’re a literary small-fry when…) There it is. My plug, as puny as it is. I’ll very much enjoy hearing what you think about it, good or bad.

Writing is a craft that can never be perfected, only improved.

Otherwise, I popped onto the Westeros board and was alarmed/amused to see that the old sexism debate has flared up anew. All I can say is that I wish my detractors would pick some more ominous names for their avatars. It’s hard to feel threatened by people whose names sound like Hello Kitty product lines. They need to sex themselves up with more masculine sounding monikers.

Because we all know I can’t take things seriously unless they’re masculine!

The Boy Who Kicked the Hornet’s Dress

by rsbakker

Just got back from New Hampshire this morning… I. Am. Bagged. A friend of mine, Roger Eichorn – who will one day I’m sure become a giant of fantasy once he clears up the pesky matter of his philosophy PhD – got married. And we stayed with another friend, Nick Smith, who along with his wife Nicole, fairly broke his back observing the ancient laws of hospitality.

It was our first longish trip with little Ruby, who had a fantastic time dancing on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean: she is a true beach baby. But I also had the strange experience of watching her get repeatedly mugged by Nick and Nicole’s two little boys – the one three, the other fourteen months. She was smacked on the head with various objects, shoved to the floor, and had a hard time holding onto any toy for longer than a moment or two – it’s funny how things become ‘mine’ as soon as you see someone else with them! It’s the law of the jungle with little children, man.

It was all kid stuff, and with a little patience and a lot of good humour, we soon had the boys giving her toys and kisses. But it did remind me just how personal all these questions regarding sexism have become for me. For one, I don’t want my daughter growing up hearing that her father is a sexist. For another, I don’t want my daughter growing up in a cultural climate that is – however immeasurable – worse for her father’s hamfisted attempts to make things better.

But, man, doesn’t this topic get people talking!

I think part of the reason has to do with age-old ‘battle of the sexes.’ Pretty much every human being I know has made numerous statements of gender solidarity: wives bitching about husbands, husbands bitching about wives, most of it goodhearted, some of it exasperated, but only on a few, rare instances, has any of it been genuinely vicious.

The thing is I get the feeling that pretty much everything said by the husbands would be regarded by many feminists as pernicious and ‘symptomatic,’ and I can’t shake the sense that they are simply missing the point, like the cultural critic who goes to a monster truck rally, shaking their head and tsk-tsking in polysyllables, somehow forgetting that all the people around them are laughing and ooing and sharing something genuinely important.

We are, as I am so fond of saying, judging machines, capable of going to extreme lengths to secure the high moral ground – more than a few of those lengths theoretical.

Christ, look at me, waving my three pound yardstick around…

No pun intended.