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Month: April 2011

Novel plotting almost done…

I’m almost done plotting my next novel attempt. I’d consider it mostly fantasy, though there are some sci-fi elements to it. It might be considered YA fantasy, since the three of the four main characters are under 18, but I hope it will be an interesting story for any age. (I’m not aiming specifically for the YA fantasy market.) I was calling it The Designers, but I am retitling it Atarius Destroy This World. I’m not sure if that will be the final title or not, but I think it has a nice ring to it… should make people wonder what it’s about.

I’m not completely done the plotting; I still want to go back over all my notes and make sure everything is consistent from the POV of each character. My current outlines call for 42 chapters, though some are very short, so I might end up combining them, and some are a bit long, so I might end up splitting them. The book will probably have an appendix that serves as a book within a book; a guide to the story’s magic system that the characters refer to near the beginning of the story.

If I succeed in actually writing this, I hope it will be the first of a long series, as I think the world holds countless story possibilities, though I probably won’t stay with the same characters. But who knows…

Misunderstanding Ayn Rand

This article was printed in our newspaper today by Michael Gerson: Ayn Rand’s adult-onset adolescence

The article touches on quite a few things, but I really wanted to comment on one thing, because it shows that Gerson might need to check his premises. He writes:

Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible.

First of all, anything can be summarized on a napkin, given that the reader understands the terms involved. But then we have to argue about semantics. What is “reason”? What is “selfishness”? What is “altruism”? What is “self-sacrifice”? I think most readers just take these terms at face value, which leads them to completely misinterpret Rand. For example, if you jump in front of a bullet to save a loved one, many would call that self-sacrifice. But if you love the person, then it’s not actually self-sacrifice, it’s an act of selfishness. Ayn Rand has nothing against you jumping in front of bullets or donating loads of money to charity, etc, if you’re doing it out of your own self-interest. And you can’t truly call yourself compassionate if you’re not doing it out of your own self-interest.

So, a little further down, Gerson writes:

If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others.

Yeah, see that last sentence? Read it again and think about it. You should see Gerson’s misunderstanding pretty easily. If the quality of your life is tied to the benefit of others, then helping them is a selfish endeavor. I guess Gerson agrees with Ayn Rand after all!

If I were the God of Education

In the comments section of this post I made a while back, someone asked the following:

Your criticism of the Khan Academy, as well as the current public educational systems, all the way from elementary schools up to college is not entirely without merit. I agree with your major premise. However, it’s always easy to criticize, but much harder to solve a problem in a constructive manner. So, with that idea in mind, what would these systems look like, if you were the God of Education, and could tailor-make them exactly to your own whim? How would they be so different from what we already have?

So here is my ideal education system…

Firstly, this answer is based on the belief that it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him. This is a completely foreign concept to most people working in education, because they tend to just take the actual content for granted. Anyway, if you do not agree with this premise, I don’t expect you to agree with my thoughts that follow.

Secondly, I know there are a lot of details that would need to be figured out. One person is not going to have the complete set of solutions for how to run such a large system. There are many factors that would need tweaking. Such a complex system is not going to be perfect right out of the bag.

Thirdly, in addition to the issue of “what would the ideal education system look like?” there’s the issue of “what practical steps do we take to get there?” This post is not about figuring out those practical steps. I don’t think we could make them anyway until more people agreed with the basic premise that “it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him.” Acceptance or denial of this premise should not be dependent on the practicality of implications. (Abolishing slavery had some huge economic implications, but that didn’t justify slavery.) You start with the premises, and work from there.

Fourthly, my ideal education system has more to do with abolishing and remodeling the education system as it applies to the upper-grades, as that is where I think the greatest problems lie. Remodeling kindergarten and such can come later.

Break the degree system

The ideal education institutions would talk to employers. If people are struggling to get good grades in high school so they can go to college, and if they’re going to college so they can get degrees, and if they’re getting degrees so they can get a job, why the heck are employers hardly involved in this process?

We need employers to tell schools what exact skills they want potential employees to have. Vague qualities like “creativity, agreeability, dedication, independence” obviously don’t help. What do workers actually do? There seems to have been so little communication between employers and schools that schools just teach whatever the heck they feel like, or design these weird hodge-podge curriculums that lack focus. The student ends up learning very little about whatever they might end up dedicating their life to outside of school.

From the employers’ perspective, they want to make money. Taking the time to recruit new hires is a necessary cost as old workers retire, but taking the time to actually train new workers is much more expensive, and possibly less rewarding, so why bother?

That’s why it needs to be up to the education system to teach the more basic skills that are used in a job. They’re going to have to pay employers to take some time out of their day and just talk about what exactly workers do in their company. After seeing what workers actually do, the education systems can break down how they do those things, and then teach them (I’ll get to how they should teach them in a minute).

(It’s possible that there’s an education conspiracy out there. Maybe employers do not want very many people to have high level skills so that they can have more non-independently thinking slaves who will just do what they’re told, and only a small set of elite workers can keep those higher level, higher paying jobs. If this is the case, oh well. I don’t think there’s anything practical that can be done about it. We can’t force employers to reveal all information about their inner-workings. But they’d certainly get some tougher competition with a better education system.)

Now, all that said, I’m not trying to imply that education has to be completely paycheck oriented, as if education was just some fancy training program. But it should be at least that. (After all, even in our current system, that’s what degrees are for! Unfortunately degrees have become very vague impractical ways of going about it, because of the disconnect between employers and educators.) The hope is that students would be pursuing areas that interest them, and they won’t have to have their time wasted by being forced to study things that don’t. If I want to program computer games, I shouldn’t need a long course in statistics, or how RAM works, etc. With the extra time that will give me, I can pursue other areas that interest me.

How to learn / How to teach

So, the preceding section describes where educational institutions should get their content from, the material for their curriculums; it’s guided by what employees out there actually do. (Keep in mind that university research institutions and such are also employers.)

I think just having curriculums designed that way would improve education immensely, but we can and should go further.

Keep in mind our original premise, that the student should not be forced to study information he does not need or has no interest in. How does a student get a job after school? He must demonstrate that he has the skills the employer is seeking, and perhaps has even more skills than the employer is seeking. Schools need to realize that a student getting hired is ultimately completely up to the student. Therefore, schools shouldn’t force students to learn anything. If students choose to learn nothing, or try to skip necessary skills, they won’t get employed and they’ll have to go back and get those skills. There’s no reason for the education institution to have pre-requisites or credit requirements.

But we need to go further still. The current learning fashion involves a teacher standing in front of a class, blathering about his subject of expertise, giving out exercises and tests to students, and then grading them. This is a pathetic and archaic way to learn.

Firstly, the relationship between the teacher and student needs to be more open. Lectures make sense if the teacher needs to talk to a bunch of students at once (and such lectures can always be recorded or written in book form; it’s a waste of time for teachers to keep giving the same lectures over and over). Class time should be conversation time between the teacher and the student, an opportunity for a student to interact with someone who knows the field the student is interested in.

Furthermore, teachers do not need to be in the business of assigning exercises or tests or quizzes or keeping grades. A student might request an exercise if he’s having trouble understanding something, but it’s not up to the teacher to command it. After all, the education institution is for the student. (This will probably be a new paradigm for most teachers, and they might not want to relinquish so much control. If so, tough! They have to! If they are snobs who think they are imparting grand life-changing truths upon their students, they’ll just have to get over themselves. No man should become a teacher out of love of control.) Grades are unneeded because the only true assessment that matters is whether or not the student can get a job afterwards. (If employers are using grades as a gatekeeper to determine potential employers, they’ll just have to change their ways; too many flaws in the current system. And if hardly any schools are giving out grades and degrees, employers won’t have a choice. It’s not up to them.)

Since after school students will need to be able to demonstrate their skills to potential employers, I suggest students learn skills by applying them to self-directed (but teacher-guided) projects. For example, if I want to learn programming, I would involve myself in a programming project of some sort; probably something small at first. A teacher would give advice and answer questions that come up while I am working on the project. If I want to study calculus, I might do a project detailing how an extra planet in the solar system might orbit the sun or something. Or maybe I’d write a book detailing how to calculate the journey of the Voyager. The point would be to create something (not just read books and watch lectures; those don’t necessarily require synthesis) that demonstrates skill and conceptual understanding. Because the projects would be student-directed, the student’s interest is implied.

Conclusion

So, in the end, this is project-based learning, with an emphasis on employer-based skills. In place of homework, students work on projects that interest them. In place of grades and degrees, students produce projects which can be shown to potential employers. In place of weekly lectures, students talk to teachers about their projects.

You might say: “hmmm, some students will not be smart enough to do this.” Well then they can go die. Um, no, I didn’t mean it! But they certainly shouldn’t spoil it for everyone else. They can go to some special program where someone else tells them what to do and what to think, etc. Give them a magic eight ball or something. They can decide their fates with a shake shake shake. They don’t need to be going to school.

I know there would still be plenty of finer details to figure out and problems to solve with this education system, but that’s the overview of my ideal.

Also, there’s of course plenty of room for students who want to employ themselves and start their own businesses; I’m not trying to imply that all students will want to work for someone else after school. Wouldn’t a project done during school time while you’re still learning be the best time to start building the foundations of a new business?

Melody project: the great reprogramming – update 7

Whew, I can’t believe it’s Friday already. This week I’ve been mostly learning Android programming. I played around with some OpenGL graphics programming for Android a year and a half ago, but that experience is really no help for what I want to do now. So I’ve been going through a book on Android programming and playing around with some examples. There’s a lot to learn, so I’m not sure how long this will take, but I’ve only got 8 more weeks until my leave of absence from Animation Mentor ends, so I hope it won’t take too long… even though there are features I still want to add to my melody generator, I wouldn’t mind releasing it as it is (at a small cost) if I end up running out of time. So my priority now is programming an Android interface for the program.

And that is all I have to say at this moment.

Happy Easter!

Skip the boring parts

I got some awesome writing advice last week: skip the boring parts. I’ve been always trying to write in a mostly completely linear fashion. But so often I get stuck or bored, and end up starting a new story. I’ve known there were people out there who wrote their stories out of order, but that didn’t seem like a good idea to me; seemed like it would be too easy to create discontinuities if you end up changing your mind about plot details. But I missed the main advantage of skipping: staying interested and excited in your own work. After all, when I think about writing a story, my mind jumps to the climactic arguments or the more interesting decisions the characters make. Makes more sense to write those scenes first and get them out of your head while they still excite you, and then building up to them can be easier and more interesting. You can edit them later if you need to. And it’s not like you have to skip huge important chunks. (If there are huge important chunks that have no interesting parts worth writing, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the story anyway?) Just skipping a couple introductory paragraphs can be enough to get the mind interested.

So a few days ago I finally finished another short story rough draft called The Final Dream of Samuel Shadows, and skipping around helped a lot. I’m looking forward to trying it with some of my other partly-written short stories, and eventually my novel, which I hope I can start in a month or two, whenever I can finish the plotting and planning of it…

Oh, and if you don’t mind some blatant self-promotion, I also got a little mention for my first published short story on this blog post reviewing December 2010 DSF stories… ego stroke…

A new moon in the sky marks the coming of a new Wizard King in “Maker of the Twenty-First Moon” by Sean Patrick Hannifin (debut 12/15). The wizard kings of the past were all tyrants. Jonlen and Slip have suspected Torkwill of wanting to be the next. A legend speaks of a wizard king’s only moment of vulnerability, on the night they make a moon.

“Maker” is a story with two sides. Torkwill wants to make the world a better place and shares the event with his son. Jonlen and Slip wish to take no chances, breaking into the wizard’s home to drag him into the forest. They refuse to heed the wizard’s warnings, Jonlen sure they are nothing but a bluff. He wants to make sure history is not repeated, even if he is the catalyst for past mistakes.

This story is rather good. It had an outcome I predicted but it was never obvious. Torkwill is convincing as a man trying to save his own life with Jonlen’s perspective. Not too bad.

Making a list… checking it once…

There are still plenty of features I’d like to give my melody generator eventually, but there are only certain features I think really need to be a part of my melody generator before I work on getting it out there for the world to play around with (in the form of an Android app). So here’s what I hope to work on before I try selling it:

1. – A couple minor changes to the main algorithm. (And fix that bug mentioned in the last post.)
2. – The ability to write 8-bar and 16-bar melodies.
3. – The ability to compose in any key.
4. – The ability to write a melody in major or minor.
5. – The ability to let the user decide the chord progression.
6. – The ability to let the user decide the ending note.
7. – The ability to let the user decide the tempo.
8. – The ability to write a melody in 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8.
9. – Create an Android interface for all this.

Obviously there are other features I’d like my program to have eventually (more bar amount possibilities, more time signatures, key changes within a melody, etc.), but they can wait until the program is actually out there and on the market.

1,000 computer generated melodies…

For the past couple days, I’ve been working on getting my melody generation program to output MIDI files so I wouldn’t have to convert them manually from a text file, which takes an annoying amount of time. And… I’ve done it, haha! So now I can tell my program… hey, I want 1,000 melodies, go. And it spits it all out over the course of a couple minutes. So here are 1,000 short little MIDI files my program wrote just a few moments ago, in a zip file:

Zip file with 1000 computer generated melodies

Some notes:

1. – Again, the program is currently restricted to 8-bar melodies in 4/4 time, and must start with the I chord and end on the tonic.

2. – For the sake of a little variety, I set the tempo to be a random BPM between 80 and 150, and the key signature to be random between A major and D major (it starts in C major then just shifts all notes up or down).

3. – There is one small bug you might hear in some of the melodies: the bass notes are shifted offbeat. I’m workin’ on it. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to happen often.

Melody project: the great reprogramming – update 6

It’s week 3 of the great reprogramming of my upcoming melody generator! While I could continue tweaking the main algorithms endlessly, I’m at the point now where I feel I need to branch off into three directions:

1. I need to get the program to output MIDI files automatically so I don’t have to keep interpreting text files.

2. I need to get the program to write in different time signatures, different bar lengths, etc.

3. I need to figure out how exactly I’m gonna get this program on the Android.

My main goal for now is #1… being able to output MIDIs, I can then have the program write 100 melodies or so in a row, and then go through the results and pick out the melodies I like, and perhaps orchestrate them into a little piece or something…

Yet even more computer generated melodies…

Here are yet more computer generated melodies from my in-development automatic melody generator. I have made a lot of changes to the algorithm since I posted the last set of examples, but I’m not sure how much you can actually hear. Still more work to be done… anyway, here are 12 more melodies…

Computer generated melodies

Enjoy!

I’ll probably spend another week on the main algorithms, then I’ll start trying to add more diverse capabilities, like different time and key signatures.

Some comments on The Wise Man’s Fear…

I’m reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, only on page 150 of about 1000, so this will take a while. Unfortunately it’s due back at the library soon, so I might just have to buy it because I doubt I’d be willing to stop reading once it’s due. It’s an addicting book.

Anyway, I just want to make some comments about a couple passages… I’m only on page 150, so I doubt there’ll be any drastic spoilers, but if you’re planning on reading the novel yourself and don’t want anything at all revealed to you, go away now.

So there’s this crazy professor teacher in the novel named Elodin, and as class starts he makes his students tell him an interesting fact. If he already knows it or finds it boring, they have to keep going until they come up with something interesting, or admit defeat. This sounds like a pretty fun game, but only really if you’re the teacher and get to be the “interesting decider.” If I ever had a teacher that really did that, I wouldn’t like it… I’d feel used and abused! And I’m somewhat wary of these romanticized student-teacher relationships that crop up so much in fiction.

Anyway, here’s one of the students’ facts, from page 132:

“You can divide infinity an infinite number of times, and the resulting pieces will still be infinitely large,” Uresh said in his odd Lenatti accent. “But if you divide a non-infinite number an infinite number of times, the resulting pieces are non-infinitely small. Since they are non-infinitely small, but there are an infinite number of them, if you add them back together, their sum is infinite. This implies any number is, in fact, infinite.”

“Wow,” Elodin said after a long pause.

Um… what? Elodin shouldn’t be impressed by such foolish logic! It sounds like a middle-schooler who just discovered the concept of infinity. Infinity is not a number, you cannot do math with it. There’s no such thing as “an infinite number.” Fool! Elodin should reprimand him!

Later on, some characters are trying to explain to another character how the novel’s magic system works (a certain magic called “sympathy”), on page 148:

“Heat, light, and motion are all just energy,” I said. “We can’t create energy or make it disappear. But sympathy lets us move it around or change if from one type into another.”

Is motion really energy? Doesn’t he mean acceleration? I guess you could still say something in motion has kinetic energy, but that implies that it was accelerated at some point. Perhaps, since we live in a frictionful gravity world, motion and acceleration can be thought to be same, since if you’re not constantly accelerating, friction due to gravity will bring you to a stop. Anyway, this magic system seems to obey the first law of thermodynamics; good enough for me.

But then…

“I can see how heat and light are related,” [Denna] said thoughtfully. “The sun is bright and warm. Same with a candle.” She frowned. “But motion doesn’t fit into it. A fire can’t push something.”

“Think about friction,” Sim chimed in. “When you rub something it gets hot.”

[Kvothe talking:] “It’s a good example. The hub of a wagon wheel will be warm to the touch. That heat comes from the motion of the wheel. A sympathist can make the energe go the other way, from heat into motion.”

So a sympathist can basically break the second law of thermodynamics? That’s fine, I don’t quite believe in it anyway. But… why explain the relationship between heat and motion with friction? The heat from friction isn’t really directly caused by motion, it’s caused by countless atomic collisions from opposing electromagnetic forces. (You’re not going to get much heat from static friction, are you?) I would explain heat and motion more thermodynamically: heat is motion, the non-uniform motion of countless particles. Of course the heat from a fire can push something, it’s just hard (if not thermodynamically impossible) to get enough energy directed at something specific to make that possible, so we tend to use it’s energy more indirectly, like using it to create steam, or taking advantage of the potential difference in density between the heated material and the surroundings (like the heated air in hot air balloons).

Then again, I’m not a scientist… and on page 149 a character says:

“There’s a special kind of thinking called Alar,” Wilem said. “You believe something so strongly that it becomes so.”

So I can’t be too picky. All is fair in fiction.