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Oct. 6th, 2016

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Unanswered Equestria Girls questions

Sunset Shimmer was Princess Celestia’s personal student before Twilight Sparkle, who knew nothing of her.
  • How old is Sunset Shimmer?
  • If she is not at least ten years older than the rest of the main cast, how can that possibly work?

Sunset Shimmer leapt into a world where she had no resources other than what she could carry with her through the portal. Even if she was foresighted enough to bring a bag of gold coins, that surely would be insufficient to carry her indefinitely. Moreover, melting the coins or defacing them sufficiently might allow her to try using them without immediate questions, but it’s very difficult in the modern world to keep doing that without eventual questions.
  • Where did/does she live and how does she afford it now? Apparently this may be explored at some point. We shall see.
  • How did/does she escape the attention of the Department of Social Services or its equivalent?
  • Where is the Sunset Shimmer native to the human world during all this?

The portal opens for three days every “thirty moons” (about two and a half years), and the mirror apparently has been kept in a windowless storage chamber of the remote Crystal Empire since not long after the latter’s reappearance.
  • How could Sunset Shimmer find out about the Elements of Harmony and Princess Twilight Sparkle?
  • How could she find out about Twilight’s conveniently timed trip to the mirror’s proximity?

Princess Celestia seems to be immortal; Principal Celestia almost certainly is not. Twilight Sparkle is mystified by the presence of the Sirens centuries after their banishment, which implies they too are not immortal. In turn these points suggest the portal’s existence in the human world can be measured in years or decades, not centuries.
  • If time flows differently between the two worlds, why does it not continue to do so? For this I have a speculation—albeit a bit convoluted—that also offers a potential reason why the portal was open only for short periods. During the three days in the cycle when the portal is open, time passage clearly seems to be synchronized between the two worlds. Perhaps, if those three days pass without the portal being used, time passage until the next open period becomes unsynchronized, and much more time passes in Equestria than in the human world. On the other hand, if the portal is used, the next closed period is synchronized. This doesn’t explain the initial discrepancy in technology and such, but that can be hand-waved away.
  • The Sirens are referred to explicitly as teen-age girls; what happened to them after they were defeated?

Sep. 25th, 2016

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Which group is older, the Original Mane Six or the Human Mane Six?

Trick question: They’re the same ages. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the age range was part of the inspiration for Equestria Girls in the first place.

I can hear the response already: “But how can that be? The Original Mane Six are independent, responsible individuals starting adult lives; the Human Mane Six are high-school students!”

Indeed so, but the paradox is purely illusory. To understand why, we must go back to two critical facts stated by Lauren Faust and to real-world history.

Ms. Faust has commented more than once she imagined the Mane Six as being (the equivalent of) twelve to sixteen seventeen or eighteen years old—young enough to learn the lessons taught by the episodes, but old enough to have more-or-less adult freedom of movement. The high end of that range puts our favorite group of friends squarely in modern high-school territory.

Modern is the key word here: Ms. Faust also has stated Equestria as she envisioned it did not have electricity. In the real world, electrical grids started developing in the 1880s, which establishes a pretty clear cap on the time period she had in mind. Steam locomotives and electrical telegraphy entered commercial service in the 1820s to 1830s, though the way they are depicted in Equestria argues for the 1860s at the earliest.

This period, the 1860s through 1880s, is smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Everything was changing, especially education. The traditional apprenticeship system was strained far beyond its limits, and eventually collapsed. It was replaced by the German-originated formal, and relatively lengthy, schooling we see today, designed to mass-produce the (comparatively) well-educated work force an industrialized society requires. That transition took place throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Before then, and even well into that period, teens were seen as junior adults, with all the responsibility and latitude that implies. The Original Mane Six are just such junior adults, setting out on their lifelong journeys together.

As society settled into the new pattern, teens became regarded as senior children, thanks to the enforced extension of economic dependence while they spend the years needed to absorb huge stores of knowledge. The Human Mane Six are in that position.

If all this seems strange and awkward, it is. When one looks closely, the social strains imposed on teens by the conflict between biological and economic realities are clearly visible—but that is a topic for another essay.

Hints of Ms. Faust’s original intent still can be seen in both series, despite the abundance of anachronisms in Friendship Is Magic. Thinking on it now, I wonder if the collision of her determination to stay true to her nineteenth-century vision with Hasbro’s desire to present a world more accessible to a young contemporary audience was a factor in her departure from the show. I also wonder if Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were among her literary inspirations.

Aug. 16th, 2016

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A difficult decision

I have been a life member of the National Rifle Association for years. I am convinced the Bill of Rights, intact and complete, is the finest bulwark in the world against oppression and unrest—and that specifically includes the Second Amendment.

But.

Since I received that fine and fancy certificate of membership suitable for framing, I have watched in dismay as the narrowly focused association devoted to the promotion and support of firearm rights and training gradually degenerated into a hard-right political organization hung with all sorts of baggage I consider to be wrong-headed if not downright odious. It is as if the association’s leadership has decided to validate every horrible stereotype anti-gunners cherish about firearm owners. Does this reflect the leadership’s views or those of the most vocal elements of the membership at large? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is NRA no longer speaks for me, and hasn’t for years; my occasional protests to the leadership have fallen on deaf ears.

The last straw was NRA’s endorsement of Donald Trump, perhaps the most dangerous and unqualified presidential candidate in at least a century.

This week I intend to renounce my life membership. It was not easy to make that decision, in large part because there is no other organization with similar stature and resources to carry the Second Amendment banner, but it has become necessary.
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Why Apple’s new gun emoji in iOS 10 is, in fact, problematic

I read the Macworld Web site regularly. Despite its flaws, common to publishers flailing for revenue models as a result of poor advertising choices made early in the commercial Web’s history, it does a fairly good job of keeping tabs on Apple’s products and actions.

A major reason I follow the site is because I have been a loyal Apple customer for decades, almost since the first appearance of the Macintosh. In general I have agreed with or approved of Apple’s decisions over the years. However, a recent decision has far-reaching implications, straying into deeper political waters: In iOS 10, an emoji currently depicting a moderately realistic revolver will be redesigned as a bright green water pistol.

Macworld has published at least one approving article claiming this change is no problem. I’m here to tell you that, in fact, it absolutely is a problem.

This decision and action send a message that firearms are scary and taboo. Nothing is better calculated to make matters worse, not better, than to increase the difficulty of learning about or discussing a topic or object. Firearms are dangerous; nobody disputes that. But the way to make something less dangerous (and less scary) is to teach people how to deal with it properly and how to respect its hazards. We train people how to drive motor vehicles or operate heavy machinery for exactly that reason. This is no different.

Moreover, creating or reinforcing a taboo has a terrible pernicious effect. The object of the taboo becomes a totem or fetish: Some rally around it, empowered by its unifying force. Others recoil from it with near-superstitious dread, unwilling or unable to come to grips with it. Worse, the former group can brandish it at will or even accidentally, driving the latter to turmoil or paralysis. Neonazi and other supremacist groups figured that one out long ago.

A third group understands the illusory nature of the taboo; they neither venerate nor despise its object. Unfortunately for everyone, they inevitably get tarred with the same extremist brush by those who have (to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt) granted permission to be intimidated by the fringe elements’ brandishing of the taboo, even if they find those extremists just as abhorrent as the fearful ones do. As a result they are are caught in the middle, unable to exercise any kind of moderating influence on a bad, and possibly deteriorating, situation. Count me in that third group.

So law-abiding firearm owners such as myself get marginalized by this and other actions implicitly expressing disapproval, even fear, of what we regard as an important interest and viewpoint. If you approve of that, I can only surmise you think it’s okay to marginalize a group because it has a different opinion than you do. Full stop. However inconvenient you may find that truth, it is a fact, and no amount of wishful thinking on your part will change how others view the matter.

By virtue of its prominent position in the marketplace, Apple effectively is attempting to help direct the course of public policy. While I agree with most of its efforts to promote desirable aspects of social development, in this particular case, I find the direction it has in mind detrimental to civil life and contrary to the public interest.

Feb. 29th, 2016

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Passion and dispassion

In any creative endeavor, it is very easy to become deeply attached to the fruits of one’s labor—not just in general but, in any particular project, to all the lovely little details of which one becomes so proud. As Ms. Lauren Faust quite correctly pointed out in response to my original comment, without that love of art or craft, one cannot produce the best work of which one is capable, let alone work of any quality at all.

However, as I have learned firsthand from my profession of freelance graphic designer as well as secondhand from reports of Ms. Faust’s and others’ travails, any time one is producing creative work at the behest of others, one has, at most, only limited authority over it. When the client, seemingly inevitably, drop-kicks exactly the elements one likes best and considers most important about one’s efforts—often in favor of what look to be the most dreadful alternatives—it’s difficult not to lose heart. But of course that veto power is the paying client’s prerogative, however lamentable the exercise of it may be in any particular case.

A venerable authors’ adage cautions against falling too deeply in love with the specifics of one’s writing: Sometimes that wonderful, amazing, perfect scene or character absolutely has to be cut, no matter how painful doing so will be, because the story will suffer if it is not. In like fashion, one must learn the zen-like ability to retain one’s enthusiasm for one’s creative occupation and even for each project, yet avoid heartbreak when a project is twisted or mauled beyond recognition—or even sinks into oblivion, never to see the light of day.

It requires the passion of creation and the dispassion of detachment in equal measure. The latter is much more difficult than the former, demanding as it does the willingness to resist ego-involvement even when it is most tempting and to let go of even the most cherished ideas and proposals when they are rejected, even out of hand or for seemingly bad reasons. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to this heavenly ideal; one simply has to develop it in one’s own fashion.

A touchstone that may help is the self-knowledge that one has offered one’s best, even if it wasn’t accepted. Ultimately, too, if the end result is sufficiently below one’s standards, one can request one’s name and association be removed from any credit or publicity connected with the project. Be cautious about doing that, though, as others who haven’t learned this lesson may take it personally—which, in a sense, reinforces the lesson’s value.

Feb. 13th, 2016

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Thirty days hath Octember: a better mnemonic

Thirty days hath this month, that month, and the other month . . .

For me, at least, that little jingle utterly fails of its purpose, being no easier to remember than the raw information it purportedly organizes. Instead, I use a trick taught to me in my youth by my mother, who in turn learned it (if I recall correctly) from a grandmother or great-grandmother. Any time I’ve mentioned or used it, I get stares, as if I suddenly grew a second head; apparently nobody else knows of it, at least in my part of the US. For that reason, I suppose I should document it.

Make a fist of one hand and hold it out with the knuckles up. Put a fingertip of the other hand on the index knuckle. That’s January, a long month.

Move the fingertip to the “valley” between the index and middle knuckles. That’s February, a short month.

Touch the middle knuckle. That’s March, another long month.

Touch the valley between the middle and ring knuckles. That’s April, another short month.

Proceed along the rest of the knuckles and valleys, counting off months, to the pinkie knuckle and July.

Start over again with the index knuckle and August. Proceed again through knuckles and valleys to December.

I always have my hands with me, and the only things I have to remember are the order of the months and the principle of ticking off knuckles and valleys. It even correctly accounts for July and August being two long months in a row.

Knuckle is long month; between knuckles is short month.

Dec. 29th, 2015

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What is science fiction?

Today science fiction—often abbreviated as “SF” by the community devoted to it—enjoys greater mainstream acceptance and currency than ever before, and there are encouraging signs the situation will continue to improve. Indeed, one critic has commented that science fiction was the twentieth century’s great contribution to literature, as mystery fiction was the nineteenth century’s. I can’t but agree.

Still, all too often even today, literary authorities and the general public persist in relying on a narrow, dated, and unfortunate “rocket ships and ray guns” stereotype of SF exemplified by the notorious pulp periodicals of the interwar and postwar periods. Stout denials that serious novels (for a not at all random example, Children of Men) should be sullied by association with such tripe are the wince-inducing result. It’s enough to make a career SF author point out with a long-suffering sigh, “Son, ninety percent of everything [not just science fiction] is crap.”

Well then. If science fiction is not—or at least not exclusively—pulp fiction, what is it?

There probably are as many definitions of science fiction as there are authors, reviewers, and fans. Many factors account for the lack of consensus, or at least for a very fuzzy Gaussian distribution of definitions. For one thing, content placed under its banner has evolved greatly over the last century and more. Moreover, historians, as they do in every specialty, draw different dividing lines. Did it start with Hugo Gernsback? H.G. Wells? Jules Verne? Mary Shelly? Ibn al-Nafis? That game can continue back into antiquity.

In my view, though, the most important factor—one most people, especially those outside observers, seem to miss completely—is that science fiction is not a genré. It is a metagenré. It encompasses and includes most if not all other genrés. There are science-fiction mysteries, science-fiction adventures, science-fiction thrillers, science-fiction coming-of-age stories, science-fiction . . . well, just about anything, really. Yes, including space opera, which is what Star Wars really is.

Many years ago, while shopping in a comic store, I noticed a hardback collection of strips from Will Eisner’s The Spirit, entitled The Spirit on the Moon. The cover showed the eponymous character wearing a classic fishbowl helmet and backed by a typical mid-century moonscape of crags and stalagmites, but what struck me forcibly was the legend at the foot of the cover:

The scientists can get you there, and the scientists can keep you alive once you’re there, but it’s still people who make things happen.

That may be a slight paraphrase, but it’s close. And, to me, it threw science fiction into a stark clarity: Technology may change, settings may be exotic, history may warp and transmute, but human nature is the constant that threads through SF just as much as any other fictional form. The mantle can be laid equally appropriately on a rip-roaring action yarn in space or a thoughtful examination of the human condition in a distant star system or a remote era, and nothing is taken from either as a result. If there’s any shorthand definition that’s all-encompassing enough, I’d say it would be stories that started in their authors’ minds with the simple question “What if I made this one change to the world?”

In short, science fiction is broad and deep, with room for any sort of story. It may look ahead in time to an era of interstellar exploration and settlement, or across time to parallel worlds, or back in time to alternate histories. It may ask what happens to society when one crucial development in technology makes its mark. It may ask fundamental questions about identity and humanity when bioengineering can reshape the very form of man.

But it’s infinitely more than rocket ships and ray guns. To suggest otherwise is to do it—and oneself—a grave injustice.

Oct. 6th, 2015

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Regardless of your intent, these are the messages you actually convey

When you say, “Guns are evil,” I hear, “I don’t know any actual facts about firearms; I’m afraid of what I don’t understand and I regard them as somehow able to exert an insidious mind control that causes people to go berserk.”

When you say, “Irresponsible people ruined the Second Amendment a long time ago,” I hear, “Even though nearly every amendment in the Bill of Rights has been, and is being, equally (or more) abused, I hold the Second Amendment to an unfair double standard.”

When you say, “The ‘responsible gun owner’ is a figment,” I hear, “You—and tens of millions of other law-abiding firearm owners—don’t exist, and your views don’t count.”

When you say, “Your arguments (built on careful research about, and extensive knowledge of, firearms, law-abiding firearm owners, and human nature) are beautifully written utter nonsense,” I hear, “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with unpleasant and unpalatable facts about humanity and society that run counter to my idealistic worldview.”

When you say, “People can’t be trusted with guns,” I hear, “. . . yet they can be trusted every day with motor vehicles, heavy equipment, alcohol, and the vote.”

When you say, “People shouldn’t be allowed to own guns,” I hear, “I am willing to deprive everyone else of the ability to defend themselves, whether they’re willing to share that risk or not.”

When you say, “Banning guns will make people safer,” I hear, “I am exactly the sort of person Ben Franklin was talking about in his famous quotation about giving up essential liberties for a little temporary safety.”

When you say, “We need to ban guns to keep them out of the hands of the disturbed and ill,” I hear, “Rather than devoting effort to addressing mental health, a difficult and stigmatized issue, I would rather waste resources on redundant and counterproductive, but facile and well-meaning, prohibitions on everyone, including healthy, responsible citizens.”

When you say, “Only the government should have guns,” I hear, “Despite the lessons of history, I trust the State more than I trust my fellow citizens.”

When you say, “I, as a government official, am working against gun ownership,” I hear, “I am the reason the First and Second Amendments exist.” (Granted, one could substitute “same-sex marriage,” “reproductive rights,” “gender equality,” or a host of other authoritarian or otherwise restrictive stances and I would hear the same message.)

When you say, “Gun ownership is something we can just get rid of,” I hear, “I do not understand that the Constitution is the fundamental law of the land and trumps everything else, no matter how ardently I may wish it otherwise.”

When you say, “The Second Amendment is obsolete,” I hear, “Ignoring all of human history and behavior up to the present moment, I believe humanity will evolve into benevolent energy beings any minute now, free of flaw, crime, and despotism.”

When you say, “But that’s not what I mean,” I hear, “I understand neither history nor human nature, and I certainly don’t understand you.

Discussion works both ways, of course . . .

When you say, “I don’t even have to read and consider their arguments to know their ideas are nonsense” (and that means you too, firearm-rights proponents), I hear, “Reading and considering their arguments might move me outside my comfort zone and force me to acknowledge any points of agreement.”

When you say, “I just don’t understand why anyone would think guns are a good thing,” (or, “I just don’t understand why anyone would think firearms are evil,”) I hear, “I just don’t understand that other people may not think the same way I do, and I’m not willing to address their concerns in a fashion that respects their axioms.”

When you say, “They’re all idiot redneck gun nuts,” (or, “They’re all idiot intellectual-élite anti-gun sheep,”) I hear, “I am willing to lump together a disparate group of individuals under a single narrow negative stereotype to bolster my sense of superiority over them and to avoid engaging them, even if I consider stereotyping evil when applied to races, classes, or sexual preferences.”

When you say, “Firearms (or any other weapons) are more than just tools; they’re [symbols/amazing/terrible/otherwise animistic descriptive terms],” I hear, “I fetishize weapons far beyond what is practical and healthy because I attach too much emotional baggage to them, out of fear, superpatriotism, or perceived coolness.”

Apr. 14th, 2015

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What is constructive criticism, anyway?

Over and over one hears the advice to offer constructive criticism—but much rarer is advice on what it is and how to offer it. I shall attempt to address that deficiency.

The proximate impetus for this attempt is a recent incident involving an early draft (emphatically described as such) of a project, e-mailed to a group of friends for feedback. When I opened the topic of the project with one of those friends, the immediate response was “Yeah, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” Full stop.

I silently resolved at that moment to drop the subject and not to bring it up again with that person. (I should have known better—this was not the first, or tenth, or even hundredth time I had made that particular resolution in regards to that individual.) The comment was not constructive feedback, it was a torpedo dead center at the waterline. It didn’t matter whether that friend intended to follow up or not—there was a small amount of desultory and sporadic conversation, little of it encouraging—that first response killed any momentum the discussion might have built up, pretty much killed my enthusiasm for the project, and took no account of the fact that the project was in its earliest stages, still to a large degree sketchy and inchoate.

What could that critic have said instead? “Yeah, it’s still pretty hard to follow. I think it needs more organization before it’s ready for real digging.” How is this different?

First, the leading sentence is much less negative and confrontational in tone, while still establishing the problem at hand. Second, it isn’t left on its own; instead it’s followed up immediately with a suggestion for resolution. Third, that follow-up is open-ended, inviting discussion instead of crushing it. Fourth, the whole acknowledges my original explicit warning that the project was still in early drafts. Fifth, while it makes the point that the critic thinks the work isn’t formed enough for further analysis, it tackles the issue that stands in the way.

My next question could have been, “Okay, what more does it need?” Yes, of course I still would have been nettled, but at least the emotional loading would have been reduced enough not to be a gratuitous blow to the head.

In short, the purpose of constructive criticism is to solve problems, not simply to enumerate them.

Ticking off points in no particular order:

Starting with a positive point is best, especially a general observation about the work as a whole.

Offer negative points dispassionately but not dismissively and follow them up immediately with suggestions for addressing those points. If you have no ideas, say so as gently as possible—but in that case, try to direct the creator to other sources that might be helpful.

Alternate negative and positive points if possible. For the love of all that is holy do not make only negative points if it is humanly possible. It’s just as important to point out what was done right as it is to point out what was done wrong.

Don’t make bald points, good or bad, and move on. Explain the whats, hows, and whys of those points, because that’s what people learn from. For example: “You have a tangent here.” If the artist doesn’t know what tangents are, define them and explain why they’re bad. (This particular point, by the way, lends itself to using humorous examples that will leave the artist chuckling rather than steamed.)

Invite discussion with open-ended points, questions, and idea hooks. Questions are especially important: Not only can they provide more insight into the creator’s thought process, they set a positive tone for the discourse and encourage its flow.

Don’t assume the creator did something out of stupidity or incompetence; that shows disrespect of the rankest kind. “I see you did x. Normally that’s considered a no-no because such-and-such. Was there some reason you decided to go ahead with it?” (If you suspect what the reason is, go ahead and ask directly about that reason.) Heck, maybe you’ll learn something! If the response is “yeah, I couldn’t figure out how else to handle it,” there’s another opportunity for discussion.

Try to end on a positive and encouraging note. When that isn’t possible, at least avoid being brutal about it.

I reserve the right to append more points as I think of, or receive suggestions for, them.

Apr. 6th, 2015

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The fall of science fiction

“‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’”
—Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), summarizing Voltaire’s attitude on freedom of thought


I remember when science fiction billed itself proudly as the literature of ideas, asking all manner of provocative questions and exploring radical notions in the face of cultural norms.

Alas, that era seems long past. Today I watch as an author friend of conservative bent is badgered and bullied for that stance, not simply by scattered individuals but by significant factions of the primary organization claiming to represent SF writers. Her provocative questions and radical notions are verboten, demonized by conflation with legitimately noxious extremists claiming the same mantle. (Granted, apparently there may have been some aiding and abetting of this conflation, which, if true, certainly would be a tactical error.)

So, then, only certain provocative and radical ideas are permitted? Really? Are the present generation still so insecure and terrified of their predecessors that they must smother any voice espousing even vaguely similar views? Whatever happened to presenting a broad range of thoughts and possibilities? If nothing else, what of the First Amendment, so often bandied about by those who claim US citizenship? Is it only for those who have the correct opinions? Do you really want to head down that path?

I walk something of a tightrope, being more liberal than my conservative friends and more conservative than my liberal friends. I get to watch as each side throws stones at the other, with me figuratively if not literally in the metaphorical middle. And all of it seems to me horribly irrelevant if not fatal to the genré.

I don’t give a good goddamn about your politics. I am here to be entertained and, yes, sometimes to be prodded into pondering. I am not here to be shouted at, to endure sneering manifestos that demonstrate a lack of consideration not only for the humanity of those being sneered at but for other views of any kind. Left, right, or center offends me far less than stridency, zealotry, or polemicals on behalf of any of them.

To be honest, I’m opposed to many if not most of the opinions held by this friend, sometimes to the extent of biting my lip and face-palming. But never, ever, not for a nanosecond, have I entertained the notion that she should not air those opinions or write stories founded on them—hell, I design and lay out most of her print books.

If you don’t like her ideas, don’t vex her over it. Write another damn story taking the opposite view, and let the market decide, or at least get both sides of the debate.

My opinion? It is variety that provides the best food for thought. A monoculture of ideas is as lethal to literature, particularly science-fiction literature, as a monoculture of food crops is to agriculture.

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