Friday, February 14, 2020

Fiction I've Been Reading Lately, #3

(In this case, for a loose definition of "lately"; this post has been sitting in my drafts for a while.)

Online

Lady Archimedes by White Squirrel (link) -- 7/10. A worthy conclusion to The Arithmancer. Similar review to my first: comforting, not ultimately all that standout, but still a fun read.

Worth the Candle by Alexander Wales (link) -- 9/10. In terms of sheer writing quality -- plot pacing and humor especially -- Worth the Candle is one of the top things I have ever read. I do not say this lightly; I give up on many works that others enjoy because I consider the writing quality too low. It's better than most published fiction I've read.

Wales has a talent for making it feel like the most extreme thing possible is happening, in almost every set of chapters he releases. Surprising and world-shaking information is revealed, fascinating character interactions happen, and most of the main characters face life-or-death challenges.


I will say-- I do dislike the harem elements. I appreciate the amount of disclaimering and qualification and analyzing-to-death of the trope that happens in-story (it gets pretty meta sometimes), but ... it's still, fundamentally, a choice that Wales is making to make the story about that. And it makes me even more uncomfortable that most of the fandom seems to be coming from the perspective that they'll just barely tolerate the feminist disclaimers in exchange for the rest of it, whereas from my perspective it's just the opposite. It also sometimes bugs me how lacking in self-awareness the main character is about certain things, but that also gets called out by the narrative most of the time.

The rest of it is worth it for me, but it does diminish my enjoyment of the series somewhat.

Marked for Death by various authors (link) -- 8/10. Marked for Death is in the "online fiction" section of this post, but to be clear, it is not exactly just fiction. It's not exactly Naruto fanfiction, either (although that's a lot closer). It's something called a "quest," which is essentially a roleplaying game played by post on a forum. However, unlike most instances of the genre, Marked for Death is not just choose-your-own-adventure -- nor is it collaboratively written by all its participants. Instead, the thread participants discuss and vote on plans for the protagonist, and a set of authors take turns writing chapters about what happens based on those plans.

You don't need to know any of that to read it, however. I knew nothing about Naruto or quests when I started reading it, and have gradually picked up the necessary parts of worldbuilding and a little bit about the hivemind that produces the work over time.

It's very, very long. Like a D&D game, there's no fixed end, so plot arcs rise and fall. I tend to prefer longer works because I like following the same characters over a long period of time. It's also pretty compelling, though I've found it to be slowing down a little bit recently.

Skip the Chosen for the Grave interludes.

Manga

What Did You Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga (vols 1-13) -- 10/10. This caters to my extremely specific special interest of "home-cooked Japanese cuisine," and thus may not be of great interest to others. But in addition to lots of great recipes, the story depicts what it's like to be a long-term-partnered gay person in Japan, internalized homophobia included. The characters are likeable and the story is interesting, ranging from sad to heartwarming to funny. I also like that this is a story about older people (40s and 50s), which seems to be uncommon.

I liked this manga so much that I got significantly more serious about learning Japanese, just so I could read the next volume before it gets translated into English. I still haven't reached the required level yet, sadly; it's an adult manga, so it lacks furigana and has pretty complex conversations.

Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya & Akira Hanasaki -- 5/10. This is more of an Iron Chef-style food manga, where Manly Men compete to make The Best Food Possible. I'm not really a fan. I did enjoy their recipe for "eggplant for people who don't like eggplant." It's also interesting to read because it's a bit older, and shows how environmentalist sentiments manifest in Japan (ex.: "eat local" is taken to mean, in part, "eat Japanese varieties of vegetables, because they are obviously superior").

Published Fiction

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (5-book series) -- 9/10. Along with Temeraire, this fiction takes its place in the very small "feminist historical fantasy about dragons set near 1800" genre. Along with Temeraire, it's truly excellent. One of the few series that tracks a set of realistic scientific discoveries (the main other example I can think of is the sadly-unfinished Steerswoman series), and the characters and plot are also pretty great. Highly recommended.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon -- 7/10. I read this series because I was tired of reading stuff oriented towards the male gaze, and wanted something with a hefty dose of heterosexual female gaze. I was not disappointed in that regard. Plenty of "his iron-hard thighs covered with soft golden down", et cetera. It does, however, adhere to the unfortunate trope of romance novels not really getting what consent is. (This is mostly in the first book or two, though.)

I also learned, from these books, what all those people on Tumblr were talking about when they complain about gay characters being depicted as villains or, at best, never achieving true happiness. I can't comment on the depiction of Native Americans in later books, due to my own lack of knowledge, but I suspect that someone more informed than I would not be pleased.

The plot of these books is just ... truly weird, and doesn't conform at all to normal narrative expectations about the setup. It's a time travel story, but it's mostly not about time travel at all. In fact, a lot of it is more ... slice of life.

Some of it is also, frankly, just plain gross. The main character is a surgeon and the books go into a remarkably unpleasant level of detail about certain operations.

Overall, though, I found these enjoyable, with a number of caveats. (I also learned a surprising amount about Scottish and early American history.)
I wouldn't recommend them to everyone, but they are certainly good for what they are.

Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin -- 8/10. I liked these, but not as much as I'd hoped to given how highly they came recommended. I spent half the series on the edge of my seat waiting for the big backstory/explanatory reveal about the Moon, which never really came; the mechanics of the world were much less fleshed-out and much more handwavy than I was hoping. It's nevertheless very good; I think I've just been spoiled by rationalist fiction and Brandon Sanderson, where there's always some greater mystery that gets revealed and makes sense of things in some satisfying fashion. This book was satisfying, but not in that particular way.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Advice on Human Relationships [Review]

This is a review/testimonial for the book 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.

I often find myself using concepts from this book to talk about relationships; it's reached a point where I want more of the people I know to know these concepts, and I also think more people should know about them for their own benefit. So here's me writing some of this stuff down, so that even if you haven't read the whole book, you can get some of it filtered through me.

Here's the thing. This book quite literally changed my life. I don't think I would be married right now if I hadn't read it.

The book is focused on marriage, but most of the principles are applicable for any long-term, intimate relationship that you want to maintain; for example, with family members or close friends.

I haven't reread the book for the purposes of this review; this way, you only get the parts of it that actually stuck with me over the several years it's been since I read it.

Positive Interactions

The most important thing in relationships is having positive interactions with the other person. In particular, the ratio of positive to negative interaction needs to be good.

This means that your relationship problems are not what you think they are. I.e.: if you are having a problem with your partner where they aren't taking out the trash, maybe the solution is not related to the trash at all, but instead is that you need to hang out with them and have long conversations about your favorite subject instead. How could this possibly help? Well, the more you like your partner, the less you will care about the trash thing.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't try to solve such problems at the object-level. But sometimes, especially when the problem isn't really solvable long-term (you and your partner might just have different standards of cleanliness, or different ideas about certain things), it's most important just to be patient enough to get past it. And for that, you need to have a generally positive relationship that brings you happiness.

Bids

There are two kinds of "bids" that I recall from the book.

The first is bids for deescalation. It's inevitable that two people in a close relationship will have some disagreements. If you're in a conflict, though, it's possible to try to reduce the tension in the discussion; for example, by making a joke, or temporarily deflecting to a more neutral subject, or even making a concession. One partner can make these bids to try to improve the situation; it's important for the second partner to accept these for what they are: loving attempts to help defuse the situation, even if they don't fully solve the problem.

The second is bids for attention. Sometimes your partner will just want to share something with you, along the lines of "Look at that bird outside the window!" It's important both to make and to (usually) respond to these bids, rather than rejecting your partner's attempts to get closer.

Love Maps

Knowing things about your loved one makes them feel cared for and appreciated, and it helps you empathize with and talk to them. Gottman refers to this as maintaining a "love map" in your head about your loved one.

Some examples: what projects they're doing at work, the names of their coworkers, which of their coworkers they like and dislike, what hobbies they've been most interested in lately, how their favorite video game works, facts about their latest interest, who their friends are, and so on.

There are different ways to maintain your love maps. Gottman recommends talking to your loved one daily. The easiest way to do this is the simple question "How was your day?" The important thing is actually listening, sympathizing, and remembering what they say. He recommends a "poor baby" approach, for this one part of your day -- no matter what they say, regardless of whether they were actually in the right or not, just sympathize with the difficulty they faced.

Date Night

To maintain your ratio of positive interactions, build your love maps, and generally stay connected with the other person, Gottman recommends two things:
  • First, a daily session in which each person takes turns talking about their day, and listening nonjudgmentally to the other person about their own day.
  • Next, a weekly date night in which you take time to focus on each other and talk.

My spouse and I originally started doing a date night as a sort of relationship last-resort. Our goal was to check in, ask the other person "How are we doing?", and try to steer things back on track if they weren't going well; kind of like a corporate 1:1.

What we didn't realize is that having this time to just talk to each other was part of what our relationship needed. We weren't spending enough time together to maintain our ratio of positive to negative interactions, or know what was going on with the other person, or form shared dreams and plans for the future.

The book also has a number of specific exercises to help talk you through what parts of your relationship are positive and important, targeted towards couples going through difficulty. I think we used a few of these, but the most important part was instituting dedicated time to spend together; having a specific time to talk about difficulties was important, but it was also important just to get in some pair-bonding.

I highly recommend reading the book if you're interested in getting more depth on these concepts.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Money is worthless when you're middle-class

When I was growing up, in a middle-class intellectual family, I got a lot of interesting messages about money.

I went to Quaker schools for a long time. Though modern Quakers vary in how well they do it, and it's not as explicit these days, Quaker ideology prizes poverty as the correct state, morally speaking. After all, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" . Though Quaker Universalism isn't explicitly Christian, it's still influenced and filtered through the ideology of Christianity's original teachings.

Anyway, through that and other sources -- books, movies, songs -- I got a few messages:

  • Caring about money is passe and uncool.
  • Caring about money will only lead you to ruin.
  • Money can't buy happiness.
  • Do what you love and the money will follow.

And a few contradictory ones:
  • Don't try to get a career in art.

As I got older and was exposed to new messages about money, some of this changed:
  • Money can buy happiness, but only if you use it right and in the right amounts.
  • Caring about money leads you to ruin insofar as it's a status symbol.

But actually, I think the original messages were basically correct; they were just misdirected. I wasn't the person who needed to hear them.

I've pretty thoroughly bought into the idea of early retirement by now: if you have a moderately high middle-class income, you can retire early, and if you're particularly fortunate and strategic (say, a software engineer in San Francisco), you can do so early enough to quit before you start having kids.

In the range of incomes where such things are possible, money is extremely valuable because you can actually use it to buy nigh-unlimited (although substantially deferred) amounts of the most valuable and scarce resource there is: time.

But if you can't do that, and you're going to work for the next 40 years and accumulate an absurd quantity of money (which most middle-class incomes allow you to do at a relatively modest savings rate), there's not actually that much downside to spending some of the extra as you go.

(Of course, there are other important things you might consider spending it on instead.)