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[drawing every day 2024 post fifty-eight]: porsche redux

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Another drawing of Porsche from a generative AI character sheet (I think this one was from ChatGPT+DALL-E, which seems to be a bit better than Midjourney at taking art direction and creating centaurs). I modified the face to more closely match Porsche, whose ears are located more closely to a normal human's ears.

I've started to build up a buffer, like I am for the Blogging Every Day series, by trying to do two drawings at every sitting. I can't manage to draw for an hour and a half every single day, but if I do it most days, then I slowly creep ahead, and can put more effort and thought into each drawing.

According to my spreadsheet, I'm now about six drawings ahead, drawing-wise, and two posts ahead, posting-wise. Maybe I can take some time to, you know, write about these characters now.

Drawing (more or less) every day.

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-eight]: the seven-part story test

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So I’ve developed a new tool for story analysis that my co-editor on The Neurodiversiverse, Liza Olmsted, called “your seven-part story test,” and it fits in one long sentence: “Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does that matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?”

This six-part test is an adaptation of Dwight Swain’s story question “Who wants what and why can’t they get it?” as well as Vorwald and Wolff’s pithier but less useful “What happens?”, called the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) in their book “How to Tell a Story.”

Now, V&Q unpack their MDQ into the broader questions “What does my character want? What action do they take to get it? What keeps them from getting it? Who succeeds or fails?”. Like many writing coaches who have their own language for similar ideas, I think both Swain and V&W are tackling the “Major Dramatic Question”, just from different angles - but “how it turns out” is a key question not encapsulated in Swain’s version, and I think it helps us understand what is going on - or should be going on - in a story.

Ultimately, I think a story is an engaging and surprising case, in the case-based reasoning (CBR) sense. For those not familiar with CBR, it’s a reasoning technique back from the days of symbolic artificial intelligence (AI), pioneered by Janet Kolodner, the leader of the AI lab where I was trained (and my original thesis advisor). A case, in the traditional sense, is a labeled experience, which is marked by what problem is being solved, what solution was applied, how it turned out, what lesson it taught, and how we might remember it.

Well, in the age of content-addressable memories and vector databases, we worry less about labeling cases so we can remember them, as the content itself can help us find relevant cases. However, it remains important to analyze our experiences so we can better understand what happened, what we did, how it turned out, and what lessons that taught (or should have taught) us. And the last two are related, but different: what happened are the bare facts, but the same bare facts can have different meanings to different people that experience them - or to different observers, watching from the outside.

Think of a woman in an abusive marriage. What she wants is a peaceful life; why she can’t get it is a husband who’s a Navy SEAL with PTSD. Let’s say what she does about it is try to kill him, and how it turns out is that she gets away with it. But what does that matter to her, and what does that mean for us (the writer, the editor, the publisher, and the author)?

Well, that same outcome could matter in different ways. Perhaps our heroine gets to build a new happy life away from a man who abused her - or perhaps our heroine is now living a life of regret, with a child that resents her and feelings of guilt about killing a man who couldn’t cope with his wartime trauma and needed her help. Because the truth of it is, no-one should have to put up with domestic violence - but a small percentage of people who struggle with PTSD end up acting out, and need help to deal with their trauma.

There’s no right answer here - a skilled author could present a spectrum of situations in which most of us would say either “get them help” or “girl, get out”. But if the author shows our heroine murdering their husband and getting away with it, the story is implicitly endorsing murder as a solution for domestic problems. Conversely, if the author shows the heroine forgiving violence in an attempt to get the husband help, the story is implicitly endorsing women enduring domestic abuse. Not only is there no right answer here, there’s no good answer here - which might lead you as an author to question the whole setup.

That’s why it’s really important to step back and think about what you as an author are endorsing in your story - and whether you’re comfortable with that message. Despite what some writing teachers will tell you, you’re not the god of your story: you’re playing in a playground of your own making, but the materials from which that playground is fashioned - people, places, events, actions, reactions, and emotions - are all drawn from the very real world in which we live, and stories by their nature communicate messages about that real world to those who read them, even if the events in the story are purely fictional.

(This principle of authorial endorsement extends to the editor, publisher, and even the reader as well. There were many good stories submitted to The Neurodiversiverse that we chose to reject because of their implicit message - for example, we wanted our anthology to be empowering, so we didn’t select some powerful stories in which the character’s neurodiversity helped them communicate with aliens, but didn’t help the horrible situation that they were in; these stories might be a great choice for a horror anthology, however). 

But the point can get lost if you start asking a lot of unconnected questions about your story. That’s why I like the idea of the unified MDQ, and I like the expression of that in Dwight Swain’s three-part question “Who wants what, and why can’t they get it?” But that three-part version is not enough, and expanding that question into a single phrase that incorporates the important elements of action, outcome, impact and meaning turns it into my seven-part test: “Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does that matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?” 

The rewards for thinking through these questions are great. Thinking about how the story turns out matters to the protagonist creates options for tweaking the ending (or the material leading up to it) for greater resonance; and thinking about what meaning the story delivers for the reader creates opportunities to weave that message through the whole story. The seven-part story test can help us create stronger, more impactful, and more meaningful stories that make more sense and feel more satisfying.

So, to unpack the seven-part test further:

  • Who? Who is the protagonist of your story?
  • Wants what? What’s their goal, and why are they motivated to seek it?
  • Why can’t they get it? What’s the conflict in the story? Is it derived from a classical antagonist, or is the conflict based on internal or environmental factors?
  • What do they do about it? What action does the character take (or fail to take, as Hamlet fails to take action for much of his story)? Ultimately, most good stories are about what people do when facing conflict, so they should not be wholly passive - they should have some agency which affects how the story turns out.
  • How does it turn out? With the exception of vignettes that are all atmosphere, we want to know the outcome of the protagonists’ action. Did they succeed? Did they fail? Are we left with a situation that’s definitively not resolved (as in the ambiguous endings of Inception, Cast/Away, The Sopranos, or John Carpenter’s The Thing)? Any of these are acceptable endings (though a definitive lack of resolution is the hardest trick to pull off) but you as the author need to pick one.
  • Why does that matter to them? The ending of Cast/Away is a great example, in that our uncertainty about what the main character does next is actually symbolic of the main character’s situation. It matters to the main character that they are in a state of indecision, because that indecision represents what they lacked when cast away on that island: freedom of choice.
  • What does that mean for the reader? Regardless of what you choose to the previous questions, you should think through the implications of what that means for the reader, and whether that’s the image you want to present for your story. While you aren’t the god of your story, you are the playwright and stage director, and if the message of your story isn’t what you want, you can just change it. 

Overall, I’ve already got a lot of good mileage out of these questions in the new series of stories that I’m writing (which I’m variously calling “The Porsche Xenobiology Stories” or “Tales of Failaka” depending on which planet I’m writing on this week). By asking these questions, I’ve been able to reformulate my endings to focus not just on the outcomes of the character’s actions, but how it matters to them, which makes the endings more satisfying; and also to focus on what it means, which has enabled me to make the stories more cohesive, as well as inspiring ideas for new stories.

“Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does it matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?” It’s a short, seven-part story test, easily compressible into a sentence that can be used to interrogate your story, and it’s been very useful for me; I hope it is useful for you too.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Loki, and in the background, the reading "pile" for a writing book that I'm working on called "The Rules Disease." Yes, it has filled most of a bookshelf by this point - there's a lot of writing on writing.

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-seven]: how do “normal” people manage?

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So I’m confused: I know I’m a bit weird, but I stopped to think about the supposedly "weird" way that I do things and I genuinely do not understand how “normal” people manage it.

So what you see above is my collection of genre T-shirts. I love genre T-shirts and wear them most of the year - as my shirt in the summer, and as my undershirt in the winter.

I used to think this collection was excessive; most of the other people I know don’t have near as many themed shirts, just a collection of normal clothes.

But I started pulling on that thread (ha, ha) a bit and it just didn’t make sense to me.

SO what you see there is something like 300-500 shirts in my closet. I didn’t count them all, but I estimated by counting a few piles and extrapolating by the number of piles.

But if you wear a shirt every day, this is only enough shirts for roughly a year. And I know from *ahem* considerable experience now that even rarely worn old T-shirts, which are typically made from better fabric than modern T-shirts, last at most 20-30 years.

Now, between science fiction conventions, travel, and very occasional clothes shopping, I purchase maaaaybe 10 or so T-shirts per year, which I thought was an excessive habit.

But over 20-30 years, this adds up again to 300 shirts … so by the time that I’ve worn out all the shirts in my collection, I will have purchased enough shirts to fill it up again.

Now the conundrum: most of the people I know don’t buy a lot of t-shirts, and they don’t have a huge library of clothes. So how are they not wearing through all their clothes all the time?

Now, I know my wife buys a lot of clothes (mostly at Goodwill), but she’s power tool girl, and her clothes rapidly get worn out or covered with paint and later used as rags.

But the friends that I know who DON’T seem to buy that many clothes ALSO have a similar strategy. One of them called it “the circle of shirts”: First it’s a nice T-shirt, then it’s an undershirt, then it’s a gym shirt, then it’s a yard shirt, then it’s a rag.

But if people don’t have a huge library of shirts, and they’re not buying a buttload t-shirts, why aren’t they going around in tattered rags all the time?

What do “normal” people do? Go to Target and buy white T-shirts every week, as the six pairs of shirts and undies that they have rapidly disintegrate from the rotation?

I genuinely don't get it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: my collection of T-shirts, some of which do eventually get retired from wear.

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-six]: code rots

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Only six months have passed since I last worked on the Embodied AI Workshop website, and now the code will not compile in a horrible mess of broken dependencies. I have tried two or three ways of installing it, including in place, from scratch, and even on a Parallels instance of Ubuntu in case macos was the problem. Nothing works. As a last-gasp effort, I plan on creating an AWS instance, in case Apple Silicon itself is the problem (I suspect it is, as one of the libraries has no Apple Silicon binary packages, and the instructions to recompile from source are roughly five years out of date).

But software is a mess. Occasionally you get something that's awesome (like Python - or Rust! Installation of the Bevy game engine was smooth as a dream) but more often things explode in a mess of unresolvable dependencies, and you're stuck between Apple locking everything down, Windows becoming spyware, and Linux not running anything you want at all.

I'd weep for the future, but I'm too busy hiding from it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: My software consultant, deciding discretion is the better part of valor. Actually, up top Loki has seen the installer for the rock border in the French Quarter, and below he is hiding from him.

[drawing every day 2024 post fifty-five]: webbing, not the spider kind

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So apparently fingers look longer from the back of the hand (dorsal side), where the webbing between the fingers is lower than the joins of the fingers themselves, and the palm looks longer from the front of the hand (palmar side), because the webbing obscures the roots of the fingers. Who knew?

Mr. Goldman, that's who. Drawing every day.

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-five]: like it always was that way

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According to legend, the man who built this house died in this courtyard. Well, technically, he's the man who oversaw its most recent renovation; the core of the house is almost 75 years old, and on plans for the renovations we found in an old drawer, the courtyard appears to have been a swimming pool. Regardless, when he passed, this big, rambling old house soon became too large for his widow, who moved out, leaving it empty for quite a while, enabling us to get it for a steal during the pandemic.

While we wouldn't have turned down a swimming pool - we were actually more concerned with getting away from the drought and the fires and the burning than we were about where we were moving to, other than "big enough for an art studio and a library" - we much prefer the courtyard, which we've started calling "The French Quarter." But the excellent design of this house - architecturally, most of the windows have an excellent view, and the landscaping slopes away from the house almost everywhere to keep it dry - has a few minor warts on it, including the courtyard: under the overhangs, nothing will live.

The feature that keeps the water away from the house - the landscaping and the big sofits - makes it hard for anything smaller than a bush to live. When we moved in, and put in that little sitting area using paving stones and chairs from my late mother's old garden, I dug up the monkey grass where I put in the paving stones, and used it to fill in the areas you now see filled with rocks. That grass lasted about a season, and by the next year, you couldn't even tell anything had been planted there. It was just dust and weeds, and even the weeds frankly weren't doing too well themselves and could have used a watering.

So, kind of in desperation, we hit on the idea of putting in more stream stone as a kind of a border, which the former owners had put around the fountain. This is something our termite folks have actually been asking us to do around the whole house to create a barrier, but we decided to get started here.

And I guess the surprise is that this stopgap effort looks really good. We sort of expected that it would have looked better than scraggly weeds and dead dirt, but, actually, it looks REALLY good, as if it was always supposed to have had a stone border around the outside.

I guess my point, if I did have one, is that sometimes you do things that you have to in order to patch a problem, but if you pick the right patch, sometimes it seems like it was on purpose.

-the Centaur

Pictured: um, well, I think I said it.

welp, looks like my Facebook got hacked …

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And Facebook is a perfect example of customer-service hell in which once one has lost one's account, there's no way to talk to a person who can get this unfucked.

What happened? As best as I can figure, someone attempted to hack my 2-factor authentication last night while I slept - I woke up to a text message from Facebook with a 2-factor authentication code.

What did Facebook do? When I went to check, I was logged out of Facebook on all devices, and I was told that my account was suspended for "not following their rules":

Is this possible? No. Since I rarely post, I'm pretty circumspect, and I primarily use it for Messenger to talk to a few old friends, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't doing anything that violated community standards.

And I sure didn't while I was sleeping.

Is there a way to fix this? No. I tried to follow their procedures, only to find I didn't have a linked auth.oculus.com account, because I didn't have an Oculus. And once you do create such an account, there is no mechanism to appeal a suspension - only this reference in the help files:

But, probably because these folks were trying to hack my account, they likely mucked with the email, so I never got an email from Meta about this - not even in my spam folder.

So the hackers did something bad with your account? Maybe? I can't tell. So, the next attempt is to report the account as compromised. There is a way to do that, which takes you to the following page:

But, since the hackers were likely messing with two-factor authentication and trying to break in to the account, we get back to the temporarily blocked state you have above:

Are you sure you were hacked? Pretty sure. The text came in at 2:23am, after I was already asleep.

As a last ditch effort, I remembered I had an open Facebook tab, so I tried to go screenshot it. It quickly logged out, but I got to see, very briefly, my old Facebook page, and could see the last activity was merely me using Messenger to talk to friends.

How could this be fixed? Easily. This is the kind of thing that a customer service representative, looking at the account, can resolve in five minutes flat over chat, just by looking at the calm history followed by a spike of hacked traffic. And it's the responsible thing to do for your customers.

But Facebook doesn't provide access for this - apparently except for business accounts. And, while I'm not happy with a lot of stuff Elon did at Twitter, this makes me more inclined to use services you pay for. X, in contrast, makes it very easy to appeal a decision via an easily findable and accessible form:

https://help.twitter.com/en/managing-your-account/suspended-x-accounts

The bottom line? Someone hacked me while I slept, and a decade plus of Facebook is gone - principally because Meta does not provide basic tools for customer support.

Welp, nothing to do but call Zuck out about it on Xitter ...

-the Centaur

UPDATE: There are forums, where people are reporting this issue, and customer support representatives for the Meta Quest are responding. Cross your fingers. But it wasn't at all obvious that this is a solution! We're getting help from people who aren't even support staff for the same product.

UPDATE UPDATE: Nope, nevermind, they just redirect you back to the Facebook help center, which as I already confirmed, can't help you.

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Apparently Facebook has someone on Twitter who monitors for just this sort of thing. That is an unorthodox solution, but I've heard of the same thing at the Google. I'll reach out; we'll see. Cross yo fingies ....

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Apparently those people on Twitter are not affiliated with Facebook - there's a huge list people recommending various peeps as people who "helped me" and when you look at those users they don't appear to be affiliated with Facebook. So, no.

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-four]: totes cheatin it, yo

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I now FREELY admit that what I'm doing with the blog is posting, as much as possible, easy posts so I can get ahead on my buffer. Legendary cartoonist Bill Holbrook started the longest running daily webcomic, Kevin and Kell, after he'd built up a multi-week buffer, a process he's still continuing today.

SO! I find it better if I bunch up posts so that I am working on the same thing for a while - this is not just better for mental focus, but also for dealing with problems with your computing infrastructure (it is REALLY frustrating to try to do a quick post when the internet decides to gum the fuck up).

And therefore, I'm doing short, brief posts on the blog, while I build up a library of longer posts, hoping that at some point I'll get a rhythm where I'm always 2-3 days ahead, and can thus put the effort into new posts that is harder to come by when it is 145am and you need to both blog, draw, shower, and let the cat in.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the late night ritual: eat some pound cake, drink some soy milk, read a difficult book. Currently, I'm working through Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning, a book which is available online, and has been almost as useful to me as Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, also online.

UPDATE: This was actually day 54. So I was ahead of where I thought I was.