Tag Archives: fiction

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading

Fixin' my fiction addiction

The first bargain

Back in 2014, when I was living in DC, I got sick - probably a cold - and used the time I was home doing nothing to binge-read novels. The entire extant Game of Thrones series, some Valdemar books, some other stuff. I noticed I was staying up very late to keep reading - it seemed counterproductive if I was resting to get better. It turned out that this was the only time I permitted myself to read as much as I wanted, and do nothing else. So of course I wanted to use the time as best I could to read.

At the same time, I was not taking much in the way of painkillers or other symptom management medication, on the tacit hypothesis that if I didn’t experience symptoms, I wouldn’t take good care of myself while sick, and would be sick longer.

So I made my first bargain with myself: to make sure I got enough sleep while sick. In exchange I promised to manage symptoms as indulgently as I knew how, and to take some weekend afternoons when I was well to go to coffee shops and read. It no longer felt like an unmanageable compulsion - but it still felt like a chronic deficiency. Continue reading


When Cincin saw the huge fallen tree in the road, he stopped short. By force of habit, his mind probed for the hungry tendrils of the firestone - but no. The firestone was gone. He crouched down with his hands on his knees, to wait out the wave of nausea that passed through him. With a firestone, this log would have been no obstacle. He’d have summoned his full strength, more than he usually could, and pushed the obstacle off the road. Or he’d have used the other members of his party like extensions of himself to coordinate, and get the tree off the road somehow. Or come up with some clever plan to do it. He had to get the firestone back. He needed its power. He could persuade the group to turn around, raise a peasant army in the surrounding towns, and storm the city, to take back his firestone by force. Or he could go back alone, and shamelessly beg his friends in the Senate - or the people of the city - for just one more use of it. Or figure out some other key thing his city needed. Or make them need him.

But no. He’d given up the firestone freely. He let the sense of loss pulsate through his soul. He was alone now - he had his traveling companions, but he had no firestone. And it had never helped him do anything he couldn’t have done himself, if he had been just a little cleverer, more determined. And - he forced his thoughts onto this track now, out of the well-worn rut reaching out towards the firestone - this wave of loss was just a sign of weak places where he could become strong. He had to learn to do without - but he could mimic the patterns the firestone had taught him.

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