Cyropaedia Review

Literally, the title of this piece translates to "the education of Cyrus," though in truth only about the first book or two cover Cyrus's "education," while the others describe the rest of his life. This is meant as a sort of "how to" book on how to rule well, in the form of a biographical treatment of Cyrus, but unlike in The Ten Thousand, Xenophon is not here describing contemporary events, and many historians doubt that this is in more than the most general of ways an accurate depiction of Cyrus's life. Note: by "how to," I mean a book on how to rule as a semi-benevolent authoritarian dictator who is loved and feared by his subjects.

Life on the Edge

This is probably the edgiest post I will ever write, because I want to talk today about edge cases. Like some of the concepts I described in my post on narrative physics, this is another instance of me taking an idea from a "hard" field (science, engineering, math) and applying it to a "soft" field (political science, philosophy, literature), and this time that concept is edge cases. If you're not familiar, an edge case is an engineering term used in testing to express failure modes. For a product to be deemed effective/safe/useful, it has to be rigorously tested, and not just under "normal" conditions; it has to be exposed to the most extreme and unusual conditions that the engineers can possibly imagine it might ever conceivably experience, and tested in that environment, too. Those extreme and unusual conditions are known as edge cases, and it is very common for a product to require redesign after it has met its nominal operating conditions because it fails to account for edge cases. If only that concept were applied outside of engineering.

The Ten Thousand Review

I've actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus's Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon's story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I've been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.

Make Anachronisms a Thing of the Past

I don't actually know how much this post will help you in ridding your works of pesky anachronisms, but the title just seemed to clever to resist. If you're not already familiar, an anachronism is a literary, spatial or temporal (usually temporal) transplant. A detail, a phrase, an expression, a device, or really anything else could be an anachronism; most commonly these are stock expressions or devices of our own time that we accidentally put into our works. Nor are they unique to literature, as there are plenty of examples in movies and other media. For instance, perhaps a period movie might show cars from a later model year driving around in the background. Or my personal favorite, when an author or screenwriter has archers "fire" their arrows, an expression which could not predate the advent of firearms. This last one even made its way into The Lord of the Rings movies (notably during the battle at Helm's Deep).

Agency

It's almost considered too blunt to say that someone died. Instead, we might say that they passed away, or that they passed on, or that they lost or gave their lives. Some might argue that the difference between those wordings is slight, incidental, even meaningless. After all, in cold facts the end result is the same. Yet those words are different, they mean different things, and we use one or the other to convey different meanings - this is especially true of the last two examples. The difference between losing a life and giving a life may be subtle, and yet it makes such a difference in how the person and the event is perceived. One makes the death a tragedy. The other makes it heroic, because it expresses that there was a choice involved, it gives the individual agency.

Seeing the Light, Seeing the Lightning

There are certain principles that I have found underpin an astonishing number of our modern systems, and gaining a thorough understanding of a principle like that can enable you to understand or surmise how so many different things work. One of those, which is what we will be discussing today, is the photoelectric effect. It seems like at least once a week I come across some new piece of technology that leverages the photoelectric effect in a completely new or different way, and increasingly I marvel at how such a relatively simple principle underpins so much of our modern world. So let's talk about the photoelectric effect.

The Pen Conceit

As a society this days, I think we're a bit conceited. Surrounded by and immersed in this matrix we have created, we are distanced from the systems with which we regularly interact, and inured or ignorant of the complexity beyond so many of the things that we take for granted. This is not only applicable to physical things and technologies - it applies equally well to social structures, institutions, governments, administrative systems, and so forth - but it is easiest to understand and perceive in the context of technologies. I definitely suffer from this conceit, wherein I start to think that I understand enough about so many different things that I should be able to reverse engineer or recreate just about any system I might encounter, at least on a theoretical level. Whenever I start to think that way, I give myself what I've taken to calling "The Pen Conceit Lecture."

Babur-Nama Review

Well, I did it again. When I consulted my reading list to pick a new book to read after finishing Meditations With Cows, instead of picking a new or well-known or at least commonly approachable book that people actually would search for and by extension perhaps find my site, I picked another ancient text that only a few people have heard of and fewer decide to read. Let it never be said that I am a slave to the search engine algorithms. That being said, it does continue my tour of historic pieces of world literature (we recently reviewed The Bhagavad Gita, and The Story of Burnt Njal, checking off (roughly) India and Iceland, plus the Middle East with the Babur-Nama), and I have legitimately been interested in reading this for awhile, it being one of the few historical autobiographies from that region of the world. In truth, doing a sort of world-tour of ancient literature is proving a very fascinating exercise, and one that I would wholly recommend (as long as you have some patience).

Remember When

Don't worry: this isn't a post in which I rant about the good ol' days, and how the whole world's just about falling apart in this dilapidated modern age (although maybe I should write one, if I can pop off phrases like "dilapidated modern age"). No, this post is about education, and specifically memorization. I don't know about you, but I hated rote memorization in school, and I still do. Give me papers to read on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or ask me to be able to explain how a Hall Effect Thruster works and I'll happily dive right in, but ask me to memorize the technical parameters of an aircraft that I'll always be able to simply look up if I need them and there will ensue great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but the point is that I am not, and never have been, fond of rote memorization.

Naming and Titles

When I first started trying to write speculative fiction, way back when I was in the fifth grade, I spent a lot of time struggling with names. There were a whole lot of aspects of writing that I was terrible at during that time, but naming is what I was aware of needing improvement. My only ideas of how naming ought to be done came from the books that I read, and so my names in some ways read like classic fantasy names, except that I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t too close to any “real” fantasy name, so my names were even less pronounceable.