TES Fanfic: here it is.

I actually wrote this before I wrote yesterday's blog post, which is why it sounded like the fanfic was in the post. Sorry if that disappointed anyone.


Diary Entry #1:

Everything happened so fast the last few hours. Yesterday, I got paid employment carrying supplies over the mountains. I thought it was either smuggling or bringing secret military supplies to an outpost or something, because the guy who hired me was a thief or some other sort of petty criminal … which … I suppose … is what I am, too.

We got ambushed just below the tree-line. After that things got crazy. Executions, Dragons, escape.

To stand where I am standing today, I killed eleven men. Two Imperial guards. The rest were like you, at my feet. Bandits.

The first bandit I met, I tried to just walk away. Leave well alone. He came after me with his weapon in his hand. I was nearly killed. Just before that, I had met the first person I saw since my escape. Friendly hunter. He sold me some food. I was not ready to fight. But I did. That fight, it got my hunting spirit roused. I ran up the mountain, and I surprised two more bandits. I didn't try to be friendly this time. The third one was on top of a ruined tower. I shot him and he fell. I don't know if my arrow killed him or the fall. I didn’t stay to find out. I wanted to know what was at the top.

At the top was a sort of ancient temple. I crept around, until you spotted me. You didn’t say anything. You just shot me in the arm. It hurt.

This morning, you had something. You had a sort of life. You had your two friends who came to defend you; you had this place, up here in the snow. All this beauty even thought the cold will kill you if it can. You had your own belongings, your freedom, your life.

I killed your two companions. This was not easy, especially with you shooting at me whenever you got the chance. One of your arrows went through my boot. Grazed the arch of my foot. I nearly fell.

When your second friend, the big elf, died, I turned around. There was a block of fallen stone between us. Looked like a dragon head. But you were on a ledge, in front of a buttress. You had nowhere to run and hide. I dropped my sword and ax, and took my bow off my back. Lucky it was undamaged. My arrows were less lucky, but I had five or six good ones.

I shot you. I think you were surprised. It hit you in the gut, which is not where I was aiming but I was hampered by the rock that protected me from your arrows.

Why didn’t you run? You saw your two friends die. You got shot. You could have run away. I would have let you go. You kept shooting... slower. I shot you again. This time your armour did not slow it down. It looks like it killed you right away.

I wanted to ask you why didn't you run. I wanted to ask you “WHO ARE YOU?” It was too late.

You still look angry, even with your eyes dead. You must have been beautiful, once. Big strong Nord girl. I was curious. I didn't come here to kill you.

Well, the snowstorm it is clearing a little. So I sit you up against the wall, on your ledge so badly chosen to fight from. You can watch the view, so beautiful, while your blood freezes. So cold. I kiss you goodnight, Nord bandit woman. Your lips are cold already.

I say to myself: “I will hide, rather than kill; whenever I can, I will go by unseen.”

[Clothilde (left) watched by her faithful huscarl Lydia]
* * *

Barely half an hour later, I was killing again, back in the rush of the hunt, my blood hot with joy. I think I may be a bad person.


For the TES Fans. I try my hand at FanFic

I got Skyrim installed yesterday. It runs really well on my three-year-old upper-mid-end system if I keep anisotropic down to 2 or 0. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, maybe the rest isn't for you.

I played Oblivion for the immersion, which after 5 years of modding is amazingly deep and detailed. In Blivvy I generally began with a character backstory, so I could develop a playing style that would be different each time. In Skyrim, I've gone back to my preferred style for the first playthrough. By nature I'm bookish, an alchemist, cook, trader, smith. In combat I'm a sniper. I like to stay hidden and take my enemy by surprise.

So I rolled up a young-ish Breton woman. I find it very hard to play male characters in 1st person RPG. I don't really know why, but I think it has something to do with the archetypes. The boys are all Alpha Males or Alpha Male wannabes, it's all about superiority for them. I find myself not caring about what happens to them. Each time I played a male in Blivvy I abandoned the character the first time he died.

My Breton woman is called Clothilde, and she has a strong French accent. I don't show her accent in the writing; just a few bits of odd diction. I think she speaks and writes well in several languages, so she knows how to spell. I worked out a lengthy and detailed backstory for her, and then began to play.

Skyrim is pretty good. There are a few niggles in the gameplay and quite a few minor glitches that I suspect will be sorted out by patching over the next few weeks. The influence of the Gothic series is evident everywhere you look, both visually and in gameplay - even in the design of dungeons. I also utterly utterly hate scenarios where "YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE" or "YOU ARE THE LAST REMAINING…" but I got around this by having a character who is a misfit, and who rather dislikes all this too.

When I saved last night, she was standing on top of High Hrothgar with her recently appointed Huscarl, Lydia,  having been taught some new tricks by the old men of the mountain. I imagined her turning to Lydia and saying

"What the fuck? I feel like a total fraud. An interloper. Three days ago I was a petty criminal, and a smuggler. I was saved from execution by accident, and I have killed more than ten people, human beings, in the last two days. Now some guy I met yesterday morning gives me a Title! And a retainer! And these old guys up here in the cold with their all mystical attitude are acting all impressed because I got some special power. It is stupid. I want a drink. Let's go get drunk."

Lydia is a Nord, and a simple, plain, loyal warrior. I'm pretty sure she didn't listen to most of that. I rekon she just heard the last two sentences. She'd reply:

"Okay. We passed an inn on the way here. Just before all those damn stairs."

… more tomorrow.


Benefits of staying off the path

Here's an argument for educational reform that even a politician can understand:

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged, memorably framed by Edison I think, that we don't know a millionth of one percent about anything. I assume that most people would agree that the sum of human knowledge is pretty big. Too big, in fact, for any one person to know, let alone understand, all of it. Indeed we frequently choose to approach a problem or project by collecting a team of people each of whom brings different knowledge and expertise, so that we may be sure that we have all the knowledge required to address the problem.

If this technique is so effective — and it is — then our education system should prepare for it. And, I hear the dear politicians protest proudly, it does. Up to age shmeu everyone learns the basics, and then each child gradually specializes until by age smee they are ready to enter higher education fully prepared for their narrow specialization that will make them such a valuable contributor in the future.

This is a really strong argument when you know exactly what the future holds. There have been times in the past where we (almost) have. Those times are looooooong ago now, and getting ever more distant and an ever faster rate as Moore's Law drives us ever faster into the future.

If the next generations are to be ready to face this unknown (and I suspect, unknowable) future, then we need to ensure that their range of knowledge is as diverse as possible, and furthermore, their range of approaches, ways of thinking, is as broad as possible. (Quick! Everyone out of the box!)

Diversifying their range of knowledge is the bit that I think the politicians can handle. We can tell them about it without their needing too much hand-holding. It goes as follows:

If you impose a national curriculum, that every child must follow up to age shmeu, (even if it then diversifies into specializations that are also imposed at a national level) then the greatest possible sum of all their knowledge is barely greater than the knowledge of one child. I understand that you want equality of opportunity and that ensuring that desire means assuring that the same level  of education is available to every child, but it does not mean that the same education should be given to every child. Supposing you defined 10 different national curricula, and distributed them at random around the country. You would increase by an order of magnitude the total knowledge of your nation. It follows that if there were 100, 1000 curricula, you add two, three more orders of magnitude.

Are you out of your mind? 1000 different curricula?

Here's the part that will make the politicians sad: education has to be disestablished. Disestablishment is the separation of any institution from the institution of the state. In other words, you remove all Government control, and indeed most central control from education. Personally I think that individual teachers should set the curricula of their own classes and teach it as they choose. Naturally this makes comparative testing (competition) invalid. Individual teachers might use examination as a means of tracking progress, but a national exam "at the end" is nonsense. The politicians panic. "How can we prove that everyone is getting the same level of education?" they scream in horror. "Are you doing that now?" is all I can answer.

Ensuring that every child gets the same opportunity becomes a very different process. It would require inspectors who would check classroom by classroom, if need be, child by child, to observe that education is happening. The children are learning. Developing their ability to think, to express themselves, to engage with one another and to engage with the problems that they face in their daily lives, and some of them, with the problems of the wider world.

The validity of this model of education is that it seeks to prepare for the unknown future, by maximizing diversity. Compare with validating an education on the basis of how it prepares children for today, which is what politically motivated education does. Education is currently conceived, in most countries, on the basis that you can measure the progress of children's education through identical examination, and that you can measure the success of an education by how easily each school leaver gets a place in University or lands his first job. To call this a rather narrow view is to be very British about it.

Surely an education should be judged on its ability to prepare you (inasmuch as this is even possible) for your life.

So education needs to be free, not equal. So it needs to be off the path, as far from straight and narrow as possible.


Don't even look for a path

Outside of crime and sin, what else does the straight and narrow involve?

It implies that a virtuous life is one that is strictly restricted to a single course, and a single goal. It implies that you shouldn't so much as look at the landscape as you go by for fear of curiosity leading you off the path. It implies that life is about having a goal, and working tirelessly, steadily, towards it.

I'll tell you, in case you haven't already worked it out for yourself, what lies at the end of the road of life:


Whichever way you look at it, and whatever you may believe about what does, or does not, come after, death is the point that you can't see past.

The injunction to stay on the path means something else, as well, therefore. It means "do as you are told"; "don't think for yourself"; "don't think outside the box"; "don't try to change what you are"; "don't try to learn for yourself".

By sticking to the straight and narrow you accept your lot in life, as defined by others. You permit yourself to be channelled into blinkered conformity, and because you only go forward (for fear of being left behind, quite often) and keep your eyes on that distant goal that all to soon you recognize as the end of the road, you never discover your own potential.

If you leave the path, you soon discover that you have a whole lot to learn. Off the path, there is so much to learn that noone even knows 1 millionth of 1 millionth of it. And the experience of two different people off the path can be so different that their views seldom coincide. But get this: there isn't only one straight and narrow. Different societies, tribes, religions, at different times and in different places define different ruts, but since all those paths lead from the same place to the same place (birth to death, if you like), those paths are all parallel. They never coincide at all.

How surprising is it that the differences between fundamentalist Moslims and fundamentalist Christians are irreconcilable. The key word is fundamentalist. Fundies always insist on the straight and narrow - they know that a little knowledge from off the path is all you need to discover freedom.

For me, what this is all about is two things: freedom and individuality. The straight and narrow is often defended by the "ideal" of equality. But I'm opposed to equality wherever it doesn't promote freedom. Gender equality is a perfect example of this. There are differences between all men and all women. I know this especially well as a man raised to try to think like a woman. The differences mean that equality is as meaningless as competition. Gender freedom is defined as the removal of all obstacles to self determination that are imposed on the grounds of gender. It's a kind of "right to try". My maternal grandfather believed that women should not even try to drive a car. That is restricting gender freedom. Gender freedom is ensuring that men and women can try to do the same things, without restriction or prejudice, and that each individual be judged (if need be) on the results.

If there is a current world financial crisis, if there is a population crisis, if there is an environmental crisis — I say "if" because there's always some sort of problem to overcome, and it really doesn't matter if these current media-sexy threats are true or not (though there are compelling reasons to think so) — then they will not be solved by conformity. Straight and narrow thinking has lead to all three. Off the path thinking will solve them.

When you go off the path, you discover, you learn, and you become different. Many people fear those who are different (most people fear those who are incomprehensible), and many people fear becoming different. This is understandable, but harmful. There are people in the world who are pursuing a dream of anti-gravity that uses gyroscopes and perpetual motion. There are people pursuing room-temperature (cold) fusion. They may be incomprehensible and uncomprehending crackpots, but they are off the path; they may not be expanding human knowledge, but they are broadening our culture. Culture needs breadth, if we are to survive. We need our crackpots and charlatans. We need our poets, artists and mystics. We need our free thinkers and yes, we need our lunatics. Whether they like it or not, they are exploring the extremes of what it means to be human.


Screw the straight-and-narrow, I say!

The injunction to STAY ON THE PATH is one of those literary conceits that we take for granted. But all sorts of aspects of this idea annoy the hell out of me.

It is developed from an idea formed in the early Christian church which supposed that temptation, sin and wickedness were all around, but that if you keep your mind focussed on the attainment of a state of grace, and hence unity with God, you would be free from temptation, sin, and wickedness.

This allowed the Christians to introduce to our culture the idea that remains to this day: that everyone is subject to constant temptation; that it is difficult for everyone to resist, and that therefore those who resist are strong and virtuous, while those who do not are weak and wicked.

If your aim is to help others to avoid wickedness (however you may wish to define it), this is surely a valuable idea; but it is fundamentally wrong-headed. It assumes that all people are basically the same; that all have the same priorities, the same desires, and that all would, if they could, aspire to the same lifestyle, aspire to the same set of virtues. We see the consequences of this today: a huge range of behaviours are diagnosed (via the painfully dichotomous DSM) as illnesses – to be cured, treated or controlled – through the general acceptance by the mental health profession that someone who is excessively different will suffer as a result of his difference. I can (thoroughly unfairly) sum this up by the ruthlessly simplistic statement that "conformity is directly proportional to happiness".

Weirdly, the evidence is against this. You can see it for yourself, looking at crime, and criminal lifestyles in general. The crimes that I like to focus people's attention on are very petty theft (taking a pen home from the office) and petty fraud (exaggerating on an insurance claim form). It so happens that I can't do either of these (though I may have been capable of the former in the past). Many, many people have done one or the other or both. I know someone who happily takes apples from his neighbour's tree (for which he has to reach over the fence), but would never take leeks from his neighbour's vegetable patch (even though they are physically more accessible).

What leads people to choose to do some of these things but not others? I encounter two explanations. Sometimes they are kept distinct, sometimes they are combined. I call them "infantile parent" and "pragmatic parent" (neither of these terms is intended judgementally – I don't claim either is good or bad, right or wrong). Infantile Parent claims that people dare to commit petty crimes in proportion to their expectation of being caught or found out. Pragmatic Parent claims that people casually commit petty crimes in proportion to the harm they estimate is done. This equates to the advice always to carry a poor man's wallet.*

I suspect that in terms of what people will permit themselves, there is a very broad range, and the decision to do what is commonly agreed as wrong is taken on the spot, and takes account of an equally broad range of factors. After all, the same people who commit those acts of very petty theft and petty fraud, are those who have publicly declared their support for the illegality of theft and fraud.

So we are black and white in our public declarations, but shades of grey in our actual behaviours. How like marriage…

I'm not capable (for all sorts of reasons - some of which may be very obscure) of infidelity. But many many people apparently are. (To such an extent that Marital Fidelity probably ought to be defined as a personality disorder in the DSM.) People who declare, publicly, their intent to faithfulness.

So the idea of the straight and narrow has forced a paradox whereby everyone believes that they must declare that certain things are wrong, even while doing them. I wonder if this is the origin of guilt. I don't know, as it's an emotion that I know by sight and reputation only.

I don't believe that our capacity for understanding others has (oh, all right) evolved in order for us to try to set it aside in favour of rules that we all agree are right, but by which we cannot abide. I believe that our capacity for understanding others enables (many, possibly most of) us to consider the social consequences of each of our actions, and choose freely the social scale of our action (self / immediate family / extended family / close friends / extended network of friends / geographical community / society / nation / the whole of mankind / the planet  (this list is not exhaustive)). Viewed from the point of view of the individual's expected consequences for whichever is his favoured social scale, there is no such thing as crime… though there may still be such a thing as evil.

The injunction at the top of the page in fact becomes an injunction to resist the temptation to favour a social scale below that of the tribe.

(more to follow – an explanation of the picture…)


* (In case you haven't come across this, I remember once being advised never to carry my money in an expensive wallet, in case I lost it. Supposedly, whoever picks it up will look inside, and if they find some cash, they'll take it, before returning the wallet. But the decision as to how much cash they take depends on a value judgement of both how much cash there is, and how rich they think you are. If you have an expensive wallet, and there's only a few dollars in it, chances are they'll not take anything. I you have an expensive wallet and there's 500 dollars in it, they'll take the lot, but still return the wallet. If you have a cheap looking wallet and there is only a few dollars, they'll take them, but if there's a lot of money they'll think twice about depriving you of it. 

I'm not sure how much credence to give this. After all, the chances of the wallet being picked up by someone less sensitive than this are probably pretty high. One of my schoolteachers kept a typewritten note in his wallet that said "anyone who finds this can keep the cash if they return the rest".)