Monthly Archives: March 2019

Milkman – The power of gossip and social pressure

Milkman by Anna Burns is a gloomy story about rumors and gossip and the life and death consequences. The city where the story is set is divided by religion and politics. The city is not named, but the Anna Burns is born in Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The protagonist is “middle sister”. None of the characters are referenced by name. They are referenced based on their relationship with the protagonist, or the most consistent gossip about them in the community.

Men are getting killed because of something they did, something they didn’t do, something they might have done, or simply by mistake. Women are not seen as a thread. When all the “ordinary” women unite though, for instance, to get rid of a curfew, the men in power have no choice but to give in to their demands.
The impact of divide and distrust on everyday life is all-consuming to the protagonist. It feeds her self-doubt to the point where she completely isolates herself and forgets who she is, or at least who she used to be.

While thankfully I have not lived in an environment as described in the book, it’s easy to feel the emotions and the undercurrents described in the book. I guess in a way high school can be seen as a micro-version of such an environment. A place where who you are associated with, what group you belong to, where you live, what rumors are made up and how they take hold or disappear determines how (un)comfortable life is.

On top of that, you are falling in love, discovering your sexuality and getting your heart broken. But also you might break someone else’s heart, either on purpose or by accident.
It’s a place where most men seem less mature than most women, but are at the same time they are more powerful. This leads to violence, misunderstanding and in extreme cases to physical and mental abuse.
It’s a unique book, both in the way issues are addressed and in the style in which it’s written.

The emotions in the story are gripping and dark and the relationships are complex. It’s a very interesting and enjoyable read. If you feel like you can deal with the gloom I would recommend reading Milkman.

On writing – Writing advice from Stephen King

I’m not a Stephen King fan. I saw the film Misery with my classmates when I was a first grader in high school. I tried to hide my fear, but I was so scared I never got close to anything related to Stephen King again after that. Until this book. I figured that a book on writing should be safe enough.

The first 30% of the book is a biography. I don’t know why he decided to structure the book like that, but it works. It provides context for the writing advice and it made me trust him.

When he does talk about writing he explains that he doesn’t believe in plotting a story. This is interesting to me because it’s 100% opposite to the premise of Story Genius by Lisa Cron that I read a few months ago. Stephen’s explanation is that you can’t plot life. Plotting a story is likely to suck the energy out of it. It will become artificial.

The thing I like most about this is that I’m pretty sure I won’t have the patience to plot a story the way Lisa Cron proposes to do it. Stephen King compares a writer discovering a story while writing to an archeologist uncovering a fossil. While it’s still a lot of hard work it sounds like a lot more fun than plotting out every little detail before starting the actual writing.

For King, a story starts with a situation. There is no plot to start with and characters are flat. The characters come to life when the situation starts to develop. While he’s writing and excavating the story from where it’s buried the plot will become visible.

He completes his first draft without sharing any of it with anyone. This helps him to maintain the energy and speed. While writing a first draft, any outside input, whether praise or criticism, could impact the development of the story. Once the first draft is finished a small number of “important readers” get to read it, ask questions about it and give feedback. You should also read your first draft yourself. According to King, this is a very positive thing that you will likely be looking forward to at that point.
I’m not convinced I’d feel that way, but who knows, maybe I would.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write a novel, but if I don’t it won’t have anything to do with On Writing or Stephen King. I’ve gotten to like him through reading this book. I’m not sure if I like him enough to get me over my trauma and try reading one of his other books, but I’m considering it. It won’t be Misery though, that’s for sure!

When asked how do you write

Thinking fast and slow – why it’s good to think about your thinking

Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman provides many interesting insights. It does take some persistence to get through. According to Kindle, it takes the average reader 11 and a half hours. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but at that point gave up fairly quickly. Now that I finished it I do think it was worth it.

Our brain consists of two mechanisms that in the book are referred to as systems. System 1 is uncontrolled and often biased, but it’s quick and it doesn’t use a lot of energy. System 2 is deliberate, but also slow and lazy. It leaves as much as possible to system 1, which means that a lot of our initial reactions are uncontrolled and biased. The book contains many examples of how this impacts our ideas, decisions, and impressions. Some of it is so fundamental that it should be taught in schools.

An area in which we should be especially suspicious of our intuition and gut feeling is statistics. It has been proven that even statisticians have a terrible intuition when it comes to statistics.

For instance, we forget that in most events, especially when they are extreme, good or bad luck plays an important role.

  • When a golfer plays exceptionally well on the first day of a tournament, we expect that person to also do exceptionally well on the second day. However, the great score on the first day was exceptional, meaning, an exception. Therefore the score of this player is likely to be closer to average on the second day. Meaning there is a significant chance the player will be worse on the second day than on the first. The opposite happens when someone plays unusually bad on the first day.
  • Suppose you have to interview two candidates for an open position. One of them has a lot of experience, the other has little proven experience. If the first job applicant has a mediocre interview and the second one smashes the interview, we are likely to hire the second person. Even though there’s a significant chance that the great interview of the first applicant is a lucky shot. It is likely that the work of the second applicant over time will be better. We should assume that the long term performances of both candidates will be closer to what would be average based on their experience, rather than to how they came across during the interview.

This mechanism can also fool people into thinking that punishing someone for a bad performance makes them do better next time. When in fact the person was always likely to improve compared to the mishap.

Another example of why we can’t do statistics based on intuition is because when events are easy to retrieve from memory, we tend to overexaggerate how often they occur. Something that’s more flashy and dramatic sticks to memory more easily, even if it doesn’t happen a lot. For instance, far more people die in car crashes or through heart failure or cancer, but it’s a lot easier to remember a terrorist attack.

Not related to statistics, but relevant when talking about biases and in the context of how quickly “us progressives” tend to judge more conservative people is that the human mind is unable to reconstruct past states of knowledge. We forget that we didn’t know before what we now know and we are unable to recall what we used to think or believe.

We think that we are rational beings, but we are a lot less rational than we think we are. How a question or a choice is framed determines the answer many of us will give. When we are asked to weigh wins and losses a loss is weighed twice as high as a win, making us behave irrationally when gambling for instance.

If all of these examples are as fascinating to you as they are to me then I recommend reading “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Even if it does take some patience and tenacity.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is