Trail Report: Rockpile Mountain Wilderness

Posted: 18th March 2019 by Cheap in Camping, Hiking, Outdoors

This was my second time backpacking at Rockpile Mountain Wilderness.  Previously, I had simply hiked more or less straight to the peak of the eponymous mountain, camped there overnight, and then hiked out the next morning.  This time, I had ambitious plans to explore the whole trail system.

I was thwarted.  For one thing, I was in much worse physical condition than I thought.  Looking back, I realize that I have done very little hiking this winter, or even last fall.  On top of that, I had a heavy pack filled with a heavier 4-season tent, a warmer sleeping bag, and extra clothing layers.  The miles took a toll on my body, and I was in pain.  The other problem is that the trails are less of a system and more of a smattering.  I have personally verified that some of the trails on the map simply do not exist anymore.  Other trails are supposed to connect, but I was unable to follow them, and I ended up cutting cross country.  I wasted a good amount of time and energy searching for lost trails and backtracking.  In the end, I cut my plan short, and even then the last couple of miles back to my car were grueling.

I very much enjoy finding beautiful rock formations and waterfalls.  It is even more amazing when you discover them on your own because no one thought to mention them.  I had previously thought that the most interesting thing in the Wilderness Area was the man-made circle of rocks near the peak of Rockpile Mountain.  However, getting off the trail this weekend, I discovered shut-ins in the stream known as Cave Branch and some really spectacular rock formations.

I hiked at least 17 miles, though a few miles were without a pack.  I drank almost 4 liters of liquid.

This was my first time backpacking with my Eureka Alpenlite 2XT.  It is rather heavy for backpacking, but it is a really great 4-season tent.  I enjoyed sleeping in it more than I ever have.  It’s too bad there was no snow or high winds to justify hauling it.  I was also testing for the first time my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Max air mattress and my Marmot Col -20° sleeping bag.  The air mattress worked great.  The sleeping bag was way overkill for the temperature (a low of 35°), so venting left me uncomfortably hot in some places and uncomfortably cold in others.  However, the performance was excellent, and I look forward to trying it out on colder nights.

I always eat fewer meals than I expect to.  I planned for lunch and dinner on Saturday, and then breakfast and lunch on Sunday.  Plus snacks.  However, hiking tends to curb my hunger.  I ended up eating a late lunch on Saturday, and instead of dinner, I ate a snack in my tent (rice krispie treats made the night before!).  Instead of the breakfast I’d planned for the next morning, I drank a protein shake I had thrown in at the last minute.  (I love Kellogg’s Special K Rich Chocolate Protein Shakes, but they are no good warm.  However, I realized that if the temperature got down to near freezing, they would be perfect if I simply left them out.  And they were!)  I ate trail mix a couple of times in the late morning and early afternoon, and then I had another late lunch.  I could have saved a few pounds by not bringing two canned meals and the stove.  I didn’t touch the four energy bars or two energy gels I brought.  I’d also brought a bag of no-shell pistachios and a bag of Moon Cheese, which I snacked on with my Sunday lunch, but didn’t really need.

I’ve decided that my Merrell Moab 2 GTX shoes suck.  I previously had some Merrell Reflex II Low Hiker shoes, which I loved.  I used them for about five years until the tread started breaking apart.  I figured anything by Merrell would be good, and the Moab is their most popular line, so I ordered a pair of Moab 2 GTX shoes.  However, I’m not in love with them.  I’ve never gotten them to fit well, and they don’t do anything special for my feet.  No matter what, they chafe at the back of my foot and cause blisters.  Now when I look, I see many negative reviews, suggesting that Merrell shoes aren’t what they once were, either in terms of fit or durability.  I’m going to have to find something else.

The power bank I brought to charge my phone only brought it up to 89% and the leveled off there.  The power bank claimed to be still mostly full, so it wasn’t a matter of capacity.  It was some other problem.  I need to do some testing.  The temperature may have been a factor.  The phone is young and gets good battery life, so I would have survived in any case, but I’d really like to understand what happened.

The road leading to the trailhead is awful.  My car couldn’t handle it, so I had to park a steep mile away this time.  I really need to fix my truck.

I saw a feral piglet.  It was just about the size of a football, and it was brown with black longitudinal stripes.  It was running right down the trail toward me, and if I had realized sooner what it was, I could have shot it.  Or stomped on it.  I thought it was a dog coming down the trail.  A fat chihuahua.  When it got about ten feet away, I realized what it was.  It passed close by and then veered away from the trail, and I stood there like an idiot as it ran out of sight.  Before that, I had just been remarking to myself how much the area had recovered from hog damage from the last time I had been there.  Later on, I did find quite a bit of hog sign.

I also saw a permanent hunting stand, which is illegal in the National Forest and doubly so in a Wilderness Area.  I’ve sent an email off to report it, complete with GPS coordinates and photos.

Next time I visit, I want to explore the rest of the trails, and I want to find the source of Cave Branch (to see if it is a cave, of course).

Lessons learned:

  • Get some hikes in before committing to miles of backpacking.  Don’t start the season with a heavy pack unless I’ve been backpacking through the winter.
  • Don’t pack a 4-season tent that weighs 9 pounds unless I have reason to suspect snow or high winds.
  • Get some sleeping bags with ratings in between 30° and -20°.
  • A pint bag of trail mix is excessive if I also bring a whole gaggle of other snacks.  Be prepared, but also be reasonable.
  • Get off the ridges once in a while, because some of the most interesting sights are in the hollows.
  • Test my technology before relying on it.

Gun Sale!

Posted: 17th March 2019 by Cheap in Camping, Fiction, Firearms, Gardening, Hiking, Outdoors, Photography, Television
  • I finished Elantris.  The characters that seemed so unrealistic and two-dimensional became much more realistic and grew to have more depth than my initial impression at the beginning of the story.  I’m glad I finished it, because I did quite enjoy it, though I would still say it’s not Brandon Sanderson’s best work.  I also read The Cloud Roads, another work by Martha Wells.  It wasn’t as brilliantly awesome as the Murderbot Diaries, but it was still a good read, and I will go ahead and read the rest of the series.  Ann Leckie just released her first fantasy novel, The Raven Tower, which was pretty good, and unique, and told from the point of view of a god.  I labored through The Left Hand of Darkness for my book club, and now I think I’m finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin, because her characters are too boring and without apparent feeling.
  • A thing happened while I was reading The Left Hand of Darkness.  I live in a rural county in a red state.  I went out to eat dinner, at a chain restaurant that seems to employ nothing but high school age girls.  I went alone, and brought my book.  As the hostess was leading me to my table, she asked me what my book was about.  The answer that popped into my head was that it was about a planet of humans who were neither and both male and female.  However, I didn’t really want to say that.  I judged the hostess to be not particularly open-minded, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, and it seemed like too much complication to give her that answer and then to have to explain it, and be judged during my dinner, etc.  So, instead I just told her I hadn’t actually figured it out yet.  Later, I realized I would have been delighted to inject some controversy given the opportunity, but that my new anti-social tendencies made it much less appealing.
  • The ABC Murders was quite good, if disappointingly short.  The Fall managed to make a full third season after they caught the bad guy.  Russian Doll was somewhere between comedy and introspection, but failed to connect with me in any deep, meaningful way.  I generally enjoyed Chance, although the ending of the second season was a completely anticlimactic cop-out.  The second season of Star Trek: Discovery has been rather more grounded in the normal format for Trek: more episodic and less like a crack addict’s soap opera.  Rumor has it that new seasons of Bosch, The OA, and Stranger Things are coming soon.
  • Ever since the .300 AAC Blackout was announced, I have wanted a bolt-action rifle chambered in the caliber, set up for subsonic loads with a suppressor.  Savage had an interesting rifle for a while, but they quickly discontinued it, citing stabilization problems.  Then Remington introduced the Model 700 SPS Tactical in this caliber, with a 16½” barrel, threaded for a suppressor.  It has been on my wish list for years.  I had never made it a priority.  However, I noticed that Cabela’s had it on sale for a very good price.  I braved the snowy roads, and I bought it.  It has a surprisingly heavy barrel, a pretty good trigger, and a well made synthetic stock, and I want to believe it will be quite accurate.  However, I won’t know for a while, because I still need to buy optics for it, and I might as well wait until I have a suppressor for it before I do much accuracy testing.
  • I had to have it shipped all the way from England, but I finally own a Benbo Classic No. 1 Tripod.  I have paired it with a Manfrotto 405 geared 3D head for the ultimate macro photography tripod.  The setup is strange and burly, but it works great.  It makes me want to go out into the woods to take macro photos.  So far, I’ve just used it to take time-lapse images of my pepper seedlings and some macro photos of .300 AAC Blackout cartridges.
  • Speaking of pepper seedlings, they’re going great.  I started them a little earlier than I had intended, but it won’t hurt.  They should be in good shape by the time I am ready to transplant them outside.  I have sixteen varieties of hot pepper in seedling form, plus two other plants that have been wintering over in pots.  I have crazy, ambitious plans for a garden this year.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with all the peppers, but I can’t wait to try them.
  • March really is a good time of year for hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities.  I was not bothered this weekend by mosquitoes, ticks, spider webs stretched across the trail, or pollen.  Low humidity, and just generally not feeling hot.

Nobody Knows Anything

Posted: 19th February 2019 by Cheap in Film, Filmmaking

From an NPR article, Are Movies Getting Better?

The famous screenwriter William Goldman had a saying about the ability of the movie studios to predict what would be a critical or commercial success: “Nobody knows anything.” Waldfogel calls this “Goldman’s Law,”

The methodology described in the article to arrive at its conclusion is flawed, but that one tidbit is something I keep coming back to: Hollywood hasn’t a clue about how to predict film success.

If someone wanted to become fabulously rich, one could do it by inventing the means to determine whether a film will be a success or a failure.  Ideally, before the film is made.

Another problem Hollywood has is marketing.  In my opinion, many good films flopped at the box office because they were marketed badly, and then went on to grow a “cult following”.  Fight Club is a classic example.  It was marketed as a film about fighting.  No wonder no one wanted to pay to watch it.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Active Redux

Posted: 13th February 2019 by Cheap in Technology

My phone since December 2015 has been a Samsung Galaxy S6 Active.  It is more than three years old, and until last week, it was still going strong.  No performance or stability problems.  The screen is still perfect.  Even though I don’t use a case, there is so little external cosmetic damage that I don’t see any unless I specifically look for it.  The battery life might be slightly reduced.

Last week, I flew to Denver.  Shortly after I left the airport, I noticed that the back of the phone was significantly convex.  Instead of sitting flat on a table, it rocked around on its back, which had become curved.  The battery had swollen, and the aluminum back had deformed.  Even more troubling was that the glass in front was slightly deformed.  The phone worked, took a charge, and never caught fire.  It functioned okay for the whole trip, although the battery life definitely wasn’t as good as it used to be.  When I got back home, the bulge was significantly less.  Denver’s mile-high altitude must be a factor.

As soon as I discovered the problem, I figured I should start researching my next device.  The S9 is the current model, but there is no S9 Active.  There is an S8 Active, and I looked at it.  I was disappointed.

The S8 Active is even bigger than the S6 Active.  (For some reason, phone manufacturers believe that bigger is better.  It is not.)  Faster CPU, but that probably also means it uses more energy.  A ton of wasted real estate around the screen.  They rounded off the corners of the display.  WTF?  (Evidently this is common; the Google Pixel is the same way.)  Slightly larger battery capacity, undoubtedly to make up for the power hungry CPU.  The camera resolution is reduced to 12 megapixels.  It basically looks dorky.  For this, I would be paying $850 to “upgrade”.

I noticed that AT&T’s site also had the S7 Active for sale still, but it had all the same disadvantages.  I wondered why I couldn’t just get a new S6 Active.  Instead of searching AT&T’s site, I used a search engine to find the S6 Active.  There was my phone, new in box, on Amazon for a couple hundred bucks.

After a day of deliberation, I ordered one.  I ended up getting the dark grey model, instead of the camo blue one I have now, because it was $75 cheaper, and because I hardly ever notice the dark blue pattern on the back.  I figure $185 isn’t a three-year investment.  Instead, it will give me breathing room until Samsung or someone else releases a great outdoor phone.

I’ve had it for a day, and I really only have two problems with it.  The first is that it came with Android 6.0.1, and it won’t update to the 7.0.1 version I have on my previous S6 Active.  This might be because I checked for updates while I didn’t have the SIM card in it.  Now it won’t even let me check for updates for 24 hours.  The other problem is that the Reuters News app I’ve been using does not appear in the app store.  I’m hoping this is because it doesn’t support the older version of Android that is currently installed, and once I figure out how to get the update, I should be able to find and install the app.  UPDATE: It is applying software updates.  Unfortunately, it refuses to even check for an update until 24 hours has passed, and it will only install one update at a time.  According to this document, there are sixteen updates from the version supplied with the device.  I have managed to install two of them, but at this rate, it will be more than two weeks until I will have my phone current.  I am three more updates away from 7.0 Nougat.  What a pain.  2nd UPDATE: Once I got to 7.0, it stopped pretending for 24 hour intervals that there weren’t more updates available, so I was able to get through all of the 7.0 and 7.0.1 updates in several hours.  My phone is now fully updated, five days after receiving it.  There were actually a few updates that could be skipped because of the way some updates were rolled together.  Also, synchronization to the Samsung cloud started with 7.0, so I was able to get back more data, namely all my memos.  And yes, the Reuters News app was available in the app store once the device was sufficiently updated.

Ultra-Wide Angle

Posted: 30th January 2019 by Cheap in Fiction, Filmmaking, Firearms, Gardening, Hunting, Peppers, Photography
  • I finally own the so-called “Holy Trinity” of Canon zoom lenses.  I acquired my original Canon EOS camera outfit, including the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses, in 2005.  Since then, I have wanted to round out my lens collection with a 16-35mm ultra-wide angle zoom lens.  It isn’t useful for model photography, so it wasn’t a priority, and it was expensive.  I have lived all this time without a lens wider than 24mm (not counting lenses for smaller formats), and I never felt like I was suffering.  That was until I went to Glacier National Park.  There were so many wide vistas, and I just couldn’t capture them.  I was really disappointed.  When I came home from that trip, I was more serious about acquiring the lens.  By then, Canon had just released a Mark III of the lens.  It was even more expensive, but a worthwhile improvement.  Still, I have been putting it off, because there has always been filmmaking gear needed with a more immediate priority.  Well, I finally purchased it.  It isn’t as big as I expected.
  • On that topic, I have been trying to slow down on filmmaking.  I was on twelve film sets last year.  More than a couple of them were unpleasant experiences.  I feel like I am devoting too much time, energy, and money in that direction.  I’m not sure I am feeling satisfied creatively.
  • This year, I want to do more photography.  I want to do more camping and/or traveling.  I want to do more hiking and biking.  Perhaps more importantly, I would like this year to be my break-out year for writing.  I would like to spend more time learning Russian.  I feel like I have been spending the right amount of time reading.  I have been spending too much time on television.
  • I have discovered Hornady ELD-X bullets.  They have high ballistic coefficients and are designed to expand at a broad range of velocities.  In other words, they are designed for long-range hunting, but they can be used at shorter ranges if necessary.  I have a custom precision rifle in a wildcat magnum cartridge (6.5mm WSM), and I have been planning to develop a good hunting load.  This bullet would significantly extend the effective range of this rifle.  It would theoretically have 1500 ft-lbs of energy out to 700 yards, and it would have enough velocity to properly expand out to nearly 1200 yards.  The rifle may very well be capable of that, if I can learn to shoot those ranges.  I have ordered a box, and I will try them out.
  • On the recommendation of a colleague, I began to read Defending Jacob.  I was having some trouble maintaining enthusiasm for the read, and then the reason occurred to me.  The protagonist keeps making obviously bad choices.  He keeps a case after it’s been suggested he has a conflict of interest.  He covers up something that is obviously potential evidence.  He sneaks into his house to look for and hide possible evidence before the police can execute a search on his house.  That’s as far as I read.  I have written before about how much I dislike this as a plot device.  In this case, there is a good argument for employing this device, because the author is intentionally making a story of the conflicting emotions of a protective father versus those of a smart lawyer and prosecutor.  That might have been more compelling to me if I had ever been a father, but I haven’t.  So it went back to the library.
  • I started my pepper seeds quite early this year.  Not too early, I hope.  I have eighteen pepper varieties growing, and some of them have already come up.  I have big, ridiculous plans for a garden in my front yard this year.  Theoretically, there will be room for thirty plants, although I will give some of that space up to flowers that attract pollinators.

Hats

Posted: 20th January 2019 by Cheap in Hunting, Outdoors

I was never a hat person until I started hunting.  Wearing a blaze orange hat is a requirement* for hunting in Missouri.

However, it turns out that a hat is functional beyond making me visible to other hunters.  For one thing, it keeps you warm.  Keeping your head warm will do more to preserve body heat than anything else you can do.  If you wear the right kind of hat, it can keep the elements off of you head.  I became a believer in wide brim hats the day it started raining one-inch rain drops while I was rabbit hunting.  I was wearing a boonie hat that day, which wasn’t the most ideal thing for the heavy rain, but it did fairly well, and the benefit was instantly obvious.

My favorite hunting hat now is a blaze orange crushable felt outback hat.

In recent years, I have tried to incorporate hats into my non-hunting routine.  I have settled on a couple of wide brim hats for keeping the rain and snow off my head.  I have a safari hat made of sealed garment leather, which is a good match for my leather jacket.  I also have a black crushable felt outback hat much like the orange one.  Wearing either one with a rain repellent jacket is essentially as good as carrying an umbrella.

A few years ago, I bought a wide brim straw hat to keep the sun off.  I was planning a road trip through the desert, and I wanted to be prepared for a hike through the desert in case my vehicle broke down.  Finding a good straw hat turns out to be difficult if you want something with some style but don’t really want a cowboy hat.  I settled on something that was like an extra-wide safari hat, with a completely flat brim.  I didn’t break down, but the hat proved useful elsewhere on my trip, especially in Arizona at the Grand Canyon.  I’ve worn the hat many times since.  Keeping the sun off is pretty useful, especially at the outdoor shooting range.  I took the hat with me last year on my disastrous camping trip in Texas.  During the haste of my evacuation, I ended up dumping a bunch of gear on top of it and crushing it.  It became badly deformed, and some of the straw was broken.  I decided it was a lost cause, and I planned to buy a replacement, but I didn’t throw it away.

When the weather begins to get warm again, I am going to shave my head.  I unquestionably have my father’s bald spot, and it has gotten bad enough to be unattractive.  For most of my life, I had planned to deal with it by shaving my head.  I would have done it last year, but my hair stylist reacted as if I was discussing suicide, and she convinced me to try some product they had in the salon for promoting hair growth.  The product did nothing, and months later I’m still in the same position.  So anyway, once I shave my head, hats are going to be more important than ever.  In preparation, I thought I should do something about my straw hat situation.

I haven’t found a replacement in the local stores.  The store that sold the first one to me didn’t have any more.  Today I thoroughly searched the internet.  Hats just like mine are available (for more money than I remember paying before), but what I really want is an outback hat.  I searched high and low, and I couldn’t find one I liked.  Straw outback hats, yes, but not with a brim as wide as I want.  Leather outback hats with four-inch brims, yes, but they’ll be unbearably hot to wear in the sun.  I started looking at custom hat makers.  That lead me to videos of hat makers showing how they make their hats.  Then I started to think about making my own straw hat, and I looked for videos on how to do that.

And I learned how hats are shaped: with steam.  Not just by the manufacturer.  Some cowboy hat stores (?) buy hats that are unshaped, and they shape them in the store according to the customer’s specific preference.  I watched a video of a man doing this, using nothing more than a steamer and his hands.  If he can do that, can I reshape my crushed straw hat?

It turns out that I can.  I boiled some water in a pot with a lid that is vented on one side, and I used it to soften the parts of the hat I wanted to reshape.  I got the crease out of the brim.  I more or less unmangled the rest.  The broken straw is still broken, but it blends in much better now.  I even managed to give the brim an outback curve, which it hadn’t had before.  It isn’t perfect.  It still looks a bit dilapidated.  I am currently thinking about how I can make it better.  However, it looks good enough to wear again.  For free.

(* It is required during the regular firearms deer season, but it is not required for most other hunting in Missouri.  Nevertheless, it is a very good idea for most other hunting situations, especially upland game hunting in close groups.)

Skyward

Posted: 6th January 2019 by Cheap in Camping, Cycling, Fiction, Filmmaking, Outdoors, Television, Travel, Writing
  • When I had first heard about Skyward, it seemed interesting, but I ultimately decided not to read it.  Brandon Sanderson is an amazing author who has become one of my favorites, and the description of the story was definitely interesting, but when I found out it was YA fiction, I decided to pass.  My recent reads of YA fiction have left me disappointed.  However, when Christmas came along, it seemed like an ideal gift for my oldest niece.  And if I was going to do that, maybe I should read it myself, too.  So, I did.  And it was really quite amazing, easily on par with Sanderson’s typical quality.
  • I read the screenplay for Trumbo, and it was really good.  The humor was funny right there on the page.  The moving parts brought tears.  I was astonished at how good a screenplay could be in its raw form.  Then I watched the film.  It was a real let-down.  Awful, perhaps non-existent directing.  Uninspired editing.  Jay Roach has directed some successful comedies, but maybe he doesn’t know how to do drama.  As I see it, they took an excellent script and a cast of capable actors, and they turned it into a less-than-mediocre film.  Not surprisingly, the film lost money, even with only a $15 million budget.  Then again, Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and both Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren were nominated for Golden Globes.  They did have some moments, but from my read of the script, they were the wrong moments.  The parts of the script that jumped off the page with their brilliance were lifeless on screen.  Perhaps I should go through this exercise with a few more films before I cast judgement.
  • Mr. Robot made waves by breaking the conventional rules of composition in cinematography.  They had a specific story-telling purpose for doing this, and it kind of worked.  However, there are now a whole crop of naive cinematographers wanting to duplicate these shots, just because they think it’s cool, without actually understanding the purpose of it.  Pine Gap was shot this way, and not to its advantage.  I have already had a couple of DPs on my own amateur films wanting to throw in “Mr. Robot shots” for no particular reason.  I’ve read the analysis of this technique, and I figured I should watch the series.  Unfortunately, I know a thing or two about computers and data security.  The show, or at least the beginning of it, is about hacking, but it’s so full of nonsense that I can’t stand watching it.  In episode 4, they actually had the audacity to make fun of 90’s hacker movies.  I’ve seen enough to evaluate the cinematography, so now I’m done watching it.  On the other hand, Mr. Robot also relies heavily on voice-over to relate the inner thoughts of the protagonist, which differ widely from his external dialog.  It has me wondering if I can’t use the same technique to make a film about loneliness.
  • Throughout my life, I have spent quite a bit of time in the Missouri Ozarks.  However, the Ozarks also span portions of Arkansas and Oklahoma.  I have mostly decided that this year, I will take my Spring vacation in the Arkansas Ozarks.  I think I will camp mainly in the Ozark and Oachita National Forests.  There is a long list of sights to be seen within this area, and I am sorting through them and prioritizing them now.  I may also sneak over and check out the Oklahoma Ozarks.  It won’t be a glamorous vacation.  Instead, it will be an easy one, with relatively little driving.
  • I am just starting Elantris, which is Brandon Sanderson’s first published novel.  I’m not ready to call his characters two-dimensional, but let’s say they are simple.  This is a subject that concerns me, because it I find it to be one of the major factors in making or breaking the quality a novel.  Perhaps more importantly, I want to be able to avoid this problem in my own writing.
  • I finished Shetland, or at least the three seasons that Netflix has online.  The accents are so thick, it should almost count as a foreign language film.  I would have to say that the third season was the best.  This is undoubtedly because they took six episodes to explore a single mystery, rather than wrapping things up in two episodes.
  • I just hiked nearly nine miles at Walden Springs, my first time there.  The trails are mountain bike friendly, and there were many cyclists on the trail.  It has me thinking about getting a mountain bike.  My hybrid/utility bike could handle some of the trails, but not all of them.  It could also be a good bike for taking to the beach, if I ever try that again.

Unrealistic Characters

Posted: 4th January 2019 by Cheap in Fiction, Writing

I am just starting Elantris, which is Brandon Sanderson’s first published novel.  I’m not ready to call his characters two-dimensional, but let’s say they are simple.  This is a subject that concerns me, because it I find it to be one of the major factors in making or breaking the quality a novel.  I have stopped reading David Weber’s Honor Harrington series for this reason.  Perhaps more importantly, I want to be able to avoid this problem in my own writing.  Which means I need to figure out what it is that I don’t like about these characters.

Chapter 3 of Elantris introduces a new character in the first paragraph.  After one paragraph, I already don’t like him.  How can I find a character to be lacking in realism in just one paragraph?  It’s not absence of realism, which could come later in the story.  It’s because Sanderson has offered us an unrealistic character.  A caricature.

None of Arelon’s people greeted their savior when he arrived.  It was an affront, of course, but not an unexpected one.  The people of Arelon — especially those living near the infamous city of Elantris — were known for their godless, even heretical ways.  Hrathen had come to change that.  He had three months to convert the entire kingdom of Arelon; otherwise Holy Haddeth — lord of all creation — would destroy it.  The time had finally come for Arelon to accept the truths of the Derethi religion.

WTF?  Alright, so perhaps the author is trying to make the point that religious people are illogical.  We’re supposed to believe that there is a character who intends to convert an entire kingdom to some other religion?  That he is confident he will succeed?  No.  That’s just not realistic.  Even if we accept he is following the orders of his higher power, real people are filled with doubt and anxiety, especially when tasked with the impossible.

We’ve already been introduced to Raoden, who is a prince but is otherwise bland and completely mediocre.  We are presumably supposed to believe that this completely average person is going to solve the mystery of his curse, and we are additionally supposed to believe that he will succeed where others have failed because no one else actually seriously looked for the answers.  (I’m assuming here, because I haven’t read that far.)  We’ve met Sarene, a smart and confident princess (?) who has just come to a new land and discovered she is locked into a marriage contract with a dead guy and must never leave this new place.  We’re supposed to believe she is going to accept this turn of events in stride and with a calm, optimistic attitude.  (Aw, shucks.  My life is ruined.  Oh well.  It’s for the good of the kingdom.)  We’ve met King Iadon, who despite being on shaky ground politically, is simply an insensitive jerk for no reason.  And we’ve met Ashe, who is just a hovering, glowing, disembodied intelligence.

What’s wrong with these characters isn’t that we don’t know what makes them tick.  It’s that we already know a little about their motivations, and they are acting contrary to those motivations.  If we were in these situations, we wouldn’t act this way.  No one we know would act this way in these situations.  No one we’ve ever heard of would.  So they are weird and unrealistic, and there’s been no acknowledgement within the book that they are weird and unrealistic and perhaps an explanation or a mystery will be forthcoming.  Ashe doesn’t acknowledge that Sarene is taking this strangely.  Sarene isn’t surprised that a ruler, who necessarily depends on others for his power, is an unthinking asshole.  Sarene isn’t blown away emotionally by the situation she has found herself in.  Hrathen has no reasonable doubts that maybe his mission will not go well.  That’s what those characters should do and feel in their situations, but they don’t.

So it’s not really that these characters are simple, or two-dimensional, or distilled examples of some stereotype.  They simply aren’t behaving or thinking true to their own character.

Instead of putting a character into a situation and letting the character drive the story, the author has already plotted the story, and now he is forcing the characters to move through the plot points, oblivious to whether those actions are natural for those characters.

I don’t think I have completely solved the overall question.  For example, this is not really the same as David Weber’s problem.  He really does write characters who are stereotypes.  Dean Koontz justifies the nature of his characters, except that there are way too damn conveniently many of them (extreme good guys and extreme bad guys), and they defy the bell curve (in other words, he needs more normal people in his stories).  Robert Heinlein writes characters who are unrealistically rational because he wants to live in a world of rational people.

I need to keep thinking about this.

Update: I finished Elantris, which turned out to be pretty good.  The three characters mentioned above all became more believable.  In the end, they were not unrealistic characters, not two-dimensional, and not stereotypes.  However, they were definitely introduced that way.  I suppose Sanderson was trying to grab the reader, introducing the conflict and each character’s story goal right away.  For me, that backfired, and it illustrates the benefit of introducing or developing a character before before upsetting their world.  I believe Elantris is Sanderson’s first published novel, and I haven’t noticed this problem in anything else he has written.  Indeed, he has been developing characters much more slowly in his more recent work, often to the point of making them a mystery.

Nevertheless, I am going to watch for this as I read other things.  I have often wondered what makes a character feel two-dimensional, and this may still be the answer.

Doctor Zhivago

Posted: 1st January 2019 by Cheap in Fiction, Film

I was young when I first saw Doctor Zhivago.  It would be fair to say that I didn’t really understand it.  Primarily, I remember a series of visuals, and perhaps the music.  I had watched it a few times since.

It wasn’t until this year (well, last year now) that I read the book (the English translation).  Thought he plot was similar, the emphasis of the book was very different from the film.  After finishing the book, I re-watched the film.

To compare the book to the film, I must first decide what the book was about.  As with much literature, the central message of the book doesn’t jump right out at you.  You might say it is a love story, albeit a non-traditional one.  The author and the protagonist both have a tendency to value and emphasize the beauty of life happening around them, and there is some philosophical discussion in the book about this topic.  The book contains what seems to be a realistic depiction of the hardship of life during and after the revolutions.  However, while it does not whitewash these things, it also does not seem particularly critical about them.  There was only the barest hint about government suppression of poetry.  The author was Russian, with Russians being the intended audience (though publication was not allowed by the Soviets, and it was ultimately published in Italy).

The film was made in western Europe by British filmmakers and released in 1965, the height of the cold war.  Naturally, the screenplay emphasized and added scenes and dialog depicting the darker aspects of Soviet authoritarianism.  None of the philosophy made it into the film, and though there were moments intended to show Zhivago’s appreciation of beauty, none of these were verbalized.  Instead, the film follows the core plot of the novel, emphasizing breathtaking visuals and hauntingly beautiful music.  The film is clearly anti-Communist, while the book is simply a frank depiction during those times.

Incel and Feminism

Posted: 30th December 2018 by Cheap in Feminism, Men and Women, Philosophy

Ever since the Toronto van attack brought the Incel movement into public awareness, people around me have periodically made statements expressing bafflement at their violence, rationale, and rhetoric.  Indeed, their violence, rationale, and rhetoric — or at least the sensational bits pounced upon by the media — are illogical.

However, it has occurred to me that feminism has the same kinds of detractors, for basically the same reasons.  As far as I know, no mass murders or violence have been carried out in the name of feminism.  However, feminists do put out some horrific rhetoric, including espousing and rationalizing violence against men.  Many people, both men and women, fail to understand feminism, or disagree with feminism for the wrong reasons, simply because the people who call themselves feminists do a very bad job of representing feminism.