Saturday, May 30, 2015

What Makes a Good Magical System: How to throw a fireball?

Great fantasy has great explanations for where magic comes from. It's not just a matter of having a system, but that system reflecting truths about the origins of power, good and evil. In Tolkien magical power correlates with knowledge- Gandalf, Sauron andGaladriel know more than anyone else  in Middle Earth, and this knowledge is whence their magic springs. For Gandalf and Galadriel, their desire to protect that which is good is also an origin of their power.

Harry Potter with its fun and school references has magical power reside in wand form and Latin pronunciation, as well as knowing the right Latin. Magic corresponds to a number of classes much like Muggle school. In the later books magic also has mystical origins that come from deep relationship and character. Harry is protected by the love of his mother; Voldemort is protected by his willingness to divide his own soul. Still, it should be said that the Potter books have one of the least sensible, or explained, magic. In some sense this fits the books though, which are endlessly full of possibility, and at some points logic and system limits the multiplication of the fantastical.

Ursula Le Guin, in her Wizard of Earthsea created the most resonant magical system. In it, magic is the power to speak with creatures and objects by their true names. This relates to the knowledge of Tolkien but it has a clear line with both science, in which true knowledge of a thing allows humans to garner energy from it, and poetry, the idea that language is power.

The Name of the Wind is a new book that builds on Le Guin, but creates a complexity, with multiple branches of study. It would not be a stretch to say that Patrick Rothfuss wrote out a desire to take what is good in Potter and The Wizard of Earthsea and create the best magical system there is. One critique of his magic though would be that it, like Harry Potter, is about study and skill, but it also has no origins so it offers no explanation as to where the power comes for, or worse, asserts that the only meaningful power is one's self.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fantasy from the real world- Thoughts on "The Game of Thrones"

I recently read through George R. R. Martins series, "The Game of Thrones". The first and the third book are really good reads. Feel free to skip through the fourth and fifth until you find it interesting--the story develops slowly in them.

Martins books depict war and its struggles with realism that is unsavory. There are multiple rapes, and other abuses of power. The book series; title "The Game of Thrones" points out that power is something that is sought for its own sake, without real meaning. In the books, the most contemptible people are those who are weak or irrational. Tywin Lannister, for all his grim butchery of people and his own son's heart, is still to be admired for his strength and logic. Indeed, his death is caused because he overlooked things.

Cersei is despised in the end not because of her incest or her regicide, but because of her paranoia and ineptitude with people management. 

The most despised characters are those that are emotional and physically weak, like Lisa Arryn and her son.

Ultimately, we are given a world where dragons and magic are possible, but also where the strong take advantage of the weak, and there is little hope for justice. In fact, the definition of justice is the big fish eat the little ones.

This raises the question about fantasy. Is fantasy just an opportunity to add some cool things to the way of our world, swords, dragons, and the law of might? Or is fantasy a chance to re-envision our world not just in its creatures and physical possibility, but also in its social values? Most theorists agree that Karl Marx's belief that history inevitably would end in communism is just fantasy. Yet it had much more value, as it sought to re-envision our world as a better place, than Martin's hopeless fantasy.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Some Reasons for Christians to Consider Sending Their Children to Public School

Let me begin with the caveat that I am deeply humbled by my own lack of wisdom and love. I don’t believe I should judge people for their parenting decisions, and I understand that each family and child are different. Personally, I believe I’ll send my children to public school, but even that may not happen.   

As I’ve had conversations with more educated, recent transplanted-to-Philly Christians about where they are sending their children, I’ve noticed that many are opting for private schools. Some are thinking that they can’t stay in the city long term because of the educational options. However, there a number of Biblical and educational reasons to consider sending your kid to our public and charter school.

The argument against sending your kid to a public school is obvious. The schools, you are told, are violent. The schools, you hear in the news, are under-performing. The schools, it is blogged, are staffed by incompetents. There is some truth in this, and there is a lot of ignorance as well. I taught at a middle and high school that was in the toughest neighborhood in the city, and I would not send my child there.  

At the same time, few of the transplanted Christians I'm speaking with live in those toughest of neighborhoods. The schools follow the neighborhoods. Also, most of us would be sending our kids to elementary schools, which are much safer. Meanwhile, the city offers a collection of special admit schools (middle and high schools that students apply to) and charter schools. These schools are excellent, and full of wonderful children from all over the city. For instance, the school I teach at, a public school, was second in the state on the most recent Keystone Assessment. All this is to say that public school is probably a much better educational option than you are aware of.

It has this added educational pay-off, that it teaches your kid things you can’t. Ah ha, you are saying, this is what I was worried about! I don’t believe that parents can control information from reaching their kids in this day and age. We have to teach them how to interpret it through the lens of faith. When I attended public high school in Philadelphia, I had to learn to speak for Jesus in an often hostile environment, and I lived the truth of his promise that he would give us the words we need we people oppose us and confront us. I look forward to my son learning that.

I also hope that my kids will be cosmopolitan. That they will learn how different people live, talk, and think. In an elementary school in Olney, I had Vietnamese, Pakistani, black, Chinese, and white friends. That same diversity is still in Philly public schools. My own parents are transplants to this city, but by sending me to its public schools, they made me into a true native son.

My parents also did a lot of my own education. They kept television  out of our house, and taught me to love reading instead. They talked about politics with me. It is possible for your child’s education to be much more than the schooling they receive. You are your kids most important teacher.

As Christians, we should be invested in our community. Particularly we are to be concerned about the situation of the least among us. Public schools are where the poorest send their kids. Teachers will tell you that good parents are their best ally. Good parents raise students of good character. You send your kid, raised with discipline and love, to a public school, you send a light out into the world. Your kid blesses his teacher, and his peers. You are forced to invest in the local public school now that your kid is there. This improves the school, and the better school in turn makes the neighborhood nicer, so it gives back to you.

As a public school teacher, whose work and livelihood is tied up with the School District of Philadelphia, I also hope that college-educated Philadelphians will care for the district, not just as a place where the poor send their kids, but where they send their own.

The American church was founded on the principal of separatism. A bunch of unhappy Christians left a church and world they were unhappy with so they could do Christianity the right way. The problem is, following Christ doesn’t mean avoiding people who don’t know him. It means engaging with them. It means loving them. American Christians, at our current worst, hide from the world. Then our children learn the same behavior. Often that backfires, because at some point parents don’t have enough control to create the walls anymore. I once heard a twenty year old say to his dad, “Dad, the thing you won’t admit is that the world is fun.” Better to have that conversation with your ten year old, than your twenty year old. Better to teach them to shine as lights in a dark world. (I should say that public school is not the only place where your kid can meet the world- there are a thousand ways to live this out.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jane Eyre fill in the blank quizlet

Part One: Fill in the blank. Write 1-10 on your paper. There are twelve words and eleven blanks.

consecration, zealous, extricate, fervent, Gambol, evince, virile, eschew, coquettish,  admonition, petulance, Skeptic

Helmholtz watched the soccer game with a mixture of disgust and amusement. His disgust was directed toward the 1_________ boys who ran in circles and 2________ed about the field similar to monkeys, running over one another, with 3________ cries encouraging one another to continue to run hard and meaninglessly. The 4____________ girls who sat by him on the bench cried their names, blinking their eyes, and flouncing their various body parts. Normally, Helmholtz 5________ed such athletic contests, and the 6__________ fans who screamed their encouragements form the sideline.
Then Central scored, and three excited moms, seated about him, hugged one another, pinning him in the middle. He 7____________d himself.  “Don’t hug me,” he said, displeased to hear a note of 8___________ in his voice. As if he didn’t feel immature enough already at this event.
The reason why he was there, he knew, was that Alize was there. Though she had 9_________d not the slightest concern for him since the break-up, not re-tweeting one of his tweets, he still held out hope. As Romeo had said of Juliet’s lips, “It is a 10________________ devoutly to be wished . . .” Yet deep in him a voice spoke in 11_______________. It told him that he had to stop his stalkerish moping.

Part II: Fill in the blank. Write 11-20 on your paper. There are eleven words and ten blanks.

ascetic, corpulent, arid, debauchery, despotic, epicure, Emulous, stringent, vicinage, deviate, indelibly,

Helmholtz stalked off, leaving the 1___________ of his ex-girl-friend, daring to walk across three feet of the corner of the field. No one noticed his protest. He then planned a night of 2___________, involving many bottles of ginger bee, licorice sticks, and episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He deserved to live like an 3___________ he thought, after the 4___________ life style he had practiced pursuing Alize, similar to a Buddhist monk pursuing Nirvana. He had forced himself to follow 5_____________ rules about diet. He had grown thin under her 6_____________ insistence on vegetables. He had once been 7_______________, but after dating her he was rail thin. He had followed her rules even after she left, 8_____________ of her thin figure, fashionably detailed. He was still hoping in some strange benighted corner of his brain to impress her.
In his room, he promised himself that he would no longer 9__________ from his prescribed day. He would go the library at lunch, and read Jane Austen novels, and at three oh four he would walk out of school. He would wear black and keep his hair short and if anybody didn’t like it he wouldn’t know. Yet, he knew that the memory of jokes told on a porch in the September breeze was 10___________ inscribed in him, and that he would need to replace that. Alone had become lonely.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

For Me and Mine

What follows is the beginning of my first completed novel. I was reading it, and thinking that I was very proud of it, which was a surprise to me. I figured I'd post it here for your amusement. 

For Me and Mine
by J. Shepard Trott
(c) 2005

Chapter One

            I said, “Are you TNT?”
            He shouted, “The fuck you think?”
            “I have the thing for you.”
            “Put it on the fucking table.”
            His muscles stood out round and hard, his boots were big, and scuffed, and I did not
doubt that he had kicked people with them before.  Still I had a question.
            “Don’t you think I should give it to you inside?”
            “Motherfucker.  This is my block, do what the fuck I say.” 
            I put the package on the plastic table.  I turned and walked off the porch, noticing the
litter: potato chip bags, candy wrappers, soda bottles and hoagie wrappings coiled in every
corner of the sidewalk.  The various young black men, who sat on the steps to the street, looked
at me, withdrawn and disinterested.  I asked myself, “How does a college educated son of the
suburbs end up in this business?  Do I really think I have what it takes?  Just to survive?”

My eyes glazed over the third sheet of columns, item id, subject code, answer key, test id
and state code.  The columns blurred; I put my head down on my hands and waited for five
seconds.  I figured I needed a break.  I stood up and looked across the cubicles, which formed a
maze of lines, little squares, avenues, and dead ends.  I walked slowly to the coffee room and
poured a cup.  I made a face after sipping the coffee, and poured it into the sink.  GuaranCore
provided the coffee free.  I filled my mug with tap water instead.  John, who lived two cubicles
down, walked into the break room. 
“Getting a cup, Sam?  Some company fuel?” 
I nodded. 
“How is the editing going?”
“Thanks for doing them.  I know they’re tedious but GuaranCore needs them done.  I am
trying to get the client manager for Texas to call them for me, we need a meeting.  Honestly, I
don’t know what they do over there.  I mean, this is supposed to be their primary responsibility.”
I looked over his shoulder, at the cubicles.  Maybe I could go talk to Jenny.  Jenny was
our office hot girl, and she and I flirted every so often.  But I did not want to talk to her.  I
wanted to go home and get a drink. 
I trudged back to my cubicle.  The walls of the cubicle were off white; the rug was a
multi-colored gray, ideal for subsuming stains.  The corners of the cubicles were rounded. They
rounded them for safety reasons.  The idea was that if you tripped like a clumsy idiot, and
banged your head, you might get a concussion, but no permanent damage.  They should have left
them sharp.  They should have fixed knives to them.  Then I might fall, and the knife would
penetrate my eyes, and go straight to my brain.  I wouldn’t have to work anymore.  I would be
dead.  It would be like winning the lotto.
I looked back at the third sheet of columns.  I took the skin of my left forearm in my
fingers, and pinched.  I kept pinching harder, and then started twisting.  Then I released, and
looked back at the columns.  Both forearms sported a series of  purple and blue bruises.

Why does this feel so awful, so fucking soul crushing?  I work three, maybe four hours in
a forty hour work week.  I make forty five a year.  Yet I hate this worse than my worst night
waiting tables.  Or the longest practice I ever had, when we showed up still hung-over for a
game, and the next day, he ran us into the ground, so that we threw up again.  Dad, was this your
whole life?  For what?  A Toyota, and then finally the Lexus?  For me Dad?  So I could do it

That was not the whole job.  Sometimes I got to travel.  I got to develop new test
questions for the databases; I would go visit someplace, bumble fuck Arizona, and talk to boring
people trying to pretend they were interesting, and stay in motel rooms where the white walls
had been stained yellow by the years of lonely bachelor’s smoking while they watched cable
pornography.  Then we would go eat out at Sizzler or some other chain restaurant.
            College was great.  I found some professors who were interesting, continued to study the
Then it was over.  I said to myself, “I’ve finished college.  Now I will work in order to be a man,
a good American, like my dad before me.  I will pay rent, phone bill, gas, electric,”  Work wasn’t
like that, it wasn’t becoming a man.  Instead it was like my manhood was being ripped out from
under my pelvis, a dedicking effected not by cutting but by a simple grip and pull- the balls were
next.  I wanted to do something, with who I am- I worked out, because there was no other part of
my day that involved my body, I looked at my massing muscles, and saw artificial.   Muscles
acquired for form’s sake.  Men used to acquire muscles despite themselves, to survive. 
            I didn’t care that I made forty thousand, while the CEO made probably twenty times that. 
I hated that that meant he was better than me.  And it was true, because I was there for only one
reason, and it was money.  If he managed to get more than me, then he was better.  If I hated
myself, I must be a fucking loser.  I hated the cheery way the life employees believed that the
company did not want to get what it could out of them, before spitting them out, even when they
had seen it happen. 
            A few days before that I had gone down to South Street for a few drinks.  I was walking
home, when I saw three black guys walking toward me.  I wasn’t scared, I didn’t cross the street
or anything.  When I went to walk by, one of them says, “Yo, buddy, you got the time?”
            I paused to look at my watch.  I gave them the time.  They had surrounded me. 
            One said, “Give me my money, white boy.”
            I said, “Your money?”
His fist crashed into my face, and I sat down on the pavement.  A big face was up close to
mine, “You think we playin?” I gave my wallet to him.  Then I got kicked in the head and lay
down while they walked away.  I heard one say, “White boy, you a pussy.”  I wished I had a gun. 
I would have killed all three right then.  I should have fought back.  I mean, how bad would they
have hurt me before someone saw it?  At least then I would have had my self respect.  And how
stupid was I to just walk into it?  They were right.  I was a pussy.  I did nothing to make a living,
except for run a few file cabinets in the whole bureaucracy. 
I stayed at work, because of money.  Go ahead, someday, go around, ask people if they
like their job.  Ask them if they think their job has any meaning to them beside producing
money.  They will all say no.  I knew I was supposed to buy a house, though with what I made,
all I could afford would be a house in the ghetto.  I had bills to pay, there was the phone bill, the
cellular phone bill, the car payment, the car insurance, the rent, and the retirement fund, and the
house I wanted to buy.  I had one picked out at 5th and Diamond, so then I could buy marijuana
off my front porch. 
I looked across the cubicles, and I thought, what’s the worse that can happen?  I could be
poor.  I could starve.  Starving would be better.  So I walked out of the office.  I slouched quietly
through the doors, waving at a few co-workers. 
I had a couple of speeches planned for my supervisor, and my boss.  I was going to point
out the repeated incompetence of my supervisor.  I would tell my boss, “Josh is great.  He comes
into my cubicle, and tells me to check his work.  I go onto the server, and what he has given me
is so much shit.  I just delete it and start over.  And you have been paying this motherfucker
twice what I make.” 
Then I was going to tell my boss how they were going to crash and burn with out me, and
lose a couple of good clients.  I was going to criticize how they had compensated me, just as a
business decision. 
Another option was to put a couple questions in the database that ran like this:

You are taking this boring ass test because:
A.  you want to become a slave to the man
B.  you are a fucking idiot
C.  you like taking tests
D. you just decided to stop taking this bull shit test

            People would be quietly taking their test in bumblefuck Arizona, and all the sudden they
would say, “What?  This question is really hard.  I don’t know?  Who is the man anyway?  This
must be a trick question.”  I didn’t do it.  I was scared of going to jail or something. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Superhero Mantle: Chapter Six B: Relationships are Responsibility?

There was only one drawback to being in a relationship. It turns out that you’re not supposed to look at other girls. Now in general it’s understood that you’re not supposed to stare at girls. It’s weird and stalker-ish, so the challenge guys normally face is checking them out without quite staring.
            I didn’t know that there is another way to be. But now, walking with Jean through the halls, I wasn’t supposed to check out any girls. Kyana had told me this at some point. I found the easiest way to do this was to stare into Jean’s eyes the whole time we were together, but I bumped into a lot of people, especially during the period changes when the halls were full.
            And then one time I caught a glimpse of a behind in front of us, and next thing I knew I was staring at it, its rolling tic-toc was a hypnotist’s watch, and I couldn’t look away. The owner of the magnificent behind turned into her class, and I snapped out of it, to look over at Jean, hoping she wasn’t watching. She was glaring at me.
            She shook her head, a slow small shake, and said nothing. I said, “Sorry about that.”
            Still nothing.
            “I just got hypnotized. I couldn’t help it.” Rather than answer me, she turned a one eighty, and walked the other way. The maneuver caught me off guard, and I just watched her behind sashay away. “Nice ass,” I remarked. I figured Miss Farr would say it was the wrong time for humor, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I told Mike and Kyana at lunch. Kyana said, “Was it my ass? I should get a license.”
Mike said, “You’ve got to control yourself, man. Girls deserve respect; she deserves it.”
“I’m trying.”
“Yoda says, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’” Star Wars trumped everything.
“What do I do now?”
Kyana had that one. “You got to do something nice for her. Buy her flowers, write her an apology and talk about how much you like her. Can you write poems?”
Mike said, “He can write shitty ones.”
“Well, get Mike to write you one. His are pretty good.”
“Would you?”
“You’ve got to pay me ten bucks.”
Mike’s poem wasn’t bad. I’ve included it here.

Upon looking away from where I want to look

I have seen a lot of things, and some of them are asses,
I have dreamed a lot of things, some with long lashes,
But you still surprise me when your beauty flashes.
Without you, I’m a drunk driver, I caroom crashes.
Sorry, whip me forty lashes, slice me with tongue slashes,
But talk to me, cause you’re still my only boo-smashes.
I re-wrote the poem in my handwriting and slipped it into her locker. She texted me, “Its OK- but if u do it again L”.
We met before practice and I told her how much I liked her and it should have been nice but I felt a little fake. I liked looking at that other butt. I didn’t like that she didn’t like it, so now I pretended something else.
I realized that a relationship was a responsibility, even if it involved kissing, which was really nice.