17 Nov 2017

Why Economic Models are Bullshit (Part I)

Hello dear readers!

Previously, I wrote on a number of topics, chiefly among them: my exams, and Fallen Love, my upcoming novel. Alas the former has prevented me from working on the latter; Fallen Love will probably not be finished until January, as I stated. Still, with my exams finally over, I can get back to working on it.

You may be wondering as to the title of this post. Your guess would be correct—this post is indeed a brief argumentative essay (read: rant) about economic models, on which I have spent the last week of my life revising for. I am taking both micro and macroeconomics, but this post will mainly be about macro; I will get onto why in a moment.

A Pedagogical Disaster

The simplest reason for my particular hatred of macroeconomic models has to do with teaching. That’s the simple reason, but the more complicated reason has to do with content (though the two are, of course, tied together).

To put it simply: the teaching has been disastrous. More than half of our class failed the first exam—this is in a selective university, mind you, with many of the student body having attained excellent grades in secondary school. One reason was the teacher. We had two teachers, and the first was quite dire.

“That’s one bad apple,” you say. “There are bad teachers in the world. That doesn’t mean macroeconomics is bullshit.”

This fact alone does not prove my point—except that this is not a single, isolated phenomena. Economics students across the world routinely struggle with their courses, complaining that they do not really understand it; that indeed, “it”—macroeconomic models—don’t make any sense. One bad teacher is one thing. But can the entire pedagogical structure of economic teaching be at fault?

I would argue yes. The most common complaint I’ve heard in my university is that (and I am paraphrasing only slightly) “I draw the graphs, but I don’t know what it means or why.” There are a few reasons for this. To begin with: concepts. Macroeconomic concepts are strongly under-explained. The course introduces things like “inflation”, “GDP”, “unemployment” and (my personal favourite) “money”—but these macroeconomic concepts differ significantly from the prima facie conception that students begin the course with.

A case in point: a number of students conflated the AS–AD model with the supply-and-demand model from micro economics. They even sound similar—one is “aggregate” supply and demand, the other just vanilla supply and demand.

AS–AD graph

Microeconomic supply-and-demand graph

Although they look extremely similar, they aren’t the same. The microeconomic model has P (prices) on the vertical axis and Q (quantity) on the horizontal axis—this arrangement is problematic, but I’ll get to that. Anyway, the AS–AD model has P (price levels) and Y (real GDP, output) on the respective axes. These are different concepts. Price levels are a measure of weighted, generalised prices across a macroeconomy (usually they are calculated in the form of the CPI)—they’re not the same thing as the price in a market. Y, representing real GDP, is sometimes called output, leading students to conflate it with quantity output.

Money is the worst, however. Students have no idea what money actually is (in fact a lot of economists don’t understand what money is, but students are even worse). In a macroeconomic context, money doesn’t just mean the euros in your pocket; it represents a wide range of things, from liquid assets held in bank accounts (M1) to savings accounts (M2) to more nebulous concepts of money that are too technical to go into here.

This is also why students struggle with the IS–LM model, which rests on a complicated set of assumptions about money and what money does in an economy.

Anyway, onto the next pedagogical error: mechanistic teaching and oversimplification. Our teachers presented all of these models as a series of mechanical steps, expressed in equally mechanical equations. “What happens if taxes increase under the classical model?” (Some curves shift.) “What happens if labour supply increases under the AD-AS model in the short-run and long-run?” (A complicated mess.) “What happens in the Mundell-Flemming model if, under a fixed exchange rate condition...” (I give up.)

There was very little explanation of why all these things happened. Why would a government want to increase taxes anyway? Why does the model look at these variables? What explanatory power do these models have, and what assumptions do they make?

These are all key questions that remained unanswered. This leads me onto the third pedagogic mistake: not teaching history. These models did not fall out of the sky. They were developed by economists—in a particular time and place, in a particular intellectual climate, and in a particular historical context. It’s difficult to understand these models, much less criticise them or apply them, without this precious context.

Yet, even without all these mistakes of pedagogy, there are more fundamental reasons why macroeconomic models are difficult for the students to comprehend. To repeat the title of this post: macroeconomic models are bullshit.

Conclusion Part I

I realise that you are probably tired of reading this, dear reader, so I will save my juicy critique of macroeconomics for the next post (titled “Why Macroeconomics is Bullshit, Part II”). For the time being, I will let you ponder the parlous state of economics teaching in our schools and universities.

Until then, make sure to check out Fallen Love in case you haven’t already.

30 Oct 2017

The Long Autumn

Hail readers!

Today I shall be giving you a brief update, regarding both my progress on Fallen Love, and the state of my life at present (the two being, of course, inextricably linked).

To wit: progress on Fallen Love has been slower than I was perhaps hoping for. Nonetheless, I have made some progress. I read, edited, and rewrote over 100 pages in the book since last week. The changes were, primarily, related to tense, description, and the mechanics of writing; but I also rewrote a chapter in order to change the course of events slightly. I have not made substantial changes to plot and characterisation—the reason is simply because I haven’t got to that part yet. The beginning of the book serves more as a foundation; it is the later chapters that really advance the plot and, by extension, the character development.

Why has progress been slow, you wonder? Partly it’s because I have not received all of the feedback from my beta readers, and what feedback I did receive was mostly not that useful. I will ask you, reader, to consider helping me. If you think you can beta-read, drop me an email (work DOT alexstargazer AT gmail.com) and we’ll see. I very much appreciate help and feedback at this point.

It’s also been partly because I’ve had a lot of work to do. Last week was lecture-free, but I nevertheless had an essay to finish, a quiz to submit, and a statistics project to work on. This week I will also be busy. Tomorrow I have another quiz; after that I should do some work on two essays; and I also need to enrol for next semester’s courses (a complicated business).

The week after this, I need to focus and revise for my second round of exams. I will also have to squeeze in an annotated report and presentation.

I hope you understand why I am moving my goals for Fallen Love further in the future. Previously, I hoped to have wrapped up the revision process by November; that was naive, a hope guided by the fact that it will soon have been a year since I started writing Fallen Love (and a year since I gave up on the Ark). I am planning, instead, on having finished the revisions by January. Then I will start submitting to agents.

I am also going to Romania this Christmas—the first Christmas I am spending in my home country for a very, very long time. In the past 15 years I have been to Romania only in the summer, except once in February. What can I say? Christmas will be very busy this year.

My blogging efforts will remain sporadic over this period, as university, the book, and life will take up most of my attention. Although, I am taking breaks in the form of reading, and so I will continue posting my reviews. You can read my (very substantial!) backlog here.

Until next time!

3 Oct 2017

Writing a Book at 14

Hello readers!

Following from my previous announcement, I can confirm that I’ve sent the completed draft of Fallen Love to my beta readers, and they are presently reading it. In the meanwhile, I have decided to grant you all a treat: an essay, originally published in the student journal, that elaborates on my experience writing the Necromancer.

Perhaps you can interpret it as a reflection on the past—and a guide to the future. For me, it invokes great nostalgia. For you, it may enlighten the sometimes mysterious world of writers.

I will be back with news of Fallen Love soon, in any case. Until then!

What’s it like to write a book at 14?

When I tell people I wrote a book at 14, it would be an understatement to say that I get a lot of responses. But beyond the look on people’s faces, writing the Necromancer changed my life in many deeper (though sometimes subtle) ways.

Firstly, allow me to address the obvious factor here: commitment. Writing a 108,000 word high-fantasy book is not something you do on a whim. Indeed, it took me over six months to complete the first draft—a feat that required writing multiple hours per week—and a whole 18 months to get feedback, edit, seek agents, do more edits, and eventually hire professionals to do the artwork.

This leads me onto the second obvious question: motivation. Why, exactly, does a fourteen-year-old undertake such a quest? In my experience, laymen often draw on analogies with entrepreneurs: perhaps, they think, I wrote because I want to build something. Maybe I want to make the world a better place. Maybe I’m just in it for the money, or the pleasure of throwing down a 500 page book and saying ‘I wrote that.’

But this is only a small part of the reason I write. To understand my motivation, you need look a bit deeper, and trace the origin to my love of reading. I have always loved reading, even from an early age, and this was particularly true of the years just before I began writing. A transcript from the school library showed that I read about 400 books between the ages of 11 and 14.

The old adage is true: behind every writer there is a profligate reader.

So how did my love of reading affect me? It is safe to say that I became enraptured by the world of fantasy. Like the children in Narnia, I had opened the wardrobe and found a whole world waiting for me. Eragon and Northern Lights kept me up at night. I saw myself in their shoes: I fought urgals on the back of a dragon; I met angels; I fought dark magicians and consorted with vampires.

I was, in truth, smitten by the occult. My fascination was endless. It seems almost inevitable that I came to write about it; that my ideas grew, morphed, and took a life of their own.

One grey October afternoon, I began writing. I believe the necromancer compelled me to write that day; that the curve of his arrogant jaw, the icy power held in his ‘cold orbs of sight,’ all but forced me to put him down on paper.

Laymen often ask writers where their inspiration comes from. This, I am afraid, is the best answer I can give you.

The first few chapters I wrote were not worth the paper they would have been printed on, however, so I had to rewrite them from scratch. This is true of nearly all first time writers—you can blame it on the fact that writing fiction is… hard. It is difficult for a non-writers to understand just what kind of challenges writing presents: the elaborate art of writing itself; the magnificent difficulty of capturing whole personalities, often in few words; the intricacies of plot—all to name a few.

The rest of the book was a journey. I followed Linaera—apprentice mage and unwitting protagonist—through her journey into the Northern Mountains. I watched on as Nateldorth, Great Mage, uncovered dark conspiracies in the capital, Dresh. Most of all I followed the necromancer. I was witness to him: to his betrayal, his descent into madness, and his ultimate redemption.

Books are journeys. The journey of my book was in a way my journey: where my characters struggled, I struggled with them. For them it was question of facing up to existential challenges. For me it was knowing their motivation, and building all the twists and turns of plot that made up their lives.

Writing the Necromancer was often a pleasure. I liked the dark, unexpected turns of the plot; the characters’ inner lives; and most of all, I enjoyed writing in the world of Arachadia. I loved the towering mountains, the vast, sprawling forests; the great stonework of the mage buildings and the fine craftsmanship of the wooden cathedrals; the world of dormant dragons and powerful magics.

Of course, writing the Necromancer was often a challenge. I was young, and devoid of experience. I often struggled to write fluently—it took much work to correct the early mistakes. It was as if a vast realm had been entrusted to a young king; a king with many ideas but few ways to actually conquer.

But conquer it I did. Perhaps I did not quite succeed. Perhaps there are other worlds yet unconquered—other vast and distant places full of promise. But writing the Necromancer was not the finishing line; it was only the first milestone of a long journey. I do not know what dragons still slumber in the path I am taking.

Nor does it matter. My advice to my younger self—as well as to other would-be writers—is perseverance. Many monsters lie in wait (some of them are called publishers, critics, and yourself) but the treasures they guard are beautiful.

24 Sep 2017

It is done

Hail readers!

Previously, I mentioned that I was close to completing Fallen Love, my upcoming new novel. Well: there’s no more ‘upcoming’ about it anymore. Fallen Love is finished!

Of course, I also mentioned, in my previous update, that writing the ending does not serve to complete this quest of mine; there is still much work to do, in the form of getting more feedback, making revisions (a sizable number remain to be done) and of course querying agents.

But still: this is a huge milestone. I have turned an idea—an inkling of the character’s desires, the world they inhabit, the circumstances of the plot—into reality. Indeed, I thought it would never happen.

You see, when I began Fallen Love, I had written over 50,000 words on the Ark. It seemed insane to start a new novel, and abandon the old one, even though—deep down—I knew it was the right thing to do. Luckily, I persevered; and now here I stand, my hands holding a much more valuable object than the Ark could ever have been.

It is often said by writers that the second novel is easier than the first one. For me, this was not true. Oh sure: writing the Necromancer was insanely hard, and took two years to get published. Yet I completed the first draft in barely six months, two weeks; whereas Fallen Love took me 10 months, and it’s shorter too. The Necromancer stands at 108,000 words, while Fallen Love is 79,000.

If you consider the Ark to be more than just a false start—since I spent over a year working on it, and created three of the main characters that would later find themselves in Fallen Love—then you really start to comprehend the Goliath endeavour this was.

I only hope that publishing it will be easier. I daresay I am a much better writer now.

In any case, that’s enough for today. I have sent the completed draft to my beta readers; it is time for me to rest, letting my readers digest, and allowing me to charge my batteries for what comes next. University has also not let me off too easily, and I will have work to do in the coming weeks.

But since I know you must be excited, I have made good on a promise: you can now read the first chapter on this page.

Good bye for now, or as the Dutch say: tot ziens!

1 Sep 2017

A New Year (Of Work)

Good day readers, and hallo from Amsterdam!

This summer, I have been away both in Romania, where I visited Vatra Dornei, and Scotland (where I saw many places): if you are interested, you can check out my photos here and here.

Now, I am back in Amsterdam to begin my second year of university. It has, as I have said before, been a long year; yet I have done much, not least quitting the Ark, and beginning Fallen Love. Speaking of which: that is the topic of today’s little update.

I am now on 71,000 words—a significant feat on top of all my visiting, and of course all my university work. I daresay I am quite pleased, especially since I am close to finishing! A couple of thousand words is all that separates me from completion.

And what will I do once I finish it, you ask? Well, at first, not much. I intend to let it sit for a few weeks. Then I will go back; I will read through the novel in its entirety, resolving unfinished business, perhaps adding or subtracting some scenes, and generally getting a feel for my new creation.

In the meanwhile, I will be doing a few other things. Of course there is my university work; that will take up a significant amount of my time, but not all of it by any means. No: I will also be spending some time on Tapas, a fantasy- and comic-book themed platform that can help me gain new readers. I’m not entirely sure what I will put up (it may be new content; it may be some existing unpublished material) but I hope it will be interesting.

Now, onto writing and the new academic year. Wish me luck!

4 Aug 2017

A Wee Poem

Hail readers!

Today I have chosen to share with you a new poem—one which I wrote while away in the Romanian countryside, as I have already mentioned previously. It is entitled ‘the Castle’, and you can read it below.

The Castle

Now, as for what it represents, that ought not be difficult to deduce. The first few stanzas are ‘scenic,’ as one might say; they set the scene with imagery, and make an excellent stepping stone into the main theme of the poem:

There comes a time
A very special, once upon a time
When a castle need be built.
To guard against invaders; to fight dragons
And be home to the ghosts of battle.

The second part of the poem goes onto none other Linaera and Neshvetal themselves. These two, for those of you who don’t know, are the main characters from the Necromancer, my first novel. In that sense, the poem has a certain amount of nostalgia (though ‘be home to the ghosts of battle’ should give that away!)

The girl is tall, and pale
Her eyes bright, blue
Alive with newborn power.
The ghost is beside her:
Formed of shadows and memories.

So different
The living and the dead;
The evil and the righteous.
But so alike, too—
Father and daughter, wielders of magic.

The final part of the poem talks of ‘a time of new enemies’; in that sense, one would be correct in thinking that the poem alludes to a new sequel for the book. That, of course, is still a good long way in the future: I intend to complete Fallen Love, its sequel, and a whole other set of books before I do that. Nonetheless, it gives you a taste of things to be.

I will leave you with the poem’s ending, and a reference to destiny, as is traditional here on the Magical Realm.

The girl turns away;
The necromancer seems sad
Though hopeful too.
“Time to meet your destiny,”
He says, eyes atwinkle.

“Now,” says the girl
“Where have I heard that before?”

1 Aug 2017

A Writer’s Work

Hello readers!

I have been away in my Romanian country home, and have, alas, been bereft of Internet. Please do excuse my lackluster efforts here on the Magical Realm. Nonetheless, this has presented a different opportunity: writing Fallen Love.

I am very pleased to announce that I have written more than 60,000 words on the book; I am not very far from finishing. Another 15,000 words or so will do it, and then I will begin the process of seeking agents, and trying to acquire a publishing contract.

In the meanwhile, I have decided to release some excerpts from the book. They will appear in the ‘Upcoming Books’ page of the blog. If all of my announcements have made you at all excited, do check it out—there is plenty to entertain you!

The blurb, which I have perfected, may do some of the convincing:

When Upperclassman Conall falls in love with Mark—a Fallen boy—two things become clear. First, he’s immediately and irrevocably in love with him. And secondly, he’s biting off more than he can chew...

Ireland, 2620: a world haunted by mutants at night, and by the terror that is the Party at day. A brutal class regime is maintained through secrecy and precisely targeted violence, ensuring the rule of the Party and the economic dominance of the European Superstate.

But one woman is planning on turning it all to rubble. Kaylin, a clairvoyant and spell-caster, is building an army of Familiars—others like her, gifted with strange powers.

Her plans are led astray, however, when two boys mysteriously enter her visions. Why do they matter, she wonders? And what of the dark beings her visions foretell; what of the Fallen Ones? A storm is coming, and it is bigger than any of them...

Still, the rest of this post will not be concerned with Fallen Love directly, but rather with an intriguing and related discussion: what promotes good quality, productive writing?

Inspiration: The Age Old Question

Inspiration is much talked about, both in writing circles and by well-intentioned laymen. The latter usually assume that natural beauty has some contribution to good writing: perhaps, they think, the desolate beauty of the Scottish Highlands has some bearing on the Scottish poets. A few even naively assume that said natural beauty will turn them into great poets and writers.

In writing circles, the discussion tends to be a bit more nuanced: we writers, after all, experience the power of art in a more intimate and direct fashion. We all know that great writing is something far from trivial; that simply gazing upon a desolate peak, or a beautiful indigo sunset, is not nearly enough to turn someone into a brilliant artist.

My personal take on this is that external beauty, while awe-inspiring and wonderful, isn’t really relevant to the internal beauty an artist creates. JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a train. And some of my strongest writing, both on Fallen Love and the Necromancer, was not created on the top of a mountain—it was written in much more banal circumstances.

One might argue that seeing natural beauty is enough to instil the seeds of inspiration; that the experience continues even after we’ve left the site. There may be some merit to this idea, but I would nevertheless point out that writing—especially my kind of writing, fantasy—often stretches reality in ways that non-artists cannot see. I believe Sartre had it right when he used the analogy of light. We can shine light on a painting, but this does not illuminate its inner mysteries; and indeed, art itself seems able to shine a light on the world, and one that cannot be emulated by even the sun.

Still, something did allow me to write nearly 10,000 words in the space of a week. Maybe it was the lack of anything better to do (although many people in that situation never become great artists). Or perhaps the star-lit landscape, yet free from the vagaries of modern cities, brought some inspiration from the heavens. Who knows?

In any case, I hope you enjoyed my little philosophical digression. Now, I must leave you, dear reader, to continue my writerly work. I will return—both with excerpts from the book, and even with a new poem I also wrote while away.

Until then!