Apollo vs. Dionysus

The last couple of nights that I have written my blog post in the evening I have noticed a strange phenomenon. I have been trying the technique of reading something to try to inspire a topic. On these several occasions I have found myself nodding off about three quarters of the way through the piece that I was reading.

This is not because it was boring. Honestly I think it is because I still haven’t totally adjusted to daylight saving time. In any case, when I wake up from that short snooze and finish my reading, I find that I am refreshed, wide awake, and somehow inspired. This seems in accordance with an article that I read the other day that asserted that a short nap of fifteen minutes or so had the effect of rebooting your mind. Any longer and you ended up sluggish and dull witted for half an hour or so.

The other possibility is that when you hover around the edge of sleep you allow your subconscious a chance to surface and affect your conscious thought processes. Which ever theory holds, or perhaps they both have a measure of truth, it has served to enable me to write some of the better blog posts to date.

The blog post that I was reading tonight was another one by Alec Nevala-Lee. He astounds me with his riveting blog posts, day in and day out. In this post, he was talking about the fact that there were two extremes of researcher. At one extreme you have the regimented, orderly type that knows exactly what he is going to do and allegedly what he is going to accomplish. He terms this type Apollonian. On the other extreme is the Dionysian that works entirely from intuition and has no idea what it is that he will discover.

In practice, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We attempt to plan and organize but can usually attribute most of our success to persevering until we happen upon something worth while. Some would contend that the trick there is to recognize the brilliance discovery when you trip on it. The blog post in question was lamenting the fact that most institutions where you have to write a proposal to obtain funding unfairly favor the Apollonian researcher.

While that is certainly true it also explains the fact that true break throughs often come from someone totally outside the field of study. This is because they don’t know what is impossible and they don’t have to justify their funding by writing a proposal. They also often have the passion of the amateur who does something purely out of enthusiasm instead of personal advancement.

Here’s to all the Dionysians that blaze the new trails. May they find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and never lose their enthusiasm for the pursuit of their dreams.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Courting My Muse

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about genius in which she told us how the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the creative process worked. They believed that the artist was given their great ideas by spirits, the Greeks called them daemons, the Romans called them geniuses. Her point was that the burden of responsibility for creating outstanding works of art was perhaps too much for fragile human psyches.

I feel like my best work is done when I am able to step aside and allow the piece to just flow from somewhere outside of me through me and out to the world. It is perhaps tinged with something of myself but its source is outside of myself. I don’t know how to make this happen. I just know that I have to sit down and write. If my daemon or genius is with me, I may write something wonderful. But if it isn’t, I will still write. I will hone my craft so that when my daemon is there, I will be ready.

And this is something that I can apply to my music and my other creative endeavors. You can’t just sit around and wait for your muse. You have to court her. You have to give her the channel through which creativity can flow. You have to hone the craft with which the inspiration will become manifest.

And you also need to revel in the genius of other artists. It is through that inspiration that you can learn to summon your own muse. That is why as a writer, you must read as well as write. As a musician, you must listen to music as well as play music. And, as a programmer, you must read programs and run them to appreciate their unique qualities.

As an artist we risk so much. We put so much of ourselves on the line when we bring our art to the world. We should only have to do our best and hone our craft and be present when the masterpiece arrives. We shouldn’t have to suffer for our art. That is a misconception best laid to rest.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Thinking About Thinking

The funny thing about thinking is that you have to let go in order to have creative thoughts. Often, you can’t look right at the subject that you want to think about, you have to approach it indirectly. You have to be open to try new things. You have to sit down and start writing down ideas as they come to you. You have to stifle the censor that tries to stop you before you begin.

It sometimes helps to enter ideas into a writer’s almanac and try to break them down into smaller pieces. Sometimes it helps to keep a long list or outline of them. The hierarchical nature of an outline helps impose structure on the project. The important thing is to just start writing without censoring yourself.  You’re going to edit this idea before you publish it.

The maddening thing is that inspiration will often happen at the most inconvenient times. This encourages the project to be viewed in many varied ways. The key here is to take notes when it happens. If you have to leave something out while you are working, make a note to yourself. use square brackets to set the idea off from the rest of the piece [see if you can find someone else that uses this technique]. This makes it easier to search for when you revise the idea later.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Diagnosis: Impostor Syndrome

There is a malady that often afflicts creative types. It is called Impostor Syndrome. It is the feeling that one gets when they find themselves being recognized for skills that they are not sure they have. For example, artists early in their career often doubt their bona fides as artists. They have spent their youth in awe of the masters that actually make a living doing the things that they love. When they start to have some success they feel like someone is going to knock on the door and tell them, “Okay. You’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to get a real job.”

Artists aren’t the only ones that are afflicted with Impostor Syndrome though. The software developer works in a field that is constantly changing. New languages and tools are developed so fast that there are few, if any experts in any of them. You see ads on job forums looking for candidates with five years experience in a technology that has only existed for two years at most. Often the only way to get these jobs is to step up and say you know something that you don’t. Then, if you get the job, you hustle like mad to learn the skills that you claim you already have.

Needless to say, this causes a good deal of anxiety among software developers working on the bleeding edge of technology. It is a strange feeling that is unlike most other types of anxiety. Most anxiety is abated when whatever fears that you are anxious about turn out to be unfounded. In the case of Impostor Syndrome, the fears are founded until such time as you demonstrate that they aren’t by actually learning the skills that you have claimed.

When you finally reach the point where you can contribute to a project that you are working on under the shadow of Impostor Syndrome, the relief is palpable. It is an emotional roller coaster ride that takes a kind of adrenalin junkie personality type to enjoy it. The best advice if you find yourself in this position is to take a deep breath and dive in. After all, you were looking for a job when you found this one.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Ayes Have It

Writing without the use of the personal pronoun is challenging. It requires a confidence that is hard to muster. The perspective is implied and yet the resulting prose is stronger when it is written in that fashion. Points are asserted and it is left to the reader to evaluate their veracity.

It requires the author to think about the arguments they will make and the facts they will to assert. When a statement is made in this way, there are no apologies to soften them. The reader knows who is making the assertions and will hold the author responsible for them.

This style results in simpler, clearer prose. There are no words wasted on personal appeals. The prose has been trimmed to the bone. It may not suit all purposes but it is the best way to present factual narratives.

Our educational system has become lax in teaching its students concise thinking and clear writing. It is left for other avenues of tuition to hone the skills of modern writers. One such mechanism is the blog. It provides a platform upon which the aspiring writer can practice their craft. It is then a matter of Darwinian selection to see which blogs attract a readership and which languish in obscurity.

Another platform that champions the spoken word is the podcast. It offers a similar low barrier to entry while potentially providing greater exposure for the author that captures the interest of their audience. There is a wide range of styles of podcasts ranging from very informal to carefully scripted. It is left to the consumers to determine which styles flourish and which do not.

The ubiquity of the smart phone has made it possible for many people to produce short videos. You Tube was one of the first to provide a platform for video distribution and remains a major source of engaging amateur video content to this day. This provides yet another way the aspiring writer can distribute their work.

It is clear that there are plenty of avenues for authors and artists to deliver their creations to an audience in the modern world. Although this discussion has focused on the online platforms for expression there are also other venues that aspiring authors can employ to publish their work. These include local paper publications, commercial broadcast media, and even open mike nights at local restaurants and other entertainment establishments.

But Does This Mean I Have To Grow Up?

I have started thinking seriously about my goals. I have been living life on autopilot for so long that I have lost a clear sense of exactly what I want out of life. I started trying to enumerate my goals and discovered exactly how hard it is.

When I say I’ve been living on autopilot I mostly mean that I  have a good job that is interesting, pays well, and has good benefits. Consequently, things like shelter, food, health care, and a modicum of entertainment is pretty much taken care of. I occasionally have to pinch my pennies until the next pay check but I don’t worry much about necessities.

What I do worry about is the fact that I have lost sight of the things that I wanted to accomplish in life when I was younger. I have pushed them aside in favor of fighting the various fires that routinely arise when you are attempting to go about your life and raise a family. Now that my children are on their own and I have learned the basics of coping with day-to-day challenges, I am left pondering, what are my personal priorities?

After several false starts I came up with a small list of things that I want to do more. I want to play music. I don’t really have any great ambition to be famous or make money from it. Making money from it would be nice to the extent that it would help finance further projects but it would just be lagniappe.

Another thing I’d like to do is write. I am just starting to get to the point where I occasionally write something that I’m not completely embarrassed by. I would like to have time to devote to writing, both non-fiction and fiction, for more than a stolen hour here or half hour there. I realize that it takes discipline to actually sit down and take these opportunities when they present themselves.

I’d like to have the time and funds to occasionally travel. I haven’t done much traveling in the last several years and I miss seeing new horizons every now and then. I have had the yearning to revisit some of the places that I’ve lived in my youth. Places like Kentucky, Illinois, and Germany. I’d also like to see Great Britain in all her glory.

And finally, although it would be somewhat of a bus-man’s holiday, I’d like the opportunity to work on a programming project of my choosing without having to worry about schedule or budget or adhering to corporate standards or policies. I’ve always felt that programming was more an art than a science and after a career as a commercial artist, as it were, I’d like to address the more aesthetic side of the art.

This is by no means a comprehensive or even fairly detailed list of my goals. I’m still working on refining them. I have learned from experience that the more clearly you can envision something, the easier it is to manifest it. I’ve also left out the more intimate goals like spending time with friends and family. Consider this a first, skeletal pass at putting my goals into writing.

As always, pleasant dreams, tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important, be kind.

According to Descartes I Am

I like self referential things. For instance, this morning I was thinking about thinking. I started out by describing how I think about something I want to write about. It turns out that writing about something is one of the best ways to think about it. It provides transparency. If you can get your thoughts on paper as you think them then you can review them after the fact. You can rearrange them so that they make more sense. You can catch errors and edit them out. And the best part is that you can do it without trying to keep everything in your head all at once.

But as I was thinking about these things it occurred to me to ask what the different types of thoughts are. That was a bigger question than I had anticipated. As I started making a catalog i discovered that there was a correspondence between items on my list and the senses. We use our senses to collect data about the world. We see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things and that is how we know what is going on around us.

My original thoughts were focused on language and writing. As I expanded my thinking to incorporate these other kinds of thoughts it became obvious that there was a lot of work to be done to make it as easy to manipulate thoughts about touch, taste, and smell as easily as we have made it to manipulate the written word and sound. Computers can be used to help provide that transparency but we will have to imagine how they can help and experiment with them to invent new tools.

It seems that we have used writing and drawing pictures to record our thoughts about most things for centuries. Only recently have we become able to record sound and play it back any time we want to hear it. Our ability to make video and film records of our world are also very recent. I suppose it might be argued that sculptors work in the realm of touch. But is that adequate to capture the range of ideas that can be expressed that way? How might we record smells and tastes?

There are many dimensions to these questions about thinking. Questions are the most important aspect of thinking. You have to ask lots of questions and keep asking until you stumble across the good ones. Don’t get sidetracked by trying to answer your questions too early. You might not get around to asking the really profound ones if you do.

Contemplating How We Create

Some days when I sit down to write, I just want to get my words down as quickly as possible so that I can get on with the things that I have planned for the day. Today, I am in less of a hurry. It is paradoxical that since I’m not in a hurry, I am able to express my thoughts more quickly and clearly than I usually can. I think it is, in part, giving myself permission to think about what I have to say. This may entail periodic pauses to think about the next thing that I want to say. So long as I don’t get lost in thought, that’s okay.

Actually, depending on whether or not I am productively daydreaming, it is even okay if I get lost in thought. Sometimes that’s how new ideas percolate up to the conscious level of our minds. We just have to carefully pay attention as it emerges. My ideas often come as snippets of images. I’m also very influenced by music and other sounds in my environment. I am sometimes distracted by them so there is a constant tension between inspiration and distraction. That is probably the case all of the time. Who is to say when a distraction may become the focus of the inspiration? It has happened to me as  often as not.

Being able to recognize those inspirations and experiment with them dynamically is what Brett is talking about in so many of his presentations. I want to use the tools that he demonstrates in his presentations. They illustrate an exciting approach to thinking about things. At one point Brett made a distinction between two styles of programming, engineering vs. authoring. I have always though of what I did as authoring.

I have always been concerned about writing programs that communicate with others. It is interesting that Brett is more concerned with building tools for people to communicate their ideas. It is a different approach to using the computer. He does have thoughts on how to program as well. It is a strange fractal idea, communicating ideas about the tools that you are using to communicate.

I’ve always felt that thinking was a fractal activity. I think that is why artificial intelligence is such a hard thing to achieve. I use the term artificial intelligence here with what I consider to be its typical connotation. Without the ability to think about the way you think and to modify the way you think dynamically, you aren’t really intelligent, are you?

I have experienced the pleasure of exploring a system interactively. It is patently obvious to people that approach programming from that direction that immediate reflection of the consequences of your changes is essential to productive development.

When you are creating, you often don’t really know where you are going with an idea. You start off in some direction and see what happens. The journey informs the destination. As you get to one place, the next place suggests itself. This happens whether you are writing a song or a novel, solving a packing problem or creating an algorithm to sort a multidimensional array.

Another aspect of creating is that it is rarely about manipulating symbols. Even writers work from inspiration that is something other than the words they write. They imagine something in terms of images or sounds or other sensations. They translate those experiences into words that attempt to communicate them to the reader. Words often fall short. Pictures are usually more expressive.

And then, there is the dynamic experience. It may be a picture that you can change by clicking on it or a song that you can affect by waving your hands in a particular way. There is often a computer involved but it isn’t absolutely necessary. A Rubic’s cube teaches you a lot about mechanical geometric transformations. A musical instrument teaches you a lot about music. These are all examples of dynamic media for creating dynamic experiences.

The main reason that we overlook the dynamic nature of computers is that we are stuck in a pen and paper mind set for solving problems and expressing the solutions. This is a truth that has been laying under the surface of my consciousness for decades and I  have only just been able to understand it, thanks to the work of Brett Victor. I need to reflect more on how to incorporate it into my daily work. I need to keep my eyes open for insights that will inform my choice of a principle to champion.

I haven’t said anything about that yet. It is probably best left to someone else who has discovered their principle to explain it. I just know that deep solutions are not focused on a particular problem but rather on how we go about solving all problems.

I sometimes think that the best of my blog posts are channeled instead of being written. I’m not sure where they come from but it is more like reading something that someone else is writing than writing it myself. This post has been an imperfect rehash of a lot of the ideas that I have learned from watching the Brett Victor videos online. It is interesting to note that although the principle that he walks away with is uniquely his own, many of the ideas that he bases his work on are from other visionary pioneers. He credits them in his work.

Professional Principles

I’ve been watching a lot of videos of presentations given by Brett Victor. This particular video was particularly inspiring. It helped me understand something about myself and my relationship with my work that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before now. I realize that you may not have an hour to spend watching this video right now. If not, please consider bookmarking it and having a look at it later. I’ll try to give you a few clues as to why you might want to do that.

In this talk, Brett talks a lot about having a guiding principle that motivates  his work. Most of us just go to work and do the best we can to produce the work that is assigned to us. This is a valuable way to live your life but it leaves people like me unsatisfied. I want to create things. I want to discover new things that haven’t ever been discovered before. I want to change the way we do things for the better. This entails a lot more thinking and introspecting than just showing up and doing the work that is assigned to us the same way that it has been done by everyone else that has done it before.

Brett talks about his principle and gives examples of how he has modified the tools he uses to comply with his principle. He also gives an example of another person’s principle and how he worked to apply it and ended up changing the face of modern computing. I have a  yearning to do this kind of work. I’ve got a lot of introspection to do in order to figure out what the principle is that I want to champion.

Watch the video. Brett is much more eloquent than I am in explaining what he means and that will help you to understand my ramblings here a little bit better.

Monologue to My Muse

First comes the spark of imagination, a glimmer of an idea, a hint of what it might become. Next, comes the imagining of what it will be when it is finished. Then comes the deconstruction into parts that are small enough that they can be implemented. Then you pick one of the pieces, maybe the most challenging one, or maybe the one that you have the clearest idea of how to realize. You put words to paper and as quick as you begin, the plan begins to change.

The key to success, to finishing the project is to hold on to the vision of what it will become and measure each change against that vision. You write what you know. You imagine what you don’t know and then you  write that. You set it aside and move on to another piece. You see the project begin to take shape under your diligent hands. You revisit the parts that you  wrote earlier to convince yourself that they measure up to your standards. If they don’t you rewrite them.

And then one day, you are finished. You have put everything that you have got to give into it and you now have to send it out the door to be judged by those that you created it for, your readers. Your consumers. It doesn’t really matter what it is that you create, the process is much the same. You work hard. You do your best. You brook no compromise.

That’s how I imagine it goes. I’ll let you know when I finish. And I will finish. I’m stubborn that way. It may take longer than I expected but I will finish it. Just wait and see.