Top of the Pops

We have an app that lets us stream BBC television live as it is being broadcast in the UK. This makes it offset from our local time by six hours. That means that, for instance, when we watch at 9:00PM here, it is3:00AM in Great Britain. It is surprising that we can almost always find things that we want to watch quicker there than we can in all the channels on the local cable pretty much any time, day or night.

I may have also mentioned that early on Saturday morning, BBC Four plays old Top of the Pops episodes from a long time ago. Tonight they were playing an episode from 1977. I was living in Germany at the time but I was totally unaware of Top of the Pops at that time. I was, however, aware of many of the artists that they featured.

As I watched such bands as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Thin Lizzy, and Queen to name just a few, perform their current hit songs I was impressed by how rigidly produced many of the acts were. Their dancing was choreographed. Rod Stewart was even using an acoustic guitar as a prop, he obviously wasn’t playing it.

In this post Milli Vanilli age modern audiences take a dim view of lip syncing but in 1977 it was required by most television producers. One can understand their nervousness about things going wrong on a nationwide feed but after all, that is what these artists do, night after night on tour. It is going to take more than the novelty of a television studio to throw them.

I had my run as a professional musician. It was exhilarating. By the end of the three year run I was as good a rhythm guitar player as most of the ones that I saw on tv tonight. And the more you play, the better you get.

But I was saved from that probable catastrophe by circumstances. The nail in the coffin of my musical career was when my wife got pregnant with our first daughter. We had to change the plan then. We couldn’t live on a shoe string and hand outs from our parents any more. I had to get a real job.

And as fate would have it, that job was as a missile computer repairman for the Army. It brought me to Huntsville and taught me the trade that would end up carrying me through a successful career as a programmer.

Being a professional musician takes a lot out of you. If you are successful you are never at home. You have to learn to make home where ever you are. And you have to resist the temptation of drugs and alcohol and promiscuous sex. In spite of the early termination of my musical career I struggled with those issues in my twenties. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been if I had had the kind of access to those vices that a musical career at that time would have given me.

On the other hand, if you are a less successful musician, you are never home. You couldn’t afford a home anyway. You are constantly looking for a gig to put food on the table and get you to the next gig. I won’t say things have been easy for me but they’ve been a lot easier than they would have been as a professional musician.

I miss the audiences though. It’s not a matter of ego though. There is a magical exchange of energy between musicians and an audience that digs the music they are playing. Both the crowd and the performers feed off of that energy and, paradoxically, the more they do, the more the energy is amplified.

I still play music. Not as much as I’d like. But I keep in practice. I keep my eyes open for a small group of musicians with similar musical tastes and abilities. The nonverbal communications between musicians is another thrill that I miss. If you play music and want to get together sometime, let me know.

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

Butt in Chair Time

Years ago I attended a Science Fiction convention in Huntsville Alabama. It  was called ConStellation and it had only been around for a couple of years. One of the speakers was the editor of one of the monthly science fiction magazines, I forget which one. I forget his name. I forget a lot lately but that’s a topic for a different blog.

This editor’s talk was about what it was like to be an editor and what it took to be a writer. He used a particular phrase so often it almost became a mantra. He said to be a writer you’ve got to spend time with your butt in the chair writing. Not thinking about writing. Not reading something. Writing. Doing other things is perhaps necessary to inspire what you write but in order to be a writer you have to write and that takes “butt in chair” time.

I have taken that advise to heart. I have scheduled my butt in chair time and I defend it vigorously. My wife sometimes resents the fact that I have time to write but I don’t have time for some of the items on the honey-do list. To be fair, that is a fault not of my writing time but of my neglectful attitude toward the honey-do list. But that too is a topic for a different blog.

I have discovered the importance of having a distraction free place to write. I can’t write with the television on. I’m liable to watch whatever drivel is on instead of writing. I often put headphones on and listen to music to drown out the TV. That is only marginally better. I find I write best when I’m sitting in near silence.

Some times I sit in the silence, waiting for the idea that is going to come forth. I am close to despair. I have got to write my blog so that I can go to bed. And then it happens. The ideas flow out of my head and onto the page. Are they any good? I guess that’s for you to decide. All I can say is that they are coherent. They start at the beginning and proceed to tell a story. That’s really all I ask for.

So, if you want to master something, whether it is writing, or playing a musical instrument, or painting a picture, you’ve got to spend the time doing it. Do it until that spark of creativity flows out of you and becomes the art that you are driven to produce. It will happen when you least expect it. It is liable to startle you when it happens. That is the miracle of creativity. If you court it long enough, it will come.

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

It’s Turtles All the Way Down

The case has been made that it is highly probable that the world we live in is actually a high fidelity digital simulation. After all, our model of the world around us is merely the amalgamation of various streams of sensory input. We are already learning to synthesize visual and auditory stimuli. How long will it be before our virtual worlds are completely immersive?

Or maybe they already are. Maybe our crude attempts at virtual reality are like Russian nesting dolls, reality within reality within reality. Who knows how deeply nested they are. On each level there would be creators convinced that theirs was the concrete reality and that the subsequent embedded realities were merely high fidelity hoaxes.

The contemplation of which lead to a meditation on the meaning of meaning and where it ultimately resides. On the surface of things meaning is construed as simply the definition of words describing a thing or concept. But when you dig deeper, it is divided into denotation and connotation. Denotation describes the simple mapping of  word to the object that it represents. Whereas, connotation describes the implications behind a word, often going beyond a strict mapping.

The ultimate place where meaning resides however is in the mind of the entity that derives it. That entity may reside at any nested level of reality and may be comprised of actual intelligence of artificial intelligence. That is left out of our perception of ourselves as natively intelligent entities rather than manufactured construct

I’m not so sure there is actually that much difference any more. I have lived a significantly long span of time, at least relative to the norm of this level of reality. I am largely the sum of my experiences and my reactions to them. If there are intelligent entities in virtual worlds of human creation they are no more artificial than I am if I am merely a construct of the reality containing this one.

I have to conclude that intelligence is precious in any incarnation and is to be revered. I resolve to continue to study intelligence where ever I find it and do whatever I can to help it propagate itself into the environment in which it finds itself.

I’m reminded of the scene in Blade Runner where Roy Batty describes his wondrous experiences to Rick Decker, the Blade Runner dispatched to “retire” him. Decker doesn’t succeed in killing him, not from want of trying but he dies due to an artificially abbreviated life span. In the end we are left to wonder if Decker might not be a replicant (a manufactured, android life form). The point being, is there really any difference how intelligence comes into being? Is it not to be revered in any case?

It has the mark of the old Indian legend that the world exists on the back of a turtle. That turtle stands on the back of another which stands on the back of another ad infinitum. It’s turtles all the way down.

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

Sit Down at a Typewriter and Open Up a Vein

I started writing when I was in high school. I started out writing surrealistic sentences. I typed them on an old manual Royal typewriter. I rarely got more than a sentence or two written before I ripped the page from the platen and loaded another sheet of paper. If it was particularly bad I wadded it up and threw it toward an old school metal waste basket. I had a fantasy that this was how real writers suffered for their art.

A year or two later I took a screenwriting class in film school. I got my first taste of what it was like to actually struggle over the details of a story. I wrote about twenty minutes of a feature film before I wrote myself into a corner. Apparently the professor liked what I wrote. I made an A in the course. But I never did work out the problems with the plot.

I wrote in fits and starts throughout four years in the Army. Most of the time it was journal entries written by hand in a notebook. I preferred small ones, five inches by seven inches was my favorite. I rarely filled more than a third of the pages in one before I quit writing regularly. Then several months later I would start over with a new notebook.

When I finally got my first computer I started writing on it. It didn’t have the same tactile appeal as my notebooks but it was easier to read what I had written. It was also better for the environment. I used way less dead trees. But I was still an occasional writer.

Then one day I heard about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I read it and started writing seven hundred and fifty words a day. That was seven years ago. I’ve written practically ever day since then. I have noticed that I have been getting progressively better at writing as I accumulated more and more practice.

I started participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) that is held every November. The goal is to write at least fifty thousand words during the thirty days of November. I succeeded twice but the novels that I wrote were not very good. I came to understand that they were first drafts and that I still had work to do to transform them into the stories that I wanted to tell.

The next thing that I figured out is that I needed to start publishing my writing. And I had to do it on a regular schedule. Without knowing exactly why, I made a commitment to write a blog post every day. That was last June. Since then, I’ve only missed one day. I also discovered why it was so important. The discipline of writing a cohesive post of a particular size on a strict deadline helped me take my writing to the next level.

The latest piece in the puzzle has been to join a Writers Group at my local public library. The group meets twice a month, once to critique each others writing and once for a program featuring a speaker knowledgeable in some aspect of writing or publishing. I am amazed at how valuable these meetings have been to my development as a writer.

At this point I’m an amateur writer, I write for the love of writing. Some day I may graduate to publishing works for sale. As long as I continue to grow as a writer, I’m not particularly concerned about that one way or the other. I just want to write things that people enjoy reading.

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

Only a Phase, These Dark Cafe Days

I went to a meeting of the Downtown Writers Group on Saturday. Laura McPhail gave an excellent talk that she entitled I Wrote a Book! Now What? While talking about the various social media sites online she mentioned Goodreads. I had looked at the site a number of years ago but it was not as well populated as it is now and I never got back to it.

Wow! I fed it some of the books that I’ve bought on Amazon along with a selection of my favorite books and authors. It started giving me some excellent suggestions. Then I discovered that you could follow authors and started tagging my favorites left and right. It consumed a good portion of Sunday afternoon.

I was reminded of several authors that I haven’t kept up with in the process. One of them was Rudy Rucker. I’ve loved his books, both his fiction and his non-fiction. I tagged several of his books that I haven’t read “want to read”.

Then today I noticed he had posted a blog post entitled “Simply Gödel,” Phenomonology, and Monads. I will definitely be reading Tieszen’s book when it comes out. I also plan to play with Rudy’s Capow program. I will have to port it to the Mac but that sounds like fun. Then I might transliterate it into Javascript. I may have to do some of the math in C++ for performance’s sake but I think I know how to do that as well.

One thought that came to me while I was reading his blog was how I envied him the sense of freedom that he felt when he retired. I get the impression that he enjoyed his career before he retired. But somehow, retirement represented the freedom to explore the world on his own terms without feeling any kind of obligations to anyone else.

I’ve got to figure out how to continue to support myself in the fashion that I have become accustomed before I can think about retirement. But I am definitely feeling the motivation to actively make plans and start taking actions to make it happen.

I’ve often said that I don’t want to retire in the sense of not doing anything. Rather, I want to retire so that I can do the things that I’m having a hard time finding time to do now while I’m working at my day job. Things like writing science fiction and fantasy. Or like composing and recording my own music. Or writing software to please myself instead of someone else.

Life is to short to spend all of it marching to the rhythm of someone else’s drum. I’ve done that for way to long. The time has come for this caterpillar to come out of his cocoon and take wing. I’ve stayed in that dark, confining space for much too long.

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

The Forest for the Trees

It is slightly unnerving to discover that in spite of no particular planning on your part you have ended up living in one of the best places to live. Of course there are all sorts of caveats on that statement. If you mess with the criteria enough you can say that about any place. But when national magazines write articles about the ten best places to live and work in the United States and your city keeps showing up on the list it’s hard to deny that there is something to it.

There are several ways that this might have happened and then there is the way that it actually happened. The latter is as good a story as any. It was 1975 and I was a college student. My wife was pregnant and I needed a job. I took the civil service exam for postal worker and made top marks on it. The problem was, veterans were given a 10 point lead over non-veterans. So, someone who made a 95 on the test ended up with an adjusted score of 105 and was given preference for the job.

I looked for work for weeks but I didn’t know how to look for a job. The only jobs I’d ever had were the result of knowing someone that knew me or my parents. My job experience was somewhat limited. I had been a guitar player and gunfighter in a western theme park and I had been a probationary supply clerk for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad thanks to my father-in-law. The gig with the railroad was messed up when I had a minor wreck and was out of work for a week.

It occurred to me that perhaps if I joined the Army I could expand upon my job skills and at very least I would be a veteran and thus eligible for the preferential hiring policy at the post office. I talked with the recruiter and told him that I wanted to enlist for the longest school that had training in fixing digital computer hardware. He suggested Pershing Missile Repairman and I embarked on an adventure that would lead me to Huntsville, Alabama.

I spent nine months in Pershing school where I learned to repair two different computers and related peripheral hardware. Part of that peripheral hardware was the guidance system of the Pershing missile. It was an exciting time. After I graduated from the school, I was sent to Neu Ulm Germany to practice my newly learned trade. After an adventurous two years there, I got sent back to Huntsville to be an instructor in the Pershing school.

After I got out of the Army, I new I wanted a career in computers. After an abortive start with a small startup in Birmingham, I returned to Huntsville once again. I didn’t plan to live in Huntsville. There were just a lot of good jobs that required my skills with computers. I started out at Intergraph, a rapidly growing Computer Aided Drafting startup. I had several jobs in the aerospace industry including a twenty five year run with one of the leading airplane manufacturers.

Life has been good. But now I find myself looking around for something new. I want to use my experience with computers but I also want to explore my newly developed writing skills. I also want to change my work hours some. I’m tired of getting up before dawn to get my writing done and get to work by eight o’clock. I’ve always been more of an afternoon person anyway.

This certainly didn’t go the way I expected it to but four thirty comes early tomorrow and I’m still committed to my current job. Consequently, I don’t plan on scrapping this post, or rewriting it. I will tuck it in bed, tag it, write a title for it, and head for bed myself.

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

Writing as a Collaborative Art

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about why I write. What do I want to accomplish? Am I writing with the intention of selling my writing to someone else to read? Or, am I writing to figure out what I think about things? In either case, there is a desire to engage with my readers. At my age, I don’t expect to make a living with my writing. It would be nice if I could swing it but I’m not betting on it.

This puts me firmly in the category of amateur writer, in the sense that an amateur does something for the love of doing it. Any income derived from writing will be welcomed and probably immediately reinvested in producing more writing.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to become a good writer or that I don’t want to figure out how to publish my work and make enough from it to at least pay the costs of writing and promoting my work. I have the added luxury of being able to retire and live partially on my pension. I face the challenge of all pensioners of trying to ensure that my retirement money lasts as long as I do.

I have discovered as I look into the business of writing that I know more than I realize about running a business. I know that you have to account for everything, time, materials, services, relationships. You’ve got to keep meticulous records. Records of expenditures, details of the things that you’ve tried and how well they work. Ways of stretching your time and money to accomplish as much as possible with the least investment. You look for win-win situations and ways to get investments to serve double duty.

This leads me to the conclusion that, like it or not, I’m going to have to develop some level of skills at running a business. This may actually have the added benefit of helping me manage my personal finances more prudently. It is rather late in life for me to be figuring these things out but I guess it is better late than never.

I have made a good start on an important aspect of a writer’s career. I have begun meeting other writers and forming support networks. No one ever truly accomplishes anything totally alone. This is particularly true of writing. After theatrical productions (in which category I clump stage, screen, and concert productions), publishing is one of the most complex of the collaboratory endeavors.

Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, can all practice their professions solo. They often choose to employ teams of support personnel but they aren’t totally necessary. Writers can write by themselves but to produce a salable product they most collaborate with editors, artists, graphic designers, typesetters, publicists, the list goes on and on.

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

Red Nose Day

It is amazing how the British go all out for fund raising on their Red Nose Day. It is part of the fund raising shenanigans of Comic Relief. We are a much bigger country here in the USA so we manage to raise phenomenal amounts of money for various charities without focusing so much on a particular day like that. It is both admirable and a little bit annoying but it seems to be a part of the national character of the UK.

Another aspect of being such a compact geographic region, Australia and Canada not withstanding, is the fact that their entertainment industry is small enough that all of their celebrities seem to know each other. This is seen to some extent in the US but there tend to be more regional pockets here than in GB.

Perhaps it is an offshoot of the cultural significance of the local pub but they seem to like quiz shows a good bit more than we do. This is demonstrated by the fact that many of the quiz shows that have been produced in the US in recent years have been imported from the UK. For example, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Deal or No Deal, The Weakest Link, and Cash Cab to name a few.

There are a number of shows that would play well in the US market that haven’t jumped the pond yet. My favorite is a parody that they have done of one of their own popular game shows. The original is called Countdown. It features two contestants that compete to make the longest word from randomly selected letters within thirty seconds. These word building rounds are alternated with rounds where a number game consisting of randomly selecting six numbers and a three digit target number. The goal  is to figure out how to combine any or all of the numbers using the four basic arithmetic operations to get an answer as close as possible to the target number also within thirty seconds.

Countdown has much the same following in the UK that Jeopardy has in the US. The unexpected twist was when the cast of another quiz show, 8 Out of 10 Cats, decided to do a parody of Countdown. They enlisted the talents of Rachel Riley, the mathematics whiz that presides over the numbers game on the straight Countdown as well as Susie Dent, the demure but brilliant lexicographer that judges the word game, and added the comedy talent of Jimmy Carr as the quiz master with Sean Lock and Jon Richardson as team captains. The result is hilarious and must be seen to be appreciated. In fact, old episodes can be found on You Tube. Search for 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown to see for yourself.

While this blog post has been somewhat of a ramble, it’s theme is an attempt to characterize some of the aspects of the British psyche that feeds my anglophilia. It was inspired by the fact that today was Red Nose Day in the UK.

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

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.

Summer Afternoons on the Carport

When I was a boy my grandmother lived in a house on the edge of Murray, Kentucky. She had a two car carport. She parked her car on one side and kept several pieces of lawn furniture on the other slot. There were two or three chairs and a long, two person couch like thing called a glider. It moved back and forth and was a favorite of my cousin and me.

On hot summer afternoons we would sit in the shade of the car port, drink iced tea, and listen to my grandmother tell stories about our relatives. She would start out telling one story but soon she would get side tracked and tell the story about someone peripherally involved in the first story. This would have been fine except soon she would get diverted again telling the story of yet another peripherally involved person.

We didn’t mind. We didn’t know any of the people involved anyway. We just enjoyed hearing about all these people and their antics long before my cousin or I were born. And my grandmother enjoyed telling these stories. In a way it was like revisiting all these people, most of whom were long passed.

Today I had a particularly good session at my psychologist. I initially started seeing him for help dealing with free floating anxiety. He has helped me learn to cope with my anxiety. He has helped me deal with other minor problems. But now, he often just serves as a sympathetic ear to listen to my stories, no matter how disjoint or rambling. He listens without judgement and in total confidence. As I leave I realize that my cousin and I provided a similar service to my grandmother.

I called my cousin on the way home. She is getting married again soon. She has outlived three husbands now. This time she has found someone who is, she tells me, her spiritual soul mate. I am happy for her. Everyone needs someone to grow old with. It has been shown to increase your lifespan. I feel lucky that I have married my soul mate as well. I start to understand now how lonely my grandmother was after my grandfather died. In her day widows of her age didn’t remarry. They told stories to their grandchildren.

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