Writing

Writing takes practice. The more you practice, the more you realize how much you have to learn. You also get better at it. You find yourself eavesdropping on conversations in public places. You observe things more carefully, the places, the people, the food and drink. You collect story ideas. You mine your past for incidents worth retelling.

You think about dramatic structure and conflict. You think about what people want and the obstacles they have to overcome to get it. You think about what you are trying to say. That way lies madness. The story has it’s own logic. If you try to force it, it won’t be worth reading.

You get strict with yourself. You insist that you are going to write your target number of words before you get up again. You set deadlines and start trying to hold yourself to them. You befriend other writers. You try to glean any tips that they are willing to share to make the writing life more comfortable.

You find a critique group. You learn to give and receive constructive criticism. You donate stories to raise money for the library. You look forward to talking with other writers and swapping experiences. Writing is a lonely activity. At its simplest, its just you your computer and a chair (or a pad of paper if you prefer).

I always loved stationery. I am a little surprised that I prefer writing on a computer. It goes back to my horrible handwriting and the ease with which you can edit a digital manuscript.

People see you writing and give you looks. It makes me wonder what they are thinking. Are they writers too? If not, they can’t understand why your are compelled to do this. You stare back and try to remember to smile.

You find that it helps to write in different places. It inspires new thoughts. It helps you  focus on getting the words on the page. But sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up racking your brain for a topic. I sometimes write several abortive attempts before I come up with a topic that has legs.

And then there are the blogs you read looking for inspiration. Attempting to address topics something as interesting as the ones you read.

And you write some more. That is what practice is all about.


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

My Diet

I’ve been doing a potato fast for eight days now. That is, I have been eating only potatoes. White potatoes, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, russet potatoes, any kind of potato but nothing else. No butter no sour cream, no cinnamon sugar, Just potatoes. As many as I want. I lose weight without being hungry, on the order of five or ten pounds a week.

When I come off the potato fast, I am going to eat a low sugar, low salt, low fat, plant based diet. I’ve done this before. I lost from three hundred pounds down to two hundred and forty pounds. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas happened and I gained back to two hundred and seventy five pounds. I’ve tried exercise and several variations on the second stage diet, all with no luck. I was stuck on a plateau around two hundred and seventy five pounds.

In a week, I’ve lost around eight pounds. I expect the trend to continue. It worked once, This time I’ll be more diligent. I will be happy to get to the stage where I’m eating salads again though. I really like salads. I also like vinegar as a salad dressing. No oil, just vinegar. I’ve also had a lot of luck with salsa as salad dressing. I have to be careful about controlling portions of salsa. Most commercial salsas have too much salt in them.

I also avoid processed grains like white flour. That means I don’t eat sandwiches. More to the point, when I do eat sandwiches made from store bought bread, I end up gaining the weight back. I love bread, and eggs, and cheese. But when I eat them on any kind of regular basis, I am back in the holding pattern again.

I’ve also discovered that if I’m doing it right, I have this feeling that I used to think was hunger. It’s not really hunger though. I’m not sure what to call it but it accompanies weight loss. I find that exercise, although it is healthy, doesn’t seem to have much effect on weight loss one way or another. At least not as much exercise as I have been doing. I park a good way from my office so I get in some extra walking that way. I also work on the second floor and climb the stairs two or three times a day.

I drink a lot of water. I drink tea and coffee too. But everything I drink has no sugar and no sweetener. I think that sweetener interferes with your body’s ability to regulate it’s blood sugar. I admit to having cherry picked the research that I’ve based this diet on. I don’t recommend it to anyone else without consulting with their doctor and reading up on diet for themselves. That said, It seems to work for me and this time, I’m sticking to it.


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

Memory

My most creative moments seem to be when I am in the shower. The sensual feeling of the water hitting my skin relaxes me. I used to think it activated the right side of my brain but the myth that the right side of the brain is responsible for creativity has been disproved in recent years. I do think that relaxation aids creativity.

Another prime time for creativity is when you are about to go to sleep, drifting between consciousness and that first stage of sleep where you hear things going on around you but you can’t do anything about them and often don’t remember when you wake up.

Both of these times have something in common. It is difficult to remember what you were thinking when you try to recall them later. I had an incident like that this morning in the shower. I thought of a great topic for a blog post. I tried to fix it in my memory but something distracted me and the next thing I knew I had forgotten it.

That seems to happen more and more frequently as I get older. I don’t think it’s organic, at least not yet. I think it has more to do with the vast amount of experience that I’ve stuffed in my poor brain and the pitiful job that I’ve done of organizing it. My evidence for that conclusion is that I usually do remember things that I’ve had trouble remembering. It usually just takes relaxing and not worrying about it.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a personal memory prosthesis, a digital memory that I could access directly by thinking about it. A memory that would never fade or alter itself over time. I think we may some day have such a device. I even tell myself that I might live long enough to benefit from such technology.

Part of me knows that it is probably just a pipe dream. Brain prostheses are in the same category as general AI, something that is perennially just five or ten years in the future. And even if it should become technically feasible there is the question of how in the world would I pay for it?

I guess my practical hope is that I manage to live a full healthy life free from debilitating mental ailments. Anything more will be lagniappe. Technology advances at an ever accelerating pace. Things that I would have thought the stuff of science fiction when I was a boy are common place today.

Things like only having three or four channels on TV or phone booths or having to wait a week to get a response from a letter you sent to a friend are totally foreign to kids in their twenties and thirties. Even the fact that I call young adults kids shows my age.

I’ll think of the topic that I forgot and post a blog post based on it. That is, if it’s even worth it when I remember.


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

AI: Once Again Into the Breach

Artificial Intelligence has been about to take off as the next big thing for over sixty years. It is usually said that it will really hit big in about five years. But it never does. Or more precisely, the technology that was predicted does show up five years later but it has been so over hyped that it’s not what everyone expects.

We have been progressively learning more and more about Artificial Intelligence, both so-called weak-AI or machines that do some intelligent things and strong-AI or machines that actually think. Strong-AI may be a pipe dream. Or it may emerge from the detritus of the internet. Or some brilliant programmer(s) will write it sometime in the next fifty years.

I honestly don’t think it will be more than fifty years. Technology does advance exponentially and while we keep discovering that the human brain is more complex than we ever thought it was, The curves have to cross eventually. My money is on 2035 or so. I think Ray Kurtzweil has done his homework.

In the meantime, I have cracked out Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, Third Edition. This time I think I’ll make it further than I ever have before. Some topics just take persistence before they sink in.

I’ve been reading books about implementing Machine Learning (ML) with Python. I have decided that I need to backfill my understanding of the basic principles of AI before I dive quite so deep into one of the most productive, if difficult, subdomains of AI.  It’s a good book, if a bit on the pricey side. I recommend it if you are persistent and have a basic understanding of computers and how to program fairly well in at least one programming language. Python suggests itself as a good language to have under your belt as you venture forth. Lisp wouldn’t be bad either. There are free versions of both languages that you can download from the internet along with several good free tutorials.

Python is an easy first language although it can take a good while to advance from novice to journeyman. My advice is to find and read code that someone else has written in the language your are trying to learn. That is the best way to learn the idioms of the language that aren’t necessarily immediately apparent from reading the Users Guide or the Reference Manual. The documentation on the Python.org site is good but you’ll still want to find a bunch of working code to read to see how things are done.

The Singularity is coming. Hold on and we may live a good while longer. The world is going to be an awesome place. As if it isn’t already. I just hope the trend of being a selfish jerk stops. We need to be kind to each other and make the world a better place.


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

Practice

Today I read about a profound thing that Kurt Vonnegut said. When asked by a student what he should do to be a better writer, he advised “Practice becoming.” He went on to explain that in any endeavor that you undertake, whether it be singing or painting or writing or driving a car, you are going to spend thousands of hours perfecting the skill, becoming the singer or painter or writer or driver that you want to become. So, it only makes sense that you should concentrate on that aspect of the process at least as much as all the other skills that are needed to achieve your goals.

In a way, it is just another way of saying that life is a journey not a destination. It gave me a new perspective on what I have been doing as I become the writer that I want to be. I have spent time imagining how I want my life to change. What it means to me to become a writer. Not much has changed externally but my attitude toward writing has changed. I am no longer writing in anticipation of the day when I have managed the craft of writing. Instead, I am writing the stories that come to me today.

Sure, every story I write, I’m a little more confident and a little bit better at expressing myself more concisely. But then every writer gets better with every story they write. At some point, I expect that people will read what I write and enjoy it. I hope that time comes sooner instead of later but that has become a secondary issue. My primary focus is on becoming that writer that I envision myself becoming.

Another thing that has changed is my attitude toward playing my musical instruments. I used to worry about mastering the instruments other than the guitar that I own and have been learning to play. Now I focus on becoming the multi-instrumentalist that I intend to become. I know that I am talented. I know that I can both play songs that I already know and write new ones to play. I will also learn to record the music that I learn to play.

And I also intend to work on my programming projects while envisioning becoming a free lance programmer. All of these things are helping me to become the well rounded person that I am becoming. Many of them I had arrived at doing by myself. Others took little encouragement to get me to adopt them. Writing has become much more relaxing than it used to be. That is exciting to me.


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

Fall at Last

The clock ticks. The fan whirs. There is the ring of silence in my ears. I hear footsteps on the stairs outside the door. It is the neighbor going home to the flat upstairs. The caramel is soft and sweet in my mouth. I smell the coffee in my cup. The couch is soft and comfortable. The blanket on the back of the couch is fuzzy and warm. The nights are getting colder. It is October after all. The days are still warm though, unless it is raining.

I like rainy afternoons in fall. The leaves cover the streets where the wind has blown them off the trees. The puddles splash as cars drive through them. It reminds me of the falls of my youth. School has been back in session for a month or two. I am starting to have the feeling I would eventually identify as ennui. Leave it to the French to have a rich vocabulary for the shades of feeling depressed.

It has taken me most of my life to realize that the feeling is a chemical reaction to the change in the amount and quality of the light. I’ve even started to look forward to it as a change of pace from the manic mood of summer. Winter will be too cold for depression, at least of this sort. I never had a whole lot of problem with depression in the heart of winter.

It makes me want to watch old black and white movies and close the blinds on the blowing rain. Movies have helped people forget there troubles for well over a hundred years now. It was always my dream to make a full length movie and give back some of those feelings of wonder that have helped to pull me up out of the blues of fall.

Sometimes the best way out of depression is to tell the story of someone else’s troubles. The twelve bar blues consists of a statement of the situation in the first four bars, The second four bars repeats the first, usually verbatim. The last four bars elaborates on the troubles and rhymes with the first four bars (and second). For example:

I woke up this morning with an awful aching head.

I woke up this morning with an awful aching head.

My new man had left me, just a room and an empty bed.

— Bessie Smith, “Empty Bed Blues”

I think it has something to do with realizing that other people have problems too and your problems may not really be as bad as all that. It is just the time of year. The quality of light. The sound of the rain on the window and the street light shining through the  rain as it streams down the pane.


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

Deep or Wide Or Somewhere Inbetween?

At one time it was possible for one person to know most of what was worth knowing. An education consisted of first learning to read, then reading a small core collection of books. That was it. You were now a learned person. Let’s be honest, you were a learned man. Women were not generally taught to read or allowed access to the precious hand written books.

Then, the printing press was invented and books became cheaper and much more plentiful. The subjects that were studied and written about also became more diverse. But a reasonably fast reader could still manage to stay abreast of most of the new discoveries that were added to the corpus of knowledge. There were even a few women, mostly wives and daughters of wealthy men, who were allowed to read and become knowledgeable of the world, so long as it didn’t interfere with their duties of bearing children and keeping house.

At some point it became increasingly difficult to read widely in all the domains of study or for that matter to be an expert in more than a narrow field of study. When that happened, a great oscillation began in institutes of higher learning. For a while they would emphasize a broad general curriculum for undergraduate students. Then the pendulum would swing the other way and undergraduates would be encouraged to dive deep into an area of specialization, give general education a lick and a promise. After a while, seeing the error of their ways, the educators would shift the emphasis back to a well rounded undergraduate education and the cycle would start all over again.

The ideal actually lies somewhere in the middle, neither too broad nor too deep. The student will discover what they are interested in and dive deep into it soon enough. It is good to give them a broad selection of intellectual tools with which to attack any subject. That is not to say that an undergraduate should not pursue the in depth study of a particular subject, just that it should not be done at the expense of a broad, generalized education.

Alas, I matriculated at a time that emphasized specialization. I have a lot of course work in Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics. I have virtually nothing in history and the humanities. I have made up for it to some extent with personal reading but by the time you find yourself working at a full time job, there is not nearly enough time for personal study. Especially not when there are a host of novels that you want to read in addition to the various non-fiction topics. And it is assumed that you have to stay abreast of your area of specialization.

Better to lay a broad foundation in college than to try to fill in the gaps in your general educations later in life.


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