The New Normal

We’ve been hearing the phrase “the new normal” for quite sometime now, often in regard to the way politicians are ignoring the conventional protocols of government, not to mention blatantly ignoring the constitution of the United States and the laws thereof. But that isn’t the usage that I want to talk about. I want to talk about the impact of the pandemic on our grossly unprepared medical system. I want to talk about the lethal effect of the head-in-the-sand attitude of science deniers on a naive and trusting populace.

The truth of the matter is, we have been barreling toward another, different disaster for years now. The climate is changing. At this point it doesn’t matter if the change is due to man made abuses of the environment, we’ve got to do something about it if we expect to survive the global catastrophe that is coming.

In a way, the pandemic is a good thing. It is an immediate reminder that if we don’t make use of the advice that scientists give us, we are doomed to endure the consequences of that hubris. Scientists have been advocating the preparation for a global pandemic such as we now find ourselves in the middle of since the first Bush administration. There has been some attention given to the matter but not at a high enough priority.

And then when the current administration took office, one of the first things it did was reverse some of the meager progress that had been made. Science can help save us but only if we heed the warnings that our scientists give and allocate sufficient resources to counter the challenges that they warn of down the road.

One of the frustrating things about the situation is that if we heed the warnings and take the suggested steps we won’t see that the predictions were right. Only if we ignore the advice will we see first hand how bad the situation will get.

At present, the new normal is avoid public gatherings, wash your hands at every opportunity, don’t touch your face, and what ever you do, when it comes time to vote, vote the science deniers out of office. Humanity won’t survive many more administrations like the one we have endured for the past four years.

Isolated Thoughts

The combination of the rainy weather and the self isolation that we’re practicing to try to avoid the potentially deadly effects of COVID-19 has found me spending more time than usual at my computer. I started working from home on Thursday morning, well in advance of the beginning of the exponential growth of infection. I hope the measures that have been put in effect manage to help us avoid the potential devastation that the virus threatens. Only time will tell.

I have been thinking a bit about creativity in general and writing in particular. As I was writing an entry in my journal while listening to a livestream on the Reina del Cid channel, I recalled something that I’ve known for a long time but haven’t thought about recently. The best lyrics tell stories. They are more constrained by their form than prose stories are but the same principles that I’ve been studying to improve my short stories apply equally to writing songs.

Another thing that I’ve known for a while but keep forgetting, the more constraints you place on yourself, the more your creativity seems to be stimulated. Constraints come in all sorts of varieties. You may be constrained by the length of the piece or the audience. You may be constrained by the genre or the vocabulary. The list of possible constraints is virtually endless but the more constraints that you put on yourself, the better the results seem to be.

Even though my commute is only twenty minutes each way, I find those forty minutes give me time to play my guitar and other things that have been falling off my plate lately. I’m lucky in that I am working on a project that is already widely geographically distributed so that it is just as effective for me to work from home as it is to go in to the office. I expect after a week or two of this I may start to get cabin fever and miss seeing my other colleagues but being able to reduce my chances of getting sick are much appreciated.

I have a number of writing projects that I’m working on but I’m going to reward myself when I meet my writing milestones by spending time writing songs and recording them with Garage Band. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I’m looking forward to it.

I don’t usually think of myself as an introvert. I get lonely when I’m stuck for long periods of time alone on a project. But in this case, I’m looking for the silver lining. Spending time on my computer writing, composing, reading, and all the other things that I don’t usually have enough time for is going to be a good consolation prize for having to be isolated for a while.

This will give me an opportunity to get ahead of my publishing schedule and get a couple of blog posts ready for weeks when my schedule makes it difficult to write a post. That will help me meet my goal of posting a new post every Monday. I was going to say for a year but I don’t intend to stop then.

This pandemic is not the first that humanity has faced. We are better informed and in many ways better equipped to deal with this one. Maybe we don’t have enough resources to meet the challenge of the worse case scenario but if everyone keeps calm and avoids crowds and washes their hands frequently, perhaps we can curb its severity.

What is a Blog?

It’s a strange question to ask. The fact that you’re reading this implies that you have some kind of an idea of what a blog is. The problem is, a blog is whatever the owner of it wants it to be. This can vary widely from blog to blog and even between posts on the same blog. This post is going to explore the types of content I might post here and why.

There are two broad categories of blog. The first is the link blog. A link blog consists of short entries that identify an interesting topic and links to other sites on the web that deal with it in greater depth. Link blogs often have multiple posts per day.

The other category of blog is the essay blog. It typically has longer posts than a link blog. It may have links to other sites but it is itself a more in depth treatment of its topic than is typical of a link blog post.

It is probably obvious to those of you that have been reading this blog that I tend to write essay posts here. But that is only one dimension characterizing blog posts. Another way is by the unifying topic that the blog covers, sometimes referred to as “the beat” in newspapers and magazines.

The obvious unifying factor of most blogs is the perspective of the author. This isn’t necessarily the case though. Some blogs are written by multiple authors each giving their perspective on a common topic.

I have proceeded so far this year on the theory that publishing a post on a regular schedule was more important than trying to establish a theme beyond my personal interests. I’m trying to get a couple of posts ahead so that I don’t feel so much pressure to get something written and posted by Monday.

I used to write a lot about computer languages and application software that I liked. Lately I have become less focused on programming and more engaged in writing fiction. This changes the topics that I think about a little.

I am learning the structure of a short story and how it is similar to and different from a novel. I am learning how to get a reader engaged in your story and deliver a satisfying ending. I am learning how to build a fictional world and the people that inhabit it. It is so different from writing software and yet there are amazing similarities too.

I don’t plan to post much fiction here although you never can tell. I will definitely let you know if the piece is fiction. I suspect there are better places to share fiction. Perhaps I’ll build a home page for my writing and point to it from here.

A Small Change of Plan

What with the effect that the Corona virus has had on the stock market and the fact that I keep reading advice from established writers that says “keep your day job”, I think I’m going to push off retirement a couple of more years. Every year that I keep adding to my retirement fund makes the prospect of writing for a living seem more feasible. If I can ratchet my retirement fund up to the point where I can live comfortably on it, I can use my income from writing, such as it may be, to invest in promoting my writing. I’ve never gone to many conventions because I couldn’t afford to. I’d love to be able to go to them and take it off my taxes as a business expense.

Another benefit of postponing retirement is that I can spend my spare time getting better as a writer so that when I do get ready to write full time, I’ll have more experience and maybe a sale or two under my belt. I know. You can’t make any sales if you haven’t made any submissions. I’m getting there.

One challenge in putting off retirement is finding time to work full time and go to all my (and my wife’s) doctor appointments. I’m lucky there in that my employer is very liberal in their flexible work schedule policy. The other thing that I appreciate is that they have changed from having sick leave and vacation to having one combined paid time off (PTO) bucket. They are also letting us take PTO in tenth of an hour increments after the initial hour. That will help.

Another issue that I have is avoiding exposure to the pandemic du jour. It’s not that I’m that afraid of them but rather that by working with people that have children, I am routinely exposed to any illness that is going around. My wife has a number of autoimmune disorders and is often left with a compromised immune system. My employer is very understanding about telecommuting but there are certain things that can’t be done remotely. I will be glad when the bulk of my work can be accomplished from my home office.

The final issue that I’m struggling with is the fact that I’ve never been self employed. My ignorance of basic business operations is staggering. I’m scared of failing not because I’m not a good writer but because I’m a lousy businessman. I guess I’ll focus on becoming an excellent writer and do what I can to improve my business acumen along the way.

I understand you can hire business managers. You need to have a business in the first place for that to make sense though. Kind of like the reason I’m not looking for an agent yet is that I’m not producing product that an agent could sell yet. If I make a sale on my own, maybe I’ll look for an agent.

Then there is the other approach to the business. The dreaded self publishing. Publishers do a lot for a writer. If one decides to self publish, one takes on the responsibility of doing everything that the publisher normally does for an author, provide an editor, a copy editor, a development editor, book designer, produce the book, distribute the book, etc. You have to know a lot more about publishing and work a whole lot more on the aspects other than writing which in itself is hard enough.

To conclude, I am overthinking things (again). I need to let the problems arise before I worry too much about them. In the mean time, I intend to enjoy the process of becoming a better writer. If I didn’t enjoy writing to begin with, none of this would even be an issue.

Tales of an Aging Gunfighter

Often times places that have meant the most to us in our life tend to vanish from the landscape over time. Right after I graduated from High School I got a summer job at a western theme park in Cave City, Kentucky, called Guntown Mountain. It was perched on top of a large hill that passed for a mountain in the central Kentucky karst. That first summer that I worked there, there were only two ways to the top, a chair lift which was the typical means of transport, and an extremely steep unpaved road that required a four wheel drive vehicle and lots of chutzpah to navigate.

When I arrived, the park had been open a week and the rest of the crew had fallen into the rhythm of the shows. This being my first job, I was excited but unsure of what I was in for.

The cast lived in apartments on the mountain, with the exception of Jerry, the manager, and his wife and little boy. I brought a bag of clothes, two guitars, an amplifier, and a box of miscellaneous posessions. We carted them all up on the chair lift. I jumped on a chair with one of my bags. My dad stayed at the bottom and loaded the rest of my stuff on subsequent chairs. When I got to the top, the chair lift boys helped me pull my stuff off the chairs and stack them next to the gate to the town.

The town consisted of a saloon, a simulated sheriff’s office, a simulated bank, and various other buildings that contained simulated shops with antiques for the visitors to look at from the doors opening onto the boardwalk. There was a grave yard with wooden grave markers with humorous epigraphs on them behind the main buildings in town.

In the back of towns were several more buildings that served as apartments for the crew on the inside but were painted to look like period businesses, e.g. a blacksmith’s. There was an outdoor theater that was used for a magic show and a small shooting range where we demonstrated the Kentucky Long Rifle.

I was quickly indoctrinated into the profession of gunfighter and played the role of the kid in most of the gunfights. It was fun shooting the revolvers loaded with blanks. Less so falling on the limestone covered ground that had only a thin layer of sawdust sprinkled over it.

Integrating myself into the saloon show proved even easier since I had been performing in musical ensembles and plays for almost a decade. The rest of the crew were college students for the most part, as I would be come fall. They had the advantage of several weeks of rehearsal prior to the park opening but I dove right in and was up to speed in a couple of days.

I spent two summers working at Guntown Mountain, that first summer when I was eighteen and two summers later when I was twenty. Those two summers and the intervening summer when I performed much the same duties at another park, Kaintuck Territory, located in Western Kentucky near Kentucky lake, were some of the best times of my life. Those places were special and yet they are no more.

Kaintuck Territory has vanished into the wilderness of Western Kentucky while Guntown Mountain has finally gone out of business after struggling under several owners and several different themes, most recently featuring a haunted house. They haven’t had gunfights or saloon shows there in years. They say you can’t go home again but in this case, I really can’t.

Safety First

Quite early in my career as a computer programmer I came to the realization that the computer was a kind of universal machine. Given the right peripherals, it could print books, play music, build cars, and so many other things that one might imagine. In fact, imagining it was the first step in accomplishing it with a computer. With computers the key was to associate binary numbers with ever more sophisticated abstractions until you subsumed the problem domain in your digital model.

In recent years I have become aware of the fact that there are different categories of software. There is entertainment software that has little in the way of safety concerns associated with it. I don’t think anyone has ever been killed because of a bug in a game.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, safety critical software. This includes such domains as automobile engine software that can cause an engine to explode if the parameters are set too far from nominal. Or flight software that can mean the difference between a safe landing and flaming death.

Between these two extremes are various levels of concerns when it comes to software accuracy. One of the examples in this middle area are financial programs that, while they can’t directly cause death, can reek havoc with peoples lives and reputations.

Software is comprised of a broad spectrum of applications each one with a more or less safety critical implication. One size does not fit all. Some software can be churned out as fast as the programmer can hit the keys with minimal programming and no one will be hurt. Other software needs lots of analysis, study, and design, followed by careful implementation and test. And even though all of this is done, we are still going to find bugs in the system. Software is a reflection of the programmers mind and all minds are flawed to some degree or another.

There are steps that can be taken. Breaking things down into small, clear steps, ensuring that multiple people examine code and understand it so that they can help catch errors before they can escape into production systems. And a commitment to professionalism by programmers on a par with our fellow creators from other engineering disciplines.

For the bulk of my career people have been amazed that computers can do the things they do at all. We are only now beginning to ask the more important questions about which tasks should be entrusted to computers and how much are we willing to spend to get software right. We have spent so many years on the quest for ever more impressive features we have forgotten the principle of staying with software that has proven to yield safe results. Forego some of the flashy features in order to ensure the soundness of the features that are already implemented. And remember, just because you can solve a problem with a computer, doesn’t always mean you should.

Planning is Everything

I’ve been thinking about planning and scheduling lately. No, not in the sense of writing software to automate some of the more tedious aspects of planning and scheduling. Although, the thinking I do about planning my time to allow me to make progress on all of my writing goals and creating a schedule to allow me to ensure I set aside time to work on them will undoubtedly help when I turn my attention to writing software of that sort.

I’ve done a reasonably good job of writing a minimum of seven hundred and fifty words a day in a journal for the past ten years. Usually, the goal here is to empty my mind of the various detritus that clutters it up and keeps me from focusing on creating stories and essays. On occasion though, most notably during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo as it’s often called), I use my journal habit to help find time for a more focused pursuit, like writing the aforementioned novel. The point is, I’ve developed a habit of writing my journal every day. Now, I need to figure out when I’m going to set aside time to write fiction on a daily basis.

But writing fiction isn’t the only activity vying for my limited time. There is also rewriting, editing, proof reading, and all the other incidental activities requisite in producing a polished, publishable product. And that is not even considering finding time to write and lightly edit the weekly blog post that I committed to this year. The one that you are reading right now in fact.

I have good intentions of writing several blog posts in advance so that I don’t get in a time crunch and find myself writing my blog post at the last minute in order to publish it every Monday at noon as planned. That hasn’t happened yet although I do have some hope of getting a few posts ahead before we get too much further into the year.

Dwight Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” It has taken me a while to appreciate the wisdom behind that statement. The way I’ve come to understand it is that the process of planning forces you to think about how to accomplish the activity you are undertaking. The plan that you come up with is merely one way of accomplishing the task. There are other ways of doing it, some better, some worse.

When you set out to execute a plan, you discover all the details that you overlooked while planning. The good news is, you have given some thought to the details that you didn’t overlook, thus reducing the amount of work you have to do while replanning in the moment. Also, you have practiced thinking about the problem so you have a better idea of where to start when you are considering how to proceed when you are replanning.

Habits help. If you can do something every day for two weeks, you will have established it as a habit. Once you have established a habit, adding a new aspect to that habit is a lot easier than establishing the habit was initially. For example, I have a strongly established habit of writing a journal entry every day. When I decided to add a practice of identifying three things that I was grateful for each day, I tagged that activity on to the end of writing my journal entry and established the habit immediately.

Take time to list your goals. Then prioritize them. Take the highest priority goal and schedule some time, fifteen minute a day perhaps, to dedicate toward achieving that goal. Keep that daily commitment for two weeks. Soon you will have achieved your highest priority goal. Take the next goal on your list and do the same with it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you will start achieving your goals.

From Humble Beginnings

While reading my dad’s journal, I was reminded about a toy I got once for Christmas. It was called a Jimmy Jet. It was a mockup of a fighter jet cockpit. There was a display screen and a steering wheel. There was a throttle that made the engine noise rev up and wind down. There were two plastic missiles mounted on top that you shot by pulling a lever. I found several videos about it on You Tube. There was also an unrelated poem by Shel Silverstein called Jimmy Jet and His TV Set.

I had forgotten all about the Jimmy Jet. I even forgot what it was exactly until I Googled it. But as I watched the video of it in action it became clear to me that this was when I fell in love with gadgets. In subsequent years I tinkered with guitar amplifiers, radios, and old TV sets. I took electronics in high school. And when Popular Electronics had a cover feature on the Altair 8800 personal computer I was smitten with gear lust.

I got my first taste of computer programming on an educational time sharing system named Plato. There were two terminals in a room in the library at Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale. They were connected by phone lines to a mainframe in Champaign. The system was programmed in a language called Tutor, a name inspired by the educational orientation of the system.

Tutor was influenced by a number of early computer languages. It was organized in units that corresponded with display pages. The display was made from glowing orange dots on a brown background. You could draw line graphics on the display or you could position text at any given place on the display. The text characters were user programmable so I created a special character set to animate a cat walking across the screen.

My next experience with computers was when I took the basic computer class at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It was 1976 and they were using a computer trainer built to work like a DEC PDP-8. Each computer had a teletype for a console with a paper tape punch/reader to store and load programs. I loved programming in machine language. We wrote the programs on paper, translated the instruction names into numerical codes by hand, and then punched them into paper tape to load into the computer.

By this time, I was totally hooked on computers. I subscribed to Byte magazine to learn about all the new personal computers that were coming on the market. There were articles about how to build add ons for your computer, how to program it, and even how to build it from scratch. I never had the money or skill to build a computer totally from scratch.

The next computer I was exposed to was the Burroughs 5000 minicomputer that served as the launch control computer of the Pershing Missile system. We learned how that system worked, circuit by circuit, board by board. By the time we were through, we knew how digital computers worked, inside and out.

When I got out of the Army, I got a job as a computer technician and programmer at a little startup in Alabaster, Alabama. They specialized in adapting personal computers for business use. Unfortunately, their knowledge of computers far exceeded their business acumen.

The Gift

I got given an unexpected gift this week. My cousin called me. She is my dad’s sister’s daughter. She is a year and a half younger than me. She had been organizing the stuff she had cleared out of her mother’s house after she died. She found an envelope in an unlabeled box and when she opened it she found my dad’s journal. It was mostly handwritten on 6″x9 1/2″ loose leaf notebook paper. Some entries were on successive days but most were written at anything from three month to a year intervals. She mailed it to me.

The first entry was dated August 23, 1961. The last was dated July 9, 1987, the day my mother died. I was six when he started this journal. I was thirty two when he wrote the last entry. It gave me a perspective on my childhood and my father that I’ve never had before.

I never knew that my dad aspired to be a writer. I knew he wrote occasionally but mostly he prepared lectures and tests for his classes. He taught High School English, Speech, Debate, Drama, and Cinematography. He knew more about theatre and stage craft than anyone I’ve ever known. He produced professional quality plays with High School talent. He taught generations of students to appreciate literature and theatre.

His journal gave me an adult’s perspective on the events of my childhood. A perspective that I was kindly spared when I was a child. I learned that he struggled with type II diabetes in an era when the only medication for it was insulin. He had to judge how much insulin his body would produce based upon how much activity he anticipated undertaking and decide how much insulin to take to keep his blood sugar in balance. If he was wrong, it could result in hallucinations or even a coma if he got too much insulin. He felt tired most of the time and was subject to infections that took longer to heal than they would in non-diabetic patients.

He struggled to pay the bills and support himself, my mother, my little brother, and me, all on a teacher’s salary. He often considered changing professions in order to make more money but he didn’t know how to do anything else besides teach. He took part time jobs in discount retail stores. He taught English at the local Junior College.

I always thought he was a financial wizard. It turns out, he was stressed out all the time trying to figure out how to pay all his bills and debts. Any expertise he had was hard won from the experience of living with more expenses than income for so long.

At some point he did the math and figured out his life expectancy. He underestimated how long he would live by ten years. But he did come to the conclusion that he didn’t have enough time left to make any great, world shattering contributions with his writing. What he didn’t realize was the profound effect that he had had on the world through teaching the thousands students that had taken his classes.

I suspect he continued to write, he just never returned to this journal. Through a series of unfortunate mistakes that I made, much of my daddy’s papers, photographs, and other personal effects were lost soon after he died. I was unaware of the existence of this journal and it has been a rare gift to see my childhood and my daddy’s life through his eyes almost thirty five years after he died. Thank you daddy.

Imposter Syndrome, Be Gone!

When I was eight years old I was cast as an extra in a summer stock production of Stars in My Crown at Kentucky Lake in Western Kentucky. I played a pupil in the schoolhouse scene and a young native American (we called them Indians back then) in the Trail of Tears scene. I never once felt that I was not perfectly capable of the roles that I was playing. I was too young to be that self conscious. I mostly ignored the audience and immersed myself in the game of pretend that was my perception of the play.

Years later, when I was eighteen, I got a job as a gunfighter and guitar player at a western theme park. Once again, I did not feel like I was doing anything beyond my capability. I was a competent musician for the repertoire that we performed and the acting involved in the gunfights was hardly on a Broadway level. I was comfortable performing in front of an audience. I was also comfortable interacting with them in character as we were required to do between performances.

It wasn’t until I found myself in a startup computer firm writing software that I had my first brush with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, for those of you who don’t know, is the feeling that you don’t have the proper credentials or otherwise are not properly prepared to do the job that you find yourself hired to do. I first heard about it as such in an essay written by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors. He described it as the feeling that someone was going to knock on the door and tell him that he had been found out and he would have to get a real job now.

I had two years of college when I joined the Army. The Army trained me to fix a minicomputer down to the circuit level which included classes on writing assembly level programs, the most fundamental level of programming, just slightly above the actual binary machine language that computers directly execute. In short, I knew my way around computer hardware.

I have always been something of a fanatic about small computers. At that time, I spent way too much of my time away from work reading about computers and teaching myself how to program in the various higher level computer languages that were being introduced all the time. Although I didn’t have formal training as a computer programmer, I probably had as much experience programming as most other people entering the programming job market at that time.

The problem was, I felt like an imposter. I couldn’t believe that they were paying me to write programs, something that I would be doing even if they weren’t paying me. I had no experience writing software as complex as I was being asked to but then most of my colleagues were in the same boat.

Gradually, as I successfully completed one assignment after the next, I became more confident in my ability but the feeling of imposter syndrome never quite left me. I always felt like I was in slightly over my head. Even after earning a B.S. in Computer Science, I still felt inadequate.

Then, quite recently, I found a TED talk on You Tube. A fellow named Mike Cannon-Brookes explained how you can use imposter syndrome to your benefit. He explained that many successful entrepreneurs were afflicted by imposter syndrome but that if you just pushed through the feelings of inadequacy and did your homework you could figure out how to do the things you were feeling inadequate to tackle.

I realized that this was what I had learned to do, without being aware that I was doing it. It had become so much a part of my approach to my assignments at work that I didn’t know any other way to do it.

Which brings me to my latest challenge. I’ve decided that I want to learn to write fiction. I have been actively working on it for over ten years now. In the last seven years I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately called by the community). For the past four years I have participated in a writer’s critique group sponsored by the library. We have published three anthologies of short stories to which I contributed a story to each.

I have been doing the work to become an author. To make a distinction, a writer writes. I am already a writer because I write every day. An author publishes his writing. I am an author, in that I have published stories in the library anthologies and I have published essays on my blog for a number of years. But I am not a professional author, in that I have not been paid for my writing as of yet.

You can see my progress as a writer by reading the stories in the anthologies. But I am still struggling both to master the medium and to shake the feeling of imposter syndrome. Advice like that given by Neil Gaiman and Mike Cannon-Brookes helps. So does putting in the work and seeing my progress. But I long for the lack of self consciousness that I had when I was young.