A Better Plan

I have been doing some thinking about this blog. I have come up with some ideas of some categories that I know that I want to write about. The list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather to give me a little help when I’m sitting in front of the blank page trying to decide what to write about today.

The first category on the list is reviews. I have had some modest success reviewing things that I enjoy. Everything from books, movies, and TV shows, to products like software I find useful and gadgets that impress me with their ingenuity. I am going to try to write at least a couple of reviews a week.

Another category that I enjoy writing a lot is memoirs. I would write them on a more regular schedule but they depend upon my ever fickle memory. I will write them as often as I think of something worth relating.

I have a love of quirky, belly button dive philosophical musings. I’m not sure if anyone but me actually enjoys them. Unless otherwise prompted, I’ll try to restrict myself to no more than one philosophical ramble a week.

A category that I am excited about is tutorials. I like explaining things, particularly things having to do with computers. I have a good fundamental understanding of digital electronics and a forty year long career programming. I expect to write a number of tutorials and hope that some of them will prove useful.

I have been known to write an article that offers advice or self help. I don’t know that I have a lot to offer in this area but as ideas in this category occur to me, I may well incorporate them into a blog post.

I’m a fan of history, mathematics, and computers. This suggests all sorts of interesting combinations, history of mathematics, mathematic of computers, history of computers, as well as the individual topics themselves. These posts will typically require some research so I probably won’t be able to post them with any great frequency, perhaps once every week or two.

I am also a fan of new developments in science. That is certainly a worthy category for blog posts. My idea of science may be broader than some people’s. I try to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism but I also keep firmly in mind that everything we now accept as scientific fact was pseudoscience at one point and many things that were once accepted as scientific fact have now been determined to be misguided fallacy.

Finally, a word about the topic that has dominated this blog of late, blogs about writing and writing processes. I do not intend to quit writing them altogether but even I was beginning to feel that they were all too frequent. Like the philosophical musings I’ll try to put a limit of one blog about writing per week. If I have to write more, I’ll start another blog solely about writing.

If you have any suggestions for any more categories, please email me with them to jkelliemiller at gmail dot com. I will give them due consideration. There are some topics that I will find myself unqualified to tackle but I’ll read all suggestions.

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

Time Management

I am beginning to get the hang of choosing the things that I want to accomplish and sticking with them. It is difficult to maintain focus and not let yourself be distracted. I have to constantly evaluate what I’m doing and how it relates to the short list of things that I am doing at any given moment. There is always someone trying to give you something else to do. You have to recognize these kinds of distractions and learn to dodge them.

I have made lists of the things that I want to accomplish. I used to make the lists and lose track of them. Some time later I would come across them again and to my surprise I would find that I had accomplished most if not all of the items on the list without even referring to it. I figured out that the act of writing the list in the first place helped me to establish my priorities.

I have also learned to keep a running log of what I’m doing at work. It serves two principal purposes. First, it is a reminder of what I’ve accomplished when someone asks me to report my status. But by far the more important thing it does is help me fight the distractions that tend to sap my productivity from time to time. All it takes is a glance to see that I haven’t made any discernible progress on my goals if I’m wool gathering.

Another thing that I’ve learned that wasn’t initially obvious to me. I set specific goals for myself. For example, I have a daily goal to write 1000 words in my journal. It is easy to figure out if I have accomplished the goal or not. Sometimes it is useful to have a clearly measured goal even if you haven’t been able to figure out a way to measure your greater goal. Measuring small accomplishments help you to feel like you’re accomplishing something and big, amorphous goals end up being accomplished, and perhaps even better understood, by accomplishing a lot of little simple, easily measurable goals.

These are all little tips that I have learned throughout my career. They are mostly common sense but it is surprising how uncommon common sense is. For me the motivation came from deciding to make the most of whatever time I had left. At sixty two, I have outlived my mother. My father made it to sixty five but I intend to break both their records. I also intend to be active for those years.

Decide what you want to do. Make a prioritized list. It doesn’t matter whether you refer to it once you’ve made it but you may find it useful. Make your goals specific and measurable. And don’t let yourself get distracted along the way.

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

On Longevity of the Electronic Medium

Tonight a friend brought up an interesting question. Someone had commented that they were reading in a diary they found in their attic. My friend asked will there be diaries in the future? My initial response was of course their will be. My journal counts as a diary. But upon further reflection, it occurred to me that she may have something of a point.

If we use computers and web sites to store our diaries, whether personal diaries or more general diaries such as blogs, who’s to say that they won’t be taken down when no one pays for them any more. They are not like paper diaries that cost little to nothing to keep around. Not to mention the fact that the computer or media that they are stored on is liable to fail soon after the author dies if not long before.

There is a permanence to be had from writing on paper with a pen or pencil. Much of the same permanence can be had from printing the electronic form to paper and putting the printout in a notebook. That involves some extra effort on my part though. I’ll get around to it sooner or later. Or I won’t. If I don’t, will there be anyone that particularly cares? I certainly won’t. So much for my acknowledgement of my own mortality.

I hope to write a novel and publish it. It would be nice if it sold enough copies that it will be around for a little while in remainder bins and bathroom magazine stands. Who even remembers magazine stands? These days, magazines are willing to give you a subscription to get their circulation numbers up so they can charge enough for advertising that they can stay solvent.

Long before I publish a novel, or rather someone else publishes it, saving me the embarrassment of being one of the ever growing members of the set of people who have self published their own book, whether for reasons of ego stroking or a genuine attempt to make a play for all that profit that publishers make after paying the pittance of a royalty to the author for each copy they sell, I will write my share of short stories in order to hone the craft of telling stories. I might even attempt to glean some income from selling them. Or perhaps I would be better off to make a hobby of collecting rejection slips. Then, submitting stories for publication would be a win-win activity. Either I would make a sale, thus enriching myself by some poultry sum, or I would receive a rejection slip to add to my collection.

I’m not as cynical as I sound. I have a good sense of humor and plenty of reasons to write other than to achieve great fortune and fame from any publication that I should happen to make. Perhaps, some day I shall share them, but tonight, the bed is calling to me.

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

Do One Thing Well

What makes a good product? The most important aspect of any product is that it does at least one thing well. If it is a cleanser, it gets things clean. If it’s a knife, it cuts things cleanly and stays sharp. You get the idea.

Some products try to do many things well, for example a Swiss Army knife. It is the epitome of the one product does everything category to the extent that it has become an adjective to that effect in the marketing field. I used to carry a Swiss Army knife and I found it extremely useful. Perhaps the reason was that the makers of it had clearly identified their key feature, to do a number of things adequately in a compact package. Suffice it to say, it still does one thing really well. It cuts things, just like a knife is supposed to.

When it comes to software, the same philosophy was behind the popular Unix (and later Linux) operating system. The idea was to have a number of small programs that did one thing really well, weren’t finicky about where their input came from, and produced clean, simple streams of text as output, streams that were easily routed to other utilities to be further processed as input.

While many programs follow the philosophy of simplicity, many succumb to creeping featuritis. Many of the office suites are good examples of what I’m talking about. They try to be everything to everyone and end up being frustrating to use to everyone instead.

There is a third category of program, analogous to the Swiss Army knife. It knows it’s audience and has a clear focus on its primary purpose but it also caters to other things that its core audience might want from a program.

A good example of this is the program Scrivener. It is a program that is targeted at writers. It allows them to keep all the components of their creation in one place. It has a place for keeping clippings from research and notes on characters and locations. It also allows you to view your words as individual sections, chapters, or entire books. It has the equivalent of a cork board so you can rearrange your ideas without drowning in the details of what you’ve written so far.

But the most important feature is, it’s easy to sit down and write with it. You don’t have to learn how to use all the bells and whistles, just the ones that are relevant to you and your project. And when you do find you need a feature that you haven’t used before, there is a very well written manual complete with illustrations, You Tube videos showing exactly how various features work, and online forums where you can ask for help directly from another human being.

I am biased, being both a writer and a satisfied customer, but I honestly think they have grasped the wisdom of doing one thing well. Their reputation in the writing community certainly lends credence to that assertion. If you’re an aspiring writer you might want to give it a try. They give you a one month trial period and it’s not a calendar month either. It’s a month of actual use so you could, for example, use it today and then not touch it for three weeks and you would have only used up one day of your free trial. Recommended.

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

Jamming with Words

I treat blogging like musicians treat improvisation. There is always a structure upon which a musician bases his improvisation. The blues is a popular structure use for that purpose. It has a basic chord sequence that everyone knows. Once you’ve agreed upon the key, your set. This blew my dad away when an older male relative and I were able to say let’s play blues in E and that was all that needed to be said. He was totally unaware that there was an agreed upon structure underlying the blues.

It is the structure that provides the context in which the musicians can improvise. Otherwise, how would they coordinate their performance? Some people think that having a fixed structure like that would be constraining and perhaps even boring. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I write a blog post, I look for an idea that has enough substance that I can write five hundred words or so about it. I try to start off with a hook, some surprising statement that will pique the reader’s interest. It has to be relevant to the topic although it might not become clear until the reader has read most of the post.

Next, I start expounding upon the various aspects of the topic. If there is a logical progression that needs to be followed to explain what I’m talking about, that dictates the way the exposition unfolds. But some topics lend themselves to a treatment that I think of as a ramble.

I start writing about one aspect of the topic and follow where ever it leads me. Sometimes I discover things about the topic that I had never known before. Sometimes it becomes a vehicle for a story about how I discovered what I know about the topic. Sometimes, not often, it falls apart and I throw it into the folder with unfinished drafts to return to at some later date.

Such a ramble fits the definition that Paul Graham gives for an essay. As he explains it, an essay is written to discover things about a topic as much as it is about expressing it to someone else. He does spend more time than I do editing his essays. I really need to follow his example and edit my essays more carefully.

In my defense, Paul has several books under his belt not to mention a Ph.D. Writing a dissertation teaches one rigor in writing. I am not making excuses. I need to learn my craft. I’m just a good bit down the learning curve. I am just now learning the fine art of editing a draft.

The part of writing a blog post that I’ve been learning to do recently is to bring it to a close with some appropriate summary of what it has been about. It is like the musician that restates the main theme of a piece after improvising on it for a while. It helps set the hook firmly in the mind of the audience.

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

What If … ?

If we knew what would happen later in our lives would we live them differently? The things that we would gain would be balanced by the things we would lose. If I never married my first wife I would have never had my two daughters. I also would have not joined the Army, ended up in Huntsville, met my second wife, the list goes on and on.

Perhaps the arrow of time only points in one direction because we could not deal with the complexity that would ensue if we could run time backwards and forwards until we came up with a timeline that pleased us. If we could change the past, should we?

If Buddy Holly hadn’t died in that plane crash, would the Beatles have been the hit that they became? Perhaps there would have been an American invasion of Britain and there would have been a whole different pantheon of musical super groups in the sixties and seventies.

Or what if Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t cobbled together HTML to appease the need of the scientists at CERN to share hyperlinked, multimedia papers. Would someone else have come up with something better? Or would there have been something worse.?Perhaps we would be stuck with a commercial system that took a lot longer to reach critical mass. Would that necessarily be a bad thing?

Maybe if the web were a commercial entity instead of a freely interoperating conglomeration of different content providers Facebook wouldn’t have risen to be such a dominant force. Maybe people wouldn’t have gotten lost in the bubble of just the news they wanted to hear. Or would things have played out substantially the same? Are the way things are a fluke or are they the inevitable consequences of human nature?

We can never know for sure. If there is such a thing as time travel, we can’t know what effect it would have on the future. Perhaps like quantum theory suggests, we can either know where we are or how fast we are going. We can be the observer or the observed.

If I seem particularly obsessed with the idea of time travel right now it can be partially ascribed to reading “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O”, the latest book by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It bears many of the hallmarks of Stephenson’s best novels with a nice fresh flavor that can probably be attributed to the contributions of his co-author. I’ve barely started the novel, a tome at 768 pages, and I’ve already had my thinking challenged several times over by both the technical ideas presented and the memorable characters that we have been given by these two master story tellers.

I for one am going to savor this one. I hope these two gift us with another story as good as this one has been so far.

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

Ground Rules

Writing a journal has become easy. I write about whatever I’m thinking about. Sometimes that is just, how am I going to keep writing complete sentences until I’ve reached my word count goal for the day. It has gotten so easy that I can usually write a thousand words in my journal in less than forty minutes. That’s an average of twenty five words a minute if you didn’t do the math. I can actually type faster than that but I find that there are usually a few pauses while I shift gears. I don’t usually write my entire journal entry on one topic.

When I sit down to write my blog post I still suffer from writer’s block though. It is partially because I’ve put some constraints on my blog posts. First of all, I try to make the topic something that someone other than me would be interested in. That is probably an unnecessary restriction. Anything I write probably has someone out there on the internet that will be interested in it. The important thing is to write something that is interesting to me. Some of my best blog posts have been memoirs of my childhood or my early experiences in the computer business.

Another restriction that I place on my blog is one that I find more difficult to follow. It is the ban I’ve placed on political essays. Politics in the last ten years or more has gotten very divisive and hurtful. I almost lost my best friend over a misunderstanding stemming from a difference in political opinions.

It disturbs me that our country has become so mean. People have forgotten how to have civil discussions about issues instead of letting the conversation descend into personal attacks that have nothing to do with them. Lately people stick their head in a bubble of news that is spun from the perspective they want to hear and ignore everything else. This is bad for both sides of any issue.

Another thing that disturbs me is the disregard for facts. There is an objective, observable truth and no amount of insisting things are contrary to these facts will change anything. In a similar vein is the rejection of the scientific method. We have built this country on our excellence in science, math, and engineering. As a result, our country leads the world in technical capabilities. If we all of a sudden change direction and reject these core disciplines, the country will quickly decline until we are a third world country.

These are just my observations about what I understand to be shared American values. I heartily support a multi-party system. It is only through discussion of all points of view that we can come to an understanding of the issues that face us and begin to craft solutions that will serve the interests of all parties.

Perhaps by expressing my ground rules for this blog, I can discover a way to make my observations in a kinder, more civil way.

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