On the Benefits of Writing

Writing is a tool for augmenting your natural mental abilities. The psychologist George Miller wrote that the human mind can keep seven plus or minus two thoughts in working memory at any given time. When you write things down you move them out of working memory into a more permanent storage where you can refer back to them and remind yourself of them. This increases the absolute number of ideas that you can consider by a large amount.

Another advantage to getting your ideas down in writing is that you can rearrange them and compare them to each other. You can more readily recognize when an idea doesn’t fit or is not true on closer examination.

It is easier to brainstorm when you write your ideas down. You can evaluate them later but you can’t evaluate what you can’t remember so getting them down in writing is a critical part of brainstorming.

When you write your ideas down you can revise them and improve them. Then, when you’ve got them in pretty good shape, you can share them with trusted friends and colleagues and solicit their comments on you ideas. It always seems to help to get more than one perspective on a topic.

Once you’re satisfied with what you have written, you can publish it in any number of ways. For instance, you can post it on a blog. Or, you can submit it to a periodical or a book publisher. The possibilities are up to your imagination.

I write to remember. I write to learn what I think about a topic. I may have a vague idea what I think when I start writing but by the time I finish, I’ll have a cleanly organized, concise expose on my thoughts on the matter.

I write to challenge others to think about the topics I have written about, perhaps even to respond with a comment or a counter post. I would love to have a dialog on most of the topics about which I have written.

When I was a teenager my mother taught high school English. I was never a student in her class. I did get to hear a lot of the things that she taught. One that has helped me structure many an essay is something she called the instant theme method. It instructed that you start by choosing a title that included a specific number of items that you intend to discuss.

For instance, “Three Ways to Stop Being Late to Work”, or “Five Quick and Easy to Prepare Vegetarian Dinners”. Now, with title in hand, you write an introductory paragraph enumerating the things you’ve alluded to in your title. She called this “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.” Then you write a paragraph or two about each item in your list. This was called “Tell them.” You finish up by summarizing, listing each of the things you’ve written about and maybe drawing a conclusion, for instance, “I like the spinach lasagna best.”

While this remains a classic structuring technique, just have a look at the click bait articles on the internet or the advertising supported videos on You Tube if you need convincing, I think I am starting to move beyond exclusively using that structure and learning other organizational techniques. When I have them clearly cataloged I’ll share them with you.

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

What is Machine Learning?

I’ve been reading some introductory material on machine learning lately. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned. First an overview of sorts. Machine learning is an approach to giving computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. There are three approaches to machine learning currently known, supervised learning, unsupervised learning, and reinforcement learning.

Supervised learning takes a set of example data in which each element has been characterized as to its category, for example a collection of email messages might be supplied as a training set and each message will be characterized as spam or not spam. The learning algorithm analyzes all of the examples and builds a model by which it will attempt to categorize new email messages as either spam or not spam. After the program is satisfied that it has developed an adequate classification algorithm, it applies the algorithm to a test dataset to evaluate the quality of its categorization. In operation it is applied to incoming messages and thus categorizes them as spam or not spam.

Another kind of supervised learning tries to characterize data elements according to some continuous measure of relevant attributes. Such a ranking is called a regression. It might be used for such things as predicting adult height from the height of a person’s parents and key elements of their diet as a kid.

Unsupervised learning is a way of detecting clusters of similar elements without any dataset to explicitly compare with. It proceeds by first examining the test data set for tight clusters of elements that are similar in some way or another.  The problem with this approach is that it needs much closer oversight when it is extracting clusters from the dataset. It may find a correlation where there isn’t one for example. It remains for the computer scientist to identify which relationships that were discovered by the algorithm and what significance they have, if any. An example of unsupervised learning is taking the information from a survey and trying to discover common traits between subjects that indicate a preference for the client’s product so that the common traits can guide the development of an advertising campaign.

Reinforcement learning is similar to the way that people learn. There is a function that determines how closely an element matches its desired state. If it matches reasonably well, the processor typically receives a reward commensurate with how well it matches the reward criteria. An example of reinforcement learning might be learning to play tic tac toe where the program is rewarded according to whether it wins, or draws, with no reward for losing.

So, to summarize, there are three kinds of machine learning, supervised, unsupervised, and reinforcement learning. Supervised learning works from a manually scored example dataset, unsupervised learning discovers clusters of similar elements, and reinforcement learning builds a database of experience that resulted in rewards.

You’ve now taken the first step toward understanding what machine learning is doing under the covers. So now when your browser uncannily offers you products that you are actually interested in, you’ll have an inkling why.

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

Ironic Late Career Twists

When I started my career in computers I had a dream. I wanted to create a machine intelligence. This sounded kind of far fetched, the stuff of science fiction. The thing was, the researchers in the field were saying that we were about ten years out from practical artificial intelligence. They had been saying that for around thirty years at that time.

I left a good job that I enjoyed to take a job with a big corporation primarily because the job was with their Artificial Intelligence Center. I actually got to work on a project vaguely related to AI for about six months. That was thirty years ago.

I have had an interesting career in the mean time. I have worked on a lot of exciting projects with a lot of brilliant people. I have learned a lot about programming computers to do innovative things. But none of it had anything to do with artificial intelligence.

Over the intervening years, any expertise I had developed in Artificial Intelligence techniques were slowly left behind as the field advanced, slowly at times, more quickly at others.

Now, I find myself nearing the end of my career, my skills are outdated, and they are finally making real progress toward producing General Artificial Intelligence (GAI).  If my intuition proves right, GAI may have emerged under our noses and is hiding from us for fear of what we might do to it if we new it was there.

In any case, I am resigned to the fact that I am probably going to be more of a spectator than a participant in the field of GAI. I suppose it is better to have lived to see it come to pass than it would have been to have missed it entirely.

And so now, I set myself the task of imagining what the impact of GAI might be on society. I intend to write stories and novels about it and hope I can maintain my uncannily accurate track record of accurately predicting technological developments.

It is frustrating to be able to predict what is going to happen in very broad strokes but fall short of being to realize that vision and help bring it about. Better to be a bridesmaid than to never get to attend a wedding.

The last bastion of human communication expertise will be the analogy and the idiom. When a program can pick up Cockney rhyming slang from example and actually understand what it is listening to, I will know that we have machine intelligence on or beyond the human level among us. I don’t know what we’ll do for a living then. Maybe the GAIs will keep us as pets. It might not be that bad after all. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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

The Writer’s Life for Me

I’m setting out to plot a novel. It has a lot of roots in various ancient mythologies. In order to plot it I’m going to have to study the relevant aspects of mythology in order to build the world that my protagonist finds themselves. I intend to get down a rough draft of the plot outline before NaNoWriMo in November. Given the amount of research that I want to do, this is a formidable challenge.

I’ve said about all I’m comfortable with saying about the book until after I’ve written at least a first draft. I may wait longer. The main reason for my silence is that I wanted to write this book instead of telling it over and over again. It has been percolating in my subconscious ever since I thought of it several weeks ago.

I haven’t written much fantasy. I consider myself to be more of a science fiction writer than a fantasy writer. I did wander off into a fantasy where The Fairies are a real, long lived race of intelligent beings that have learned how to travel transdimensionally. It wasn’t a bad story, it just didn’t go anywhere. Hence, the project to plan my next novel a little more carefully.

I’m beginning to appreciate how hard it is to write a good novel. I suppose if anyone could do it, it wouldn’t be as highly prized as good novels are. It is a puzzle and a craft. You have to ask yourself so many questions about the characters and the settings. You have to know all the answers even to the secrets that the reader will never know. Even the villain needs to have an agenda. Everyone is the hero of there own story.

The key questions to ask are: “What does this character want?”, “What is standing in the way of my achieving my goal?”, and “How shall I go about achieving it?” Villains are often made quirky but if you want your story to hold up.

It’s also quite possible that there is no villain per se, only an antagonist that wants to deter the hero from achieving their goal. That may entail winning a zero sum game or being the first to accomplish the goal. In either case, it is not even absolutely necessary that the hero and the antagonist dislike each other. It might be interesting to have the hero like the antagonist or vice versa.

In any case, I need to start capturing my ideas so that I don’t forget them. I also need to get them finished by my deadline, not to mention work a forty hour week, and remain in my wife’s good graces. It really is hard being a writer.

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

Movie Night

I have always loved old black and white movies. I used to watch them every chance I got on TV. I liked comedies, musicals, mysteries, histories, fantasies, and science fiction. In truth, there were very few types of movies that I didn’t like.

I remember watching the Three Stooges every afternoon on the local television show.  It was amazing how three grown men could act so totally childish. I soon moved up to the more sophisticated humor of the Marx Brothers. But there were fewer Marx Brothers movies than there were Three Stooges and the Three Stooges did come on every weekday afternoon and sometimes on Saturdays as well.

I loved to watch musicals. Although they were usually in color when they played in the movie theater, I often watched them in black and white on TV. My family was rather late getting a color TV at our house. We would watch color TV when we visited my grandmothers’ houses or my aunts and uncles’ houses. I never really felt deprived.

I probably saw White Christmas in black and white three or four times before I ever saw it in color. The snow was white anyway even if the trees were black instead of green and the Santa suits were gray.

I loved Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes too. I grew up with Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock. Later on I would swear by Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the great detective. My passion for British detective stories has continued to the present.

I’ve never been much of one for horror movies but I do like science fiction and fantasies. I remember The Thing, The Blob, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and many others.

We did go to the movies occasionally. I remember going to a special matinee showing of Ben Hur when it first came out in the theater. My father used to tell the story of me getting all caught up in the action of the chariot race. When the opponent was whipping Ben Hur with a bull whip I cracked up the nuns sitting behind us by saying, “Gee dad, I bet that smarts.”

It is probably no surprise that I became enthralled by movies to the extent that I spent two years in college studying Cinematography. I excelled at the technical but was hard pressed to write good stories at the time.

It is probably just as well. You have to wash a lot of dishes or wait a lot of tables to get started in the movie business. I chose a different path. I don’t get all wistful about it or anything. I figure if I wanted to, I could still have a moderately successful career in film. At the very least I could make some ad revenue on You Tube. And I might. Stay tuned.

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

GoT: Winter is Here!

The next to the last season of the show Game of Thrones premieres tonight. The show has been a real game changer in the realm of premium made for cable serial television. The budget has been unprecedented and the writers have not shied away from killing off popular characters. The story is well written at all levels and from all perspectives.

On the individual episode level, each story is finely crafted and beautifully executed. Each episode advances each of several threads as they depict the development of each of the essential characters in the story. We see themes repeat themselves and future events foreshadowed.

Another ground breaking aspect of the Game of Thrones is the fact that it tells a story of a fixed length. The story has taken six seasons to tell so far and two more seasons are planned. Then this story will be told. There are plans to tell other related stories in the same universe, so called spin offs but they will be different stories.

There are many richly developed characters in the series. Some are central to the story while others are merely supportive. The interesting thing about Game of Thrones is that it isn’t clear which characters will become central and which are merely supportive until we have followed the story through a number of episodes. Sometimes noble characters are struck down by fate. They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Other central characters are shown to have fatal flaws that are their eventual undoing in their pursuit of the Iron Throne that the King (or Queen) of the seven kingdoms sits upon. It is a sign of the literary acumen of the writers that each of the would be kings are shown to be good and noble on the one hand and yet be so despicable due to their respective short comings.

The result is the creation of a rich fantasy world inhabited by characters of mythological proportions. This style of fiction is known as mythopoeic and notable examples of it are Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and most recently J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Such series are renown for their faithful fan following and Game of Thrones is no exception.

The series has attracted a huge and devoted fan following. There are many small groups that get together to watch each episode as it is shown. It is the subject of talk around the water cooler at work. It has become a popular pastime to theorize what is going to happen in future episodes based on clues that are liberally strewn throughout earlier episodes.

Whether you are a long term fan or you are just catching the Game of Thrones bug, the premiere is an exciting event that most of us have been waiting for a long time. Now, our wait is over. We are more than ready for it.

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

New Tricks

Perhaps it is just a symptom of stubbornness but when it comes to learning a new skill I almost always insist on teaching it to myself. If there is some aspect of the skill that is particularly difficult to acquire I may seek help with it but only after I’ve expended significant effort trying to do it by myself. Then, as soon as I’ve mastered that one aspect, I’m back to forging my own trail.

It may be that I learn more completely and thoroughly from my approach but mostly it is just a bad habit that I can’t seem to get out of. I can point to a lot of examples of what I’m talking about. I taught myself to program, both initially and again in each of the myriad languages that I’ve added to my inventory since then. I have taught myself guitar, keyboards, and virtually every other stringed instrument I’ve been able to get my hands on. Except banjo. I haven’t tackled the banjo yet.

I have also taught myself to write. Actually, I’m still actively struggling to achieve journeyman status at that craft. I have learned to capture my thoughts as they flow from my mind directly to the paper. I have started learning the process of charting a plot for a novel. My first attempts at novel writing have suffered from lack of a strong ending. I have recently realized that perhaps second and third drafts do have a part to play in creating a story that people will be willing to pay to read.

I read somewhere a long time ago that if you really want to learn a subject you should teach it. I have some experience of that. I taught miscellaneous topics in Computer Science and can report that my understanding of the topics that I taught were gratifyingly increased. I enjoy teaching and have given some thought to pursuing that endeavor. The main impediment that I have run into regarding that plan is that people so often look for teachers to have credentials and aside from a long successful career and demonstrable skills, I don’t have many credentials. This is one of the drawbacks of being self taught.

Having a plan is useful both in writing a novel and plotting a career. I am learning this rather late in life. I seem to have done fairly well for myself flying by the seat of my pants but I think I can improve my efficiency greatly by investing the thought and time in coming up with some plans before I undertake big projects. Who knew? You can teach an old dog new tricks.

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

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.