Life Revision

I watched a TEDx talk by Felicia Ricci about revising your life. Her point was that you learn what you want to do by doing it. She also maintained that life wasn’t ever completed but was in a constant state of revision. This coincides with the conclusion that I have come to as well.

I have spent over forty years working with computers. I have repaired them, built them, programmed them, and taught courses about them. I have enjoyed doing all of these things for the most part. I have become a master computer scientist.

Lately I have been developing my skills as a writer. I have written at least seven hundred and fifty words a day for over seven years. I have twice written fifty thousand words in a month. I have written over fifteen hundred words a day for the past year. I am approaching a modest level of achievement as a writer.

I have been a musician since I was eight years old. I even worked as a professional musician for three summers while I was in college. I have taught guitar lessons on a couple of occasions. Now I am thinking about teaching guitar again.

I am feeling the need for a change. I’m not sure which way that change needs to take me. I am trying as many things as I can. I am listening to my reaction to each of them. Nothing has struck a chord with me yet. That means I just need to keep looking.

I have an unrequited urge to accomplish something great. I am not afraid of hard work. I am afraid of failure. I am afraid that I have nothing great within me to create. I confront that fear every time I write a blog. I confront that fear every time I write a story.

I confront that fear every time I go to work and continue to practice my profession of computer science.

I think perhaps I’m all these things, a computer scientist, a musician, a writer, and a teacher. The challenge is to be all of these things without fear. I need to do the best that I can whatever I am doing at the moment and accept that with joy and humility.

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

Some of the Reasons I Am a Ham

Every fall the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) holds their annual Simulated Emergency Test (SET). One Saturday in October we “hang out” on the air like we might on any typical weekend. Of course we know that this day won’t be a typical day but we try to act like nothing is up. At a given time the exercise director will make a call on one of the local repeaters declaring the beginning of the exercise.

The call will go out for an operator capable of acting as Network Control Operator or NC. The NC is in charge of directing traffic during the exercise. Communication is directed to the NC by transmitting your call sign. The NC responds by identifying the station that he wants to communicate with. They conduct their business and then the NC will call on another station. This helps keep everyone from trying to talk at once. That could have bad consequences in the case of an emergency situation.

We train all year so that we will be ready to operate in an emergency but there is nothing like an exercise like the SET to see how well you have prepared. We are checking to see how quickly we can get into place and set up in the case of an actual emergency. We establish relationships with the local representatives of our “served agencies”. Served agencies are everything from volunteer fire departments, organizations that operate shelters, to governmental agencies that have larger scopes of responsibility than they have budget to exercise those responsibilities.

Our national ham radio advocacy organization, the Amateur Radio Relay League, has a slogan that they are quick to use to describe the role of Amateur Radio, “Amateur Radio, when all else fails.” It is a testament to our ingenuity, our attention to detail, and our dedication to our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

I often hear people, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet, ask what is special about ham radio? I can do all that with my cell phone and the internet. While much of what they say is true what they don’t realize is that cell phones and the internet are dependent on infrastructure. Ham radio prides itself in its ability to operate in the face of massive failure of communication and power infrastructure. We have batteries and generators. We don’t depend on cell towers or fiber optic trunks for communication.

We also have a culture of life long learning. We teach each other new technologies and new techniques. We build kits so that we understand the technology that we use from the ground up. We build antennas, radios, compact racks to facilitate our ability to grab our equipment and go. It’s an inspiring activity to be involved with.

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

The Calendar is Our Friend

Planning to do something and actually setting aside the time and doing it are two different things. They’re related but distinctly different. I’ve been planning to visit the town where I grew up for a very long time now. But I can’t seem to save up the money, put it on the calendar and do it. I’ve had some degree of luck with my writing but that’s because I’ve either set up a daily goal or I’ve had external deadlines imposed upon me.

It’s high time that I learned to set goals and place deadlines on myself. It is a lot easier when you have someone else to do it for you but in the final analysis, how you spend your time and what you accomplish are up to you. I’ve spent way too much of my life working for someone else and letting them set the schedule for me.

To that end I’ve started shopping around for software, preferably free, to help me correlate my schedule with my goals. The procrastinator in me thinks I should write it myself so it meets all of my requirements. The pragmatist in me knows that will never work. Without some kind of scheduling tool, imperfect though it may be, a project of that magnitude would never get off the ground.

I’ve spent some time Googling the topic. I’ve read some articles in Wikipedia. I even noticed that my favorite database app, Airtable, was talking about how it added support for Calendars. When I looked for it in the iPhone version, it wasn’t apparent. That makes me think that you’ve got to set up the Calendar view with the web browser version of the app. You may even have to use that version to consult the calendar. I suspect the iPad version of the app may support the Calendar view as well. It does have more screen real estate to work with.

Back to the point. I don’t care if I have to go to a stationary store and buy me a paper calendar, I need to get my writing schedule down where I can look at it, compare how I’m doing to what I planned, and replan based on what I’ve learned. This as true of my musical aspirations and my programming projects, not to mention my ham radio activities, as it is my writing.

So, what I want to know is how come it has taken me sixty two years to figure this out? What might I have accomplished if I had started using a calendar in my teens? Why isn’t this part of the public school curriculum? What can I do to help change this? I definitely have some thinking to do.

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

The Tao of Art

It’s funny how it sometimes takes a long time to understand things that are right in front of your face. I’ve lived around artists of one sort or another, visual artists, musicians, actors, writers, for most of my life. I have observed the way they interact with each other and the rest of the world. I’ve known since I was eight years old that artists were usually more flawed than “normal” people. But when it came to my idols, be they rock musicians or science fiction writers or film makers, I was blinded by my admiration. I didn’t see that they were only human.

As many of my idols get older and die I am beginning to appreciate how great they were to create their exceptional art in spite of their human foibles. I am left humbled and even a little bit ashamed of myself. I let the petty details of life stand between me and the artist that I wanted to become. I gave up on filmmaking, acting, music, and writing. I continued to dabble but I quit putting my heart into it.

Now I’ve reached a point in life when my career is winding down and I am beginning to understand the way of the artist.  I realize that I’ve been creating my entire life. I’ve just been hiding my talent away. Part of the challenge of being a professional artist is putting your art out there to be seen (or heard) and commented on by other people. It’s hard putting part of yourself on display like that.

I was given the incredible gift of learning to be an actor at the age of eight. After two summers of summer stock, I was over the hard part of live performance, being intimidated by an audience.

I played guitar professionally for three summers in western theme parks. I supported my spouse when she took her arts and crafts to craft shows. I knew how to engage the customers and sell our product. It was all performance of one sort or another.

But after all these years, I have finally realized that I have lost the knack of putting my art out there for people to appreciate. I am working on regaining the knack by writing these blog posts and various stories. I realize that there is a lot of work to be done. Much to be learned about crafting stories that engage people’s attention. That contain characters that they love and want to see succeed at whatever endeavor that they set out to accomplish.

I understand that we only grow as people by meeting and overcome the challenges that we are faced with. And furthermore, the characters in our stories are the same way. They need challenges and adversity to grow and become the people that we want them to become. After all, these characters are all just proxies for us and our aspirations. When they win, so do we.

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

Eulogy for Jerry Pournelle

I have written on several occasions about the REAL source of most of my computer education, namely Byte Magazine and the other computer hobbyist magazines of the late seventies, eighties, and nineties. It is with great sadness that I report the passing of one of the more colorful characters of that era, Jerry Pournelle. He wrote the column “Computing at Chaos Manor” that was always the first thing I read each month when I got my copy of Byte.

He was honest, funny, and he demanded a lot from his computers. He was the first spokesman for the users. Before Jerry’s column, most of the articles and columns in computer magazines were written by people that were enamored with the technology for its own sake. Jerry had no use for hardware or software that didn’t work as promised and had a particular hate of vaporware which he delighted in reporting was coming Real Soon Now™.

He also wrote science fiction. In fact, that was his day job, the way he made the bulk of his living. I read and enjoyed his stories. They were always top notch from start to finish. He was an artful craftsman. He was also a clever businessman. I loved the books that he co-wrote with Larry Niven where they would hole up in a motel room in the middle of nowhere and write a novel where Jerry wrote one chapter and Larry wrote the next. Never was alternating points of view more distinctly written.

Jerry named his computers. Long before naming computers became commonplace due to having to distinguish them from each other on the network. He named his machines because he worked with them intimately and it helped him talk about the characteristics of each. For example, he called his IBM PC Lucy Van Pelt, after the Peanuts character. He claimed she was a fuss budget, and he was right.

He bought computers to use, not because he was smitten by the technology. He was the user that we all wished we could afford to be. These machines were not cheap. On the other hand, Jerry got sent a lot of products to use and review. A positive review from Jerry was worth its weight in gold for a struggling new startup or even a well established company. It was a mark that your product was relevant and useful.

My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Jerry will be missed by all of his fans. Pick up a copy of one of his books or look up his columns in the online archive of Byte Magazine. It would be a fitting tribute to a grand master of Science Fiction and computer journalism.

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

A Writer’s Perspective

I’ve been a fan of Graham Norton, the Irish host of the BBC Graham Norton Show and, as I discovered tonight, author of a number of books, for quite some time. I was watching a You Tube clip of his appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night. It was funny to see two people who were both more comfortable being the interviewer, talk about the tricks of their trade. Graham admitted he felt strange being on the other side of the interview desk.

They mentioned his first novel, Holding, about murder in a rural Irish town. Then they talked about how if he tried to promote his own books on his chat show in England he would be fired on the spot.

I look forward to reading his book. As I’ve mentioned before, once you decide to seriously pursue a career as a writer, your perspective changes on everything you read. It is an enhanced awareness. You are looking at the piece you’re reading on multiple levels. You’re still reading it for the story but now, you are also looking at how the story is put together, the development of the characters, the unfolding of the plot, all things that you took for granted before you started trying to write yourself.

You find yourself listening to other people’s conversations at the next table in restaurants to hear what dialog sounds like. You research the strangest topics. For instance, I found myself reading a Wikipedia article on Zero Point Energy trying to understand how it might be a plausible power source for a transdimensional ship that I was writing about in a story.

I have learned by reading a lot of science fiction that the best technology is that which is plausible but remains unexplained. We take existing technology for granted now, why should we treat technology any differently in the future? It always helps though, to do a quick sanity check to make sure you’re not too far out in the weeds with your speculation. I like to try to hold my leaps of faith to one per story.

The hardest thing about learning to write fiction is to sit down and do it. It goes pretty much without saying that the first draft is liable to be atrocious. Unless you are Robert A. Heinlein, who famously said to never rewrite unless an editor asks you to.

You’ve got to spend the time putting words on the page. That is the only way you learn what works and what doesn’t. That and the comments from your critique group and the editors that are kind enough to offer constructive criticism along with their rejection slips.

I’ve started a new hobby. I am going to collect rejection slips. That way, if I submit something to be published and get a rejection slip, I can add it to my collection. And if I get accepted, that’s it’s own reward. I’ll let you know how that works out.

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

Just One More Meta Post

Planning and scheduling are often said together, like black and white or salt and pepper. They are often said in that order, a trait referred to by linguists as Siamese twins or irreversible binomials. One of the reasons that planning and scheduling are usually said in that order is that it is the typical sequence in which they are done. First you plan, then you schedule. Often you will find that as you execute the plan to the schedule you may have to adjust either the plan, the schedule, or both. In fact it is uncommon to not do so at least once during the execution of a plan.

I have made a fairly good plan for my new approach to writing. I neglected to come up with a schedule. It is important to establish a regular time when readers of my blog can expect a new post to be available. Consequently, I feel I should establish a schedule for them. I will post a blog post on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. I may write them a day or two before hand but I will schedule them to be posted on those three evenings.

I will vary the topics somewhat. I still plan to write about programming, writing, memories, music, and occasionally other topics that seem appropriate. I’ll try not to publish on the same topic twice in any week or indeed twice in a row. You’ll forgive me this once posting details of my writing plan and schedule two posts in a row.

As I mentioned last Friday, I will occasionally post links to interesting articles or web sites, link blog style. That will happen on the nights between my regularly scheduled blog posts. This post will be on Monday evening instead of Sunday as I just worked out this schedule and I intend to blog again on Wednesday and Friday.

It seems that if one has a schedule, it is easier to execute a plan. I realized after spending the Labor Day weekend doing other things besides executing the plan that I wrote about Friday exactly what it was that was missing. This I take for evidence that you can, after all, teach an old dog new tricks. You just have to prod the old dog to think about what it is he is doing.

Since I shared with you my plan to use the time that I freed up by backing off on my blogging schedule, I find it apropos to share that I need to establish a work schedule for my fiction writing activities as well. I won’t bore you with the details of that except to say that I intend to start using a calendar to block out times that I intend to write and hold myself to those appointments.

Thanks for you patient understanding and I’ll try to make the next several blog posts special. I may even try my hand at micro-fiction.

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

The Only Constant is Change

Blogging has come to mean different things to different people. To Dave Winer, arguably the first blogger, it is a platform for writing short commentary on topics of interest to him. He seldom writes more than four or five paragraphs per topic but he sometimes covers three or four topics per day, more on occasion.

Some people treat it like a stream of links to things they’ve found of interest on the web. That is sometimes referred to as a link blog. I’ve never written a link blog. I have enough trouble maintaining my focus on whatever task is at hand to give myself an excuse to spend more time browsing the web.

My blog has evolved to be a daily essay of approximately 500 words. I write it in Scrivener and then past it into the online WordPress blog editor. It is usually a tad longer than Dave’s typical posts. Not to make any claims about relative merit. I can say nothing of substance in 500 words as well as anyone can. Occasionally I write a piece that I feel is particularly succinct and well organized. Most of the time I’m just happy to have checked the box that says I’ve met my commitment to blog daily.

I believe it is important to write regularly. It is the only sure way that I know of to improve your writing skills. But it is also important to constantly reevaluate your goals. I have been struggling to spend more time writing fiction lately. The struggle has been mostly one of schedule. By the time I write a thousand word journal entry, either in the morning before I go to work or as part of a working lunch, and then write a 500 word blog post every night, I don’t get around to my fiction as often as I’d like.

I think it’s time to try a different schedule. I will post link blog style entries as I run across items of interest. Then on two or three nights a week, I’ll post a regular 500 word essay style blog post. I will continue to write every night but on nights where I don’t post a blog post, I’ll spend an hour working on my fiction.

Of course when November gets here, all bets are off. I probably won’t blog more than once a week during NaNoWriMo.  I intend to write a better first draft this year. I’ll have more to say on that subject in December.

I’m also going to have a story included in an anthology published by the Huntsville / Madison County Public Library sometime in the November timeframe. I’ll update here with details when I have them straight.

In summary, I am going to cut back to 750 words worth of journal a day, two or three 500 word essay blog posts per week, and up my fiction writing game. Thanks for bearing with me.

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

Story and Memory

It has been established that people’s memories of events are inherently unreliable. You may have experienced a family member that insists on telling the same story every time the family gets together. Only they never tell it the same way twice. They aren’t lying, at least most of the time. They are telling the story the way they remember it except they remember it differently each time.

It seams that when all we have is people’s memories to pass on the stories of their youth, we’re liable to hear all sorts of unlikely tales. My daddy used to tell some rather colorful stories about his antics as a boy. I always took them for gospel but now I’m beginning to wonder.

He used to tell his stories when he was teaching. He would intentionally mold them to fit whatever point he was trying to make. After a while I guess the truth and fabrications just blurred together. What was at first a well intentioned pedagogical adjustment became a central premise of the story.

And now I find myself trying to make up convincing stories. I don’t want them to be totally based on the events in my life. I do want them to sport some of the embellishments that would be apropos of the intent of the story, to amuse and educate the listener. But mostly just to amuse.

For example, when I was in high school there was a teacher that everybody liked. He knew his subject well and could get his point across by telling stories that illustrated his point. He was very dedicated to teaching his lessons though. One day he came in to the classroom late. It was a couple of minutes after the bell had rung. He began one of his lectures.

Most of the class was listening carefully but one of his best students, a feisty little blonde that sat in the front row and always made A+ on all his tests started giggling. She whispered to one of her friends next to her and soon the entire class was snickering. One of the boys in the class insisted that he needed to tell him something important in the hallway. Finally the teacher relented and stepped into the hall with the young man. At which point the young man sheepishly pointed out that the teachers fly was undone.

The boy went back into the classroom. When the teacher came back in, the class was totally silent. Everyone was waiting expectantly to see what he would do. He looked slowly across the faces of the class and then picked up the lecture right where he had left off.

That’s the kind of story I’m talking about. One based on a true event but with the names changed, or omitted, to protect the long dead. That’s one of the benefits of waiting until you get to be my age to write the stories of your youth. Anyone that might recognize themselves and object are beyond caring anymore.

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

They’re Everywhere

Back in the early nineties a guy named Mark Weiser lead the computer science laboratory at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). He was a proponent of what he called ubiquitous computing which is to say computers everywhere. Now, some twenty five years later we have cell phones and smart watches and the Internet of Things (IoT). In short, he was right. Computers have ended up everywhere.

And they are only getting smaller and more pervasive. The computer scientist and science fiction author Vernor Vinge has written about nano computers the size of particles of dust that form mesh networks that work together to achieve more sophisticated tasks than each could individually undertake.

Sometime during my career it occurred to me that the computer was the universal machine. It takes a wide assortment of accessories to accomplish some of the tasks that it is capable of but it can do practically anything. Moore’s law keeps multiplying what each computing core is capable of while reducing it’s size and cost.

The interesting thing that comes to light when looking at the research that was going on at PARC in the early nineties is that they were absolutely correct about what technology trends were going to happen but they had no idea what the implications of it were. For example, when I first got a smart phone, I didn’t use the text messaging feature much. If I wanted to communicate with someone, I’d call them and talk to them.

Now, I find myself preferring text messaging to phone calls. Text messages can be sent without both parties being free at the exact same time. They are easier to understand in high noise environments. And, there is a record of the conversation. In short they are much more useful than a comparable phone conversation.

Another surprise is how capable the sensor suite on a smart phone turns out to be. They have turned out to be almost as versatile as the Star Trek tricorder. It seems the tricorder fell by the wayside somewhere between the end of Star Trek the original series and Star Trek the Next Generation. It was a marvelous device that has been inspiring inventors ever since. We have come close to duplicating much of its functionality with modern smart phones.

The story has a somewhat sad ending, at least for Mark Weiser. He died at 46 of stomach cancer in 1999 before many of the technologies he pioneered became so widely adopted. And somewhere along the way someone came up with a better name than ubiquitous computing. Internet of Things is much easier to remember. There is a scholarship named after him at the University of California, Berkeley and the ACM SIGOPS awards the MarkWeiser Award annually.

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