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.

Exploring a New Genre

Every year my writers group publishes an anthology. We select a theme to tie the stories together but we are careful to pick one that will accommodate a wide range of different genres. I usually write Science Fiction or Fantasy. This year, I decided to try my hand at a sub-genre of Horror called New Weird.

As August Derleth popularized the genre known as Weird fiction by publishing the works of H. P. Lovecraft, M. John Harrison coined the term New Weird in his introduction to China Miéville’s novella The Tain.

I have read Lovecraft and Miéville but I felt like I needed to investigate the characteristics of New Weird further to insure that I understood the definitive attributes of the genre. I also felt I could learn from studying more examples of it.

Before my research proceeded very far, I was reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, (part of my daily routine) when I found a surprisingly relevant entry. John often lends his platform to other writers in a feature he calls The Big Idea. In this particular instance, he featured Jess Nevins talking about his book, entitled Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature’s Most Thrilling Genre, coming out on January 31, 2020.

The Big Idea of Nevin’s book was to explore the overlooked writers of the genre, in addition to the ones widely known and read. Not to steal his thunder, but the thing that he said he found that intrigued me most was that the genre was much bigger than most people think. In particular, he found that far more women had written horror than he was aware of. That was in addition to people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

I’m glad when I find things like this out. Not only does it reveal the universality of the genre. It also points me to a whole new group of authors writing stories in a genre that I enjoy.

Will it have a direct bearing on the short story I’m writing? Maybe not. I’m a slow reader. I won’t have time to read much of the exciting new corpora of horror fiction that has opened up to me before my deadline pushes me into finishing this story. But it will affect my reading in the future. And for that, I’m grateful to Jess Nevins and John Scalzi. 

A Year of Weekly Blogs

I’m firing the first shot in the salvo of 52 weekly blog posts that I’m planning to write this year. I am going to post them on Monday so that I have the weekend to write them and give them a quick copy edit. I’m also going to try to get a bit of a head start on it by writing a few standby posts that I can roll out if I have a hectic weekend.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to write about. If you read some of my older posts you can get a feeling for the type of things I’m interested in. I’m working on developing my fiction writing skills so it is a good bet that I’ll talk about writing craft a good bit. I’m also a connoisseur of computer languages. That will probably also be a frequent topic.

I got a new iPad for Christmas. I am writing this post on it. I also got a Logitech Keyboard/Case and an Apple Pencil for it. I am going to see if I can learn to draw with it. I doubt that an Apple Pencil will make that much difference when sixty years of pencils/crayons and paper haven’t done the job. It will be fun to try anyway.

I also got a new Apple Watch. I have a Series 3 that I’ve had for two or three years. It didn’t have the EKG, the sensor that detected falling, or the compass sensor. So, I wear the new, Series 5 Watch during the day and the Series 3 Watch at night to analyze my sleep.

I guess there is a theme emerging here. And, full disclosure, I’m an Apple stock holder. Not that I own that much but considering it has more than tripled since I bought it, I’m happy with not only the products but the stock as well.

Following My Dream

Some people have the courage to pursue their dreams relentlessly. Others spend much of their lives in more mundane ways. When you get to an age where you start to see people, not so much older than you, starting to retire, move into assisted living, and eventually pass away, you start to question whether you were right to take the safe route or whether you passed up an opportunity for greatness.

Then, there are people like me, that when faced with these questions, take it as inspiration to revive their dreams and start working on manifesting them. I have been working on refining my skills as a writer. I am far from mastering them but each short story or draft of a novel that I write advances my skill another little bit.

I have managed to write a minimum of seven hundred and fifty words almost every day for the last nine years. Some days I write boring rambles describing how many words I have written and how many more that I intend to write before I am done for the day. I often write a running narrative of the boring things that are going on around me.

Sometimes, I have managed to write and publish blog posts on this site. A few of them have had something interesting to say. I try to respect my readers’ time by not publishing pointless rambles here. I appreciate their attention and would welcome their comments. Unfortunately, many of the people that register on my site are obviously just looking for a platform to hawk their wares rather than engaging in honest dialog.

Eventually, I will manage to write here consistently enough to attract a regular readership that engages in discussion. In the mean time, I will try to post articles worth reading here. This will help me improve my writing and give me a standard to hold myself to.

Goodreads: A Tool for Becoming a Better Writer

I have reconnected with a web site called Goodreads recently. It is dedicated to helping you keep track of your reading and finding new things to read and discuss with other members of the site. I had set up an account a while back and gone through the motions of identifying some of the genres that I liked to read, some of the books that I wanted to read, rating books that I had already read, and even reviewing some of them.

What occurred to me was that it was important for me to keep better track of when I started reading books, when I finished them, and to set goals for myself. So, I went back to Goodreads and took up a challenge to read 24 books in 2019. I will probably read more than that. I will adjust my goal if it becomes obvious that I have set it too low. The important thing is to get a clear idea of how much and what I’m reading.

I have learned an important thing working with engineers over the past thirty years or so. The first thing they do when they start a project is they set up goals and metrics. This helps them to understand the rate at which they are getting things done. I don’t know why it has taken me this long to start applying this principle to things I want to accomplish in my own life.

It is important for a writer to read at least as much as they write, if not more. After all, that is how one learns to recognize good writing so that one can emulate it. Keeping track of how much one reads, and for that matter, how much one writes, becomes a useful tool in evaluating ones progress as a writer.

Aside from the strictly quantitative aspect of the site, there are a number of forums that encourage one to discuss the books that they have read. This too is an important aspect of growing as a writer. I took the time to search out some of the people that I new and connect with them on the site. This allows me to see what they are reading and to strike up conversations about books that we’ve both read.

It is refreshing to find a web site that exists primarily to enrich the lives of its patrons. I’m sure they make a reasonable profit from advertising but that is how such places ensure their ability to continue to serve their community. If you’re an aspiring writer or just enjoy discussing books and discovering new things to read, check it out.

I Love My Apple Watch

I have become obsessive about closing the rings on my Apple Watch. For those who are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the Apple Watch has a built in application that tracks your activity. It displays your progress using three colorful rings.

The blue innermost ring tracks how many hours you have stood up for a period of at least a minute. If you do it twelve times in a day, the ring is complete.

The florescent yellow middle ring tracks aerobic exercise. If you get in thirty minutes of exercise with an elevated heart rate, you complete this ring.

The red outer ring tracks how many calories you burn. You set your goal for daily calories burned at the beginning of the week. I have settled on 820 kilocalories as my goal.

I also have a goal of getting a minimum of 7500 steps in per day. My calorie goal usually does a good job of insuring that I more than meet that goal.

The way that this works is that I go about my day as I usually would. On days that I go to work, I often complete the standing and aerobic rings before I get home. I usually have walked about 3000 steps and have burned around 600 kilocalories.

On days that I don’t go to work, I tend to get far less done before the end of the day. I do try to keep my standing every hour ring current as you can’t make up for missed hours all at the end of the day.

In either case, about an hour or two before I plan to go to bed, I go to the bedroom and turn on the TV to YouTube. I then watch YouTube videos while walking in place in front of the TV until I have met all my fitness goals and closed my rings for the day.

I have to admit, my health has improved as a result. My A1C, a long term measure of average blood sugar, is down. I don’t get winded going up and down stairs. And, I usually don’t have any trouble going to sleep after one of these bedtime workouts.