Valentine’s Day

Some years it’s better, others worse, but then
that’s to be expected. The ebb and flow
of chemicals within a fleshy brain
determines, more-or-less, just where I go:
up today and down tomorrow, yes?
Then down again the day and after that
a dance of chaos, something of a mess,
graceless as a dog beside a cat.
Limping through tomorrows on and on,
damned and yet alive against all odds
waking every morning to the dawn
dreaming of a world devoid of gods.
Time that heals all wounds is passing slow
And toward my own long home I slowly go.

Posted in life, poem, sonnet | Comments Off on Valentine’s Day

Some Notes on Failure

“One word characterized the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is FAILURE.” — Thomson, Lord Kelvin

I think about failure a lot. It’s my default assumption: that what I do will fail. It makes for a pleasant surprise when things do work out.

I have failed at most of the things I have attempted in my life. Most of the startup companies I’ve been involved in failed. Most of the relationships I’ve been involved in failed–some quite spectacularly. This makes me deeply grateful for the few that didn’t. I have failed friends and I have failed family. I have failed myself.

And there are other failures, deeper failures, mortal failures, that I’m not going to talk about here beyond this one oblique mention. As such, I am something of an authority on failure. And as engineers we are taught that the study of failure is one of the most important things we can do.

So it always irritates me a bit when I see a successful person giving advice, because I have a pretty good idea of what separates them from the vastly less successful people I have worked alongside over the years: one decision.

In the 1990’s I worked with a guy who was without question the best software developer I have ever encountered, at least judged by the standard of pure meticulousness. I maintained his code for six months or so after he left the company and encountered one bug in all that time. He was working off my designs, so I’ll take a tiny bit of credit, but I was working off my designs too, and let’s just say I wrote more than one bug.

The thing about Joe (not his real name) was he had made one bad decision. In the late 80’s he had graduated at the top of his class at a very good school, and been offered a job at Microsoft, just before Windows 3.0 came out. Which was followed by Win3.1, which was followed by Microsoft exploding into the stratosphere. He turned them down. The compensation wasn’t that great, the stock options were pretty thin based on past performance.

If he had taken that job, he would have been a millionaire by 1995, a few years before I met him. He told me that rarely a day went by that he didn’t think about that decision.

In the 2000’s I worked with a guy who had co-founded a WebMD-style company that WebMD wanted to buy. His co-founders didn’t want to take the deal. He was not able to sway them. The crash came and the company went out of business. Again: he was one decision away from never having to work again.

The tech landscape is littered with people like this. People no one would ever ask for advice because they are just ordinary working stiffs in the technology landscape.

This is not to say that people who are successful don’t work hard. They do. But so do a lot of people who aren’t nearly as successful, and the dividing line between them is trivially thin.

This doesn’t lead me to conclude that we should all do what we love. That’s bad advice as often as it is good. It suggests that we should do what is enough. That what we do should be satisfying and rewarding even if we fail to follow the path we planned.

I don’t regret my years in academia despite my eventual exit. I don’t regret working in startups despite the prevalence of crashing and burning. I don’t regret the relationships that have failed. Even the spectacular failures serve as fodder for me as a maker of stories.

I do have regrets. Failures I’m ashamed of.

It seems to me that failures are of two kinds: regrettable and non-regrettable. The non-regrettable ones are of the “one bad decision” type. The regrettable ones cover a great range, but mostly involve metaphorical weights that are too heavy to lift, despite our best efforts and our strong feeling that we ought to be able to lift them.

These are not reasonable judgements, but they are judgements we stand by never-the-less. As I am apt to say of my greatest failure: “I believe to this day that I made the right decision. And I will never forgive myself.” This is the fundamental nature of the human condition.

Contemplating our failures, analyzing our failures, owning and acknowledging our failures, is one of the better ways to get on the path to being better at this whole humanity thing. Insistence on our own perfection–trusting in our own righteousness–is not a great way to motivate self-improvement.

There’s a trade-off, of course, as there so often is. Too much focus on failure and we’re paralyzed and depressed. Too little and we’re narcissistic. The optimum, as someone once said, is the middle path.

Me, I lean a little harder in the direction of “focus on failure” than I might, which makes me off the scale in today’s mostly narcissistic society. It’s my Puritan roots. But those same Puritan roots give me sufficient bloody-mindedness to have the strength to go on in the midst of failure. Others may find different balances work better for them. Go for it.

But it’s important that we never lose track of our failures entirely. Our failures and our failings matter. They define us at least as much as our successes do. We should recognize them and accept them. They are part of who we are, and when we cut ourselves off from our failures we cut ourselves off from ourselves. That’s never a good thing.

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Naming the Dragon

Action is hard.

I’m a very action-oriented person, but even for me, especially when I was younger, taking action–doing stuff, writing stories, writing poetry, making career choices, you name it–was hard.

There are at least three major impediments to taking action:

  • Identifying the problem
  • Figuring out the appropriate action
  • Worrying about what other people will think

Of these, the first is the key: do it right and the others will fall into place with relatively little additional effort.

Words have power, and names have the most power of all. They don’t have any power over things, but they have enormous power over us. We can use this.

I think in highly metaphorical terms, although at the end of the day I’m apt to strip away the metaphors and come out with the plainest, most literal language I can find. That’s a critical final step. But the metaphors are a vital tool for getting to that point.

So I think about problems, sometimes, as dragons to be slain. Slayed? Killed.

Dragons are fierce creatures, prone to anger, full of fire, and old in war. Some are bigger than others, but all of them can be commanded if you know their most useful name.

In fairy tales it’s their “true name”, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of “truth”, whereas I have no significant doubts about “useful”. Pilate sounds almost wise when asks “What is truth?” whereas he’d sound kind of stupid asking, “What is useful?”

Useful names for dragons are ones that let us figure out how to slay them, and motivate us to do what is necessary to that end.

Dragons come in many forms.

Some are desires, for sex or money or power or art or experience or love or friendship or connectedness, which I think covers the basics. By “art” I mean “creation of art”. “Money” covers “ownership of art” (and everything else). The categories aren’t quite orthogonal: in a world were a 53 year old former supermodel gets engaged to an 84 year old billionaire media mogul, money, sex, power and experiences are all bound up with each other. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything is about sex but sex. Sex is about power.”

But while they may cross over, each of these kinds of desire can and often do stand alone. Me, I’ve always been more interested in sex, art, experience and love than money or power, which is kind of too bad because more money and power would likely make sex and experience more accessible. Love and art have to be paid for in their own currency, though.

Admitting and understanding our own desires is a hard problem. The Dragons of Desire have names like “lust” and “pride” and “acquisitiveness” and “loneliness”. In less enlightened times some of these things were called sins, but the sin is in how a person reacts, not in the fact of the desire.

Naming our dragons includes naming our desires. “I want to get laid”, “I want to be the best poet in the world”, “I want to own a nice home”, “I want friends I can count on, who make me feel like I’m not alone”. Those are the dragons whose names are Lust and Pride and Acquisitiveness and Loneliness.

A desire is a dragon when we’re afraid to pursue it, which is often because of worrying about what other people will think, and sometimes because it would be bloody stupid to do so… either way, it pays to name it.

The keys to happiness are simple:

  • Think about what we are grateful for
  • Name our negative emotions
  • Make decisions based on sufficient, not complete, information
  • Hugs are good

There are variations on those themes, and naming our dragons is one of them. It’s a way of naming any emotion that we might not want to name, not just nominally “negative” ones. Naming our dragons and then taking action against them based on sufficient but incomplete information is the basic trick to getting stuff done, whether it’s solving problems or pursuing ambitions.

We often know what we need to do but are afraid or otherwise unable to do it. Naming that dragon–the emotion, the fear, the specific thing that is holding us back from taking action–is the best way to fight it. “I am afraid of rejection” and “I am afraid of failure” are two of the biggest dragons in almost everyone’s life, artists and entrepreneurs doubly so. What are their names?

“Rejection” and “Fear” will do, but “Isolation” and “Terror” could be more motivating, or “Critic” and “Monster”, or some random but vaguely evil sounding name, because, why not? Would you rather fight “Rejection” or “Nobskel”? Or something else? But whatever the name is, it let’s us perform a clever trick, which is to reify our fear–to “make it real”, and by doing so isolate it.

A named fear is no longer an aspect of us, which we might think a shameful weakness. It is a separate thing, because that’s what naming does: it separates the named thing from everything else in our attention by identifying it as an entity. Entities are created by the edges of our attention, and names are way of focusing our attention. We give separate things names. We don’t (usually) have names for our fingers, say, or our left eye, because they are part of us. To name them would be to separate them.

As it is with our bodies, so it is with our emotions. What we name, we isolate (naming happy emotions is not always a good thing for this reason, but there can be value in that, too.)

A fear, a problem, a desire: name them and they become a thing to be managed, a problem to be solved, not a mysterious and possibly shameful aspect of ourselves.

Once named–and to be named, it must be identified, we must know what we are naming–a dragon can be killed, or tamed, or sometimes even just avoided. Running away from dragons is often an advisable tactical move, although in the long term it creates its own problems, especially if we decide to wear those metaphorical running shoes known as “drugs” and “alcohol”.

And there’s a final thing: sometimes naming the dragon isn’t enough. Sometimes the dragon is bigger and fiercer than we are, and there’s no where to run. Then, hopefully, we turn to others for help in fighting it. And sometimes the best help is the fourth item on that list above. A lot of dragons have been killed by hugs, or at least hugs have given a lot of dragon-fighters the strength they need to persist, and to win.

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Books 2015 (partial list and scattered remarks)

I’m away from my library, including my virtual library, so this is partly from memory. I checked Amazon’s e-mails to me over the year to see what stuff I bought, and it looks like this, with some additions from memory and what’s still on my e-reader (most of the books are e-books, some aren’t):

0 “Bone Clocks”
I would read David Mitchell’s laundry lists as I’m pretty sure they would be more interesting than any prose I will ever write. I’m impressed by how he has sold straight-up SF as literature and no one notices because he writes so well. The episodic structure of this book works well, but I found the final distopia implausible (“Hi, my name’s Tom… I’ll be your technological progressive optimist for the evening!”) I wish we had more time with sociopath Hugo Lamb, and less on the wizarding world, but it’s still a pretty good book.

1 “Eichmann Before Jerusalem”

This was an interesting exploration of Eichmann’s life between 1945 and 1960 by a German independent scholar who has taken the time to look under rocks that many people would rather have left in place. Eichmann was an awful person and while we never really come to understand how such a stupid little man could have been such a central figure in such an enormous evil as the Holocaust, it pays to look such people in the historical eye. They are, after all, still around us.

One thing that really struck me is the weird combination of denial and ambition amongst Holocaust-denying NAZIs after the war: they claim the Holocaust never happened, that it would be unthinkable and “un-German”, and that they’d do it again if they could.” It’s as if they can perfectly well comprehend how enormously evil genocide is, but by claiming that what happened did not they can excuse it, and if given the opportunity they would do it again and claim again it did not. They are disassociative.

It made me appreciate that the post-modern Right of Cheney and Trump is not a new thing. Derida’s lie of truth as a social fiction has been pursued by the Right (as well as the Left, of course) for centuries, and whenever anyone anywhere tell us that 2+2=4 is a contingent, historical, subjective, Jewish, etc… way of looking at the world that is no better than any other, there are death camps following not far behind.

The NAZI way of knowing was explicitly ethno-racist, and rejected “Jewish physics” (which happens to be the kind of physics I do… not because it is Jewish but because it is the most plausible kind) and any internationalist, universal, liberal philosophy. There is only one way of knowing, and it is the Bayesian way. It produces knowledge, not truth, because truth is probably not achievable (and any good Bayesian will be happy to entertain evidence to the contrary.) The fight against the totalitarian movements of the 20th century was hard in part because the defenders of liberal democracy were often in the grip of the same basic epistemic errors as its enemies. We know more now, and the 21st century is not going to go particularly well for people, like Eichmann, who believe that facts are social constructs and plausibility is a matter of political diktat.

2 “Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders by Islamists practicing the perfectly ordinary dictates of their religion (just as Christian and Buddhist and Sikh terrorists are practicing the perfectly ordinary dictates of theirs) I got interested in putting the current wave of blasphemy-motivated murders into some historical context. This book is mostly focused on European history, and therefore deals primarily with Christianity, where “blasphemy” and “heresy” were generally conflated. It has some interesting stuff about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and how we got from theocratic states in the 1500’s to secular states today, but wasn’t as broad as I’d hoped. Blasphemy is under-studied.

3 “Old English: Grammar and Reader”

I can read Middle English–Chaucer et al–without too much difficulty, but Old English is a completely different language. This book was sufficient to convince me that my desire to read “Beowulf” in the original language is not enough to motivate me to learn a completely different language.

4 “JavaScript: The Good Parts”

I’m pretty sure this book helped me get my current job, as one of the interview questions was what interesting language stuff I’d done lately, and I mentioned learning me some Haskell and talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the language, and the interviewer said, “So that’s basically what you’ve done this year?” and I said, “Actually I’m reading ‘Javascript: the good parts’ and they laughed and realized I was kind of a language geek.

5 “Is There Anything Good About Men?”

This was an interesting book that I can’t really recommend, but think everyone should read. If you value diversity of opinion and you hang out with mostly liberal progressives, as I do, you will want to read this book, which is data-driven even if wacked out in some of its interpretations of those data. The author looks at the tradeoffs that men and women have made, and to some extent our biology may make, asking “How do cultures make use of men?” One thing he completely misses is what a huge, liberal, social innovation monogamy is: the current socially and technologically facilitated changes in masculine and feminine roles are trivial compared to moving from a society where most men don’t reproduce to one where men have almost the same odds of reproducing as women. Creationists and other anti-Evolutionists will hate having this pointed out, which does not make it any less plausible.

6 “Station Eleven”

A humane and contemplative post-apocalyptic story that focuses on the meaning of ordinary lives no matter what is happening in the world at large. Highly recommended.

7 “The Forever War”

A re-read. Travels pretty well in a lot of ways, although the clone thing was pretty implausible then and even moreso now. Great action, great vignettes of the soldier’s life, engaging protagonist. Terrific story.

8 “The Curve of Binding Energy”

Another re-read. Scary. Ted Taylor gives far more away than I am comfortable with, although the absence of mushroom clouds over major cities suggests he was successful in getting governments to take nuclear security seriously.

9 “Urban Shaman”

I’m not sure what led me to pick up this fairly recent urban fantasy but it’s not bad for people who enjoy the genre.

10 Various improv books

Mostly borrowed from Carrie. None that stand out enormously, except maybe “Improv Wins”, which was quite insightful.

11 The Age of Global Warming

Very interesting review of the politics of AGW with a more-skeptical-than-warranted take on the science, although the science is far more complex than simplistic nonsense that Warmists promote as “settled”. Worth reading to understand why some deals may be worse than no deals at all.

12 Florence of Arabia

Christopher Buckley’s post-9/11 comic novel on Mid-East politics and culture. Probably as funny as the topic allows.

13 Those Who Write for Immortality

Really good study of Romantic poets and novelists who have not survived the test of time, but who might well be as good as Wordsworth or Byron or Scott. Excellent example of the application of empirical, Bayesian methods to historical and literary questions.

14 Gloriana’s Torch

The last of Patricia Finney’s Gloriana trilogy, which started with “The Firedrake’s Eye” and continued in “The Unicorn’s Blood”. I found the first in the series extremely evocative, the second a bit strained, and this one very good, especially as a perspective on the life of a galley slave.

15 Loneliness

Good study on the social and psychological consequences of being alone. This issue affects men far more than women, and may partially explain why men die so much more often than women.

16 First Men in the Moon

Re-read of H. G. Wells’ classic. It travels fairly well.

17 Lady Windermere’s Fan

Oscar Wilde at his insouciant best.

18 “Geometric Numerical Integration: Structure-Preserving Algorithms for Ordinary Differential Equations”

I did some playing around with orbital mechanics and was told that if I wasn’t such a complete and utter moron I’d use symplectic integrators. This book seemed like the best introduction to them available and it was OK.

There’s a fundamental constraint on physical motion that it preserves the local density in the phase space around the trajectory. This is sometimes called “Liousville’s Theorem” but goes by other names as well. Ordinary 4th-order Runge-Kutta integrators don’t natively have this property, but there is a class of integrators that do, which for obscure historical reasons are called “symplectic”.

For a reasonably advanced student (upper year undergrad or graduate student with a pretty good background in numerical methods) this is quite a good book, although it doesn’t actually have a lot in the way of algorithms in it. In practice, I’ve found sympletic integrators to be fast, but more complicated to implement and not necessarily more accurate, and I’m enough of a curmudgeon to stick with RK4 as my primary workhorse, particularly given the specialized nature of the problems symplectic integrators can solve (nothing involving any kind of friction, for example.)

19 Various graphic novels

I find these things interesting examples of story-telling. Memorable ones were the first two collected volumes of “Rat Queen’s”, the first two collected volumes of “Southern Bastard” and a Hollywood noir thing whose name I can’t recall.

So, a year that was pretty heavy on the heavy and technical, overall. I’ve still got a bunch on my e-reader or in my book pile that are waiting to be read. 2016 may be a year of catching up. I’m already further behind, as four people gave me books this Christmas, including one 4-book series, and I bought myself a book on the Indus civilization.

2016 will likely continue to have a pretty technical bent, but I’d like to work through my backlog of lighter stuff too. So many books, so little time. It’s a good problem to have.

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2015 in Review

I’m in the habit of looking back on the year past to figure out what went on, what went right, and what went wrong. 2015 was not just a good year but a fantastic year. My standard for a “good year” is very simple: the same number of people I care about are above ground at the end of the year as at the beginning. Not a high standard, maybe, but having seen too many years where it was not met, it’s my bottom line. This year was touch-and-go at a few points, but in the end it came through.

My years have themes, which I discover rather than impose. 2015 was the Year of Improv, or maybe the Year of Story (or that may be next year… stay tuned to find out!)

Last year was very story-focused too. It’s kind of a theme in this phase of my life.

Last year I wrote:

I’ve still not figured out what I’m going to do with my life. I’m getting closer, though. There are a few wheels left to turn.

and

The next year is going to be a branching point, I think. If things come together, I go in one direction, otherwise, I go in a different one. Or maybe I just press insistently on. That’s kind of what I do.

I have turned the wheels: I am going to be a writer.

And this year was indeed a branching point: I lost my job in June–not entirely unexpectedly–and picked up a new gig in July which was a plunge out of a purely technical role where I was comfortable to the point of complacency back into a management and executive role where I felt so far out of my depth for the first month or so it wasn’t funny. But I knew I could adapt, and I did, and it’s turning into one of the most rewarding employment experiences of my life.

What I didn’t predict at the end of 2014 was returning to one of my very first loves–theatre–by way of improv. Carrie said in February, “Hey, let’s do an improv class at VTSL/ICI”. I was already taking an art class at Emily Carr but I said, “Yeah, sure, sounds like fun.”

Fun doesn’t half cover it.

I had spent a lot of time in 2014 studying story, and had developed a pretty good grasp of what I thought story was and how it worked. Improv is like graduate school for storyology (and if that isn’t a legitimate area of academic study, it damned well should be).

There’s an old proverb that says, “When the student is ready, and entire field of study and a whole institute dedicated to their needs will appear.” Or something like that. On this basis, my personal needs conjured the Improv Comedy Institute into existence, which seems like a bit of an arrogant claim even for me.

But ICI and the other improv schools around town–Blind Tiger and Instant Theatre, and hopefully Second Storey Theatre in the new year–are pretty much made to feed my creativity and curiosity.

Call it narrative engineering. Improvisors create stories, scene after scene, on-the-fly, out of nothing but imagination and common experience. It’s a profound exploration of what makes stories work, and I’ve learned more from it than any of the more formal story-study I did in 2014, with courses on film and short stories. I’ve also had more fun and found a community of like-minded oddballs who are astonishingly inclusive and open-minded and accepting. How do I know? They’ve accepted me, and I’m kind of an awkward individual.

Last year I was whinging about “some work of noble note” still left to be done. I knew perfectly well what it was. When I was 16 years old I recognized I had certain ambitions. I wanted to be:

  1. a father
  2. a scientist
  3. an engineer
  4. a businessman (to use the term current when I was 16)
  5. an inventor
  6. an academic
  7. a writer

I have now been all of those things except the last. Ergo: time to fly.

Easy to say, but not easy to recognize. It took the inimitable Joe Bill‘s astonishingly good, literally life-changing improv intensive in August of this year to set me straight. That was a remarkable weekend. After the first day I came home, went for a run, went for a swim, dumped my brain into a blog post, slept hard, and went back for more. After the second day I accepted reality: I’m going to be a writer.

Since then I’ve sold a poem for more than I’ve ever been paid for a poem before ($32! which is like almost $45 in real money!) and gotten much more deeply involved in the local film community, as well as roughing out a new novel and doing a deep re-edit of my previous one, and attending the Surrey International Writers Conference where I had positive responses from a couple of agents.

My life experience tells me that when I set my course and am clear about my objective, I get where I want to go. It also tells me that clarity about objectives is a Very Hard Problem for me. I have been clear about my objective exactly six times in my life, and now I’m working on refining number seven.

Being part of a community where so many people have clear objectives–“More musical improv”, “Come back to Canada”, “Expand into teaching”, “Form a company”–is a huge source of role-models for me. Having people to emulate is a big deal.

So maybe 2015 was the Year of Community. The community happened to be improv, although that really isn’t accidental. Theatre people are my tribe. Always have been, always will be.

The year to come? I dunno. I never know why I do what I do until I’ve done it, and I never know where I’m going ’til I get there, and then look back and see the inexorable logic of the decisions that determined my way. I have another book or two in the fermentation phase beyond the novel mentioned above. There’s one about god and there’s one about science and there’s something to do with iron, or coupled stochastically driven oscillators, or something, which is apparently why I upgraded my Mathematica license. Whatever they are, they are the kind of books that make me think, “Bring me a fast ship, for I mean to sail in harm’s way.”

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Reflections on Faith

I’ve written about faith before. I even wrote a poem about it. But a friend’s comments the other day suggested a refinement in how I talk about faith.

I’m very slow at these things so I often need to come back to a question many times before I figure out a really stable answer. This may be why the freedom to change my mind is so important to me. I do it a lot as I think more deeply about stuff in my slow and fumbling way.

With regard to faith, I used to say that faith was any belief that was held with a plausibility of zero or one because no amount of evidence can change such beliefs.

This is true, but is not the best operational test for faith, because we are never presented with all the evidence there could ever be. We’re only presented with a finite amount of it. There is, however, still a nice test of faith to be had.

Consider:

“God exists” and “There is no God” might be held with faith by a religious person, which would mean the first is assigned a plausibility of 1 and the second a plausibility of 0. The content of these two claims is the same: “Not-A” with 0 plausibility is the same as “A” with 1 plausibility.

Now, because Bayes’ rule is the only consistent way of updating our beliefs in the face of new evidence, and it is multiplicative, and 0 times anything is 0, this means that a person who assigns a plausibility of 0 to “There is no God” will never change their opinion in the face of new evidence.

That important fact here is not that such a belief is resistant to even the strongest evidence, but that even relatively weak evidence won’t result in any change either, which is not the case for a non-faith belief.

For example, suppose I think the plausibility of “9/11 was an inside job” was extremely low. If I was shown evidence that something weird happened that would be pretty likely to happen if there was a government conspiracy and pretty unlikely otherwise, I would say the plausibility of the claim went up just a little bit (because it would have to be insanely good evidence to bump my plausibility by more than just a little bit.)

That’s the characteristic of Bayesian beliefs that faith does not share: even weak evidence will move Bayesian beliefs just a little bit, but weak evidence will not change faith at all.

So this brings my test of faith into the realm of the practical. If I show someone evidence that would increase or decrease the plausibility of a proposition to a Bayesian, and that person’s degree of belief doesn’t change even a tiny little bit, the most plausibly explanation is that I’m dealing with faith.

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Another Hymn Before Action

We’re fed up with your scripture
Quran and hadiths too
your Bibles and your Guru
Granth Sahib… and you
who read the words of teachers
and refuse to move beyond
the rantings of your preachers
and all the lies they’ve spawned.

Uncertainty and doubting
are all we really know–
yet listening and caring,
our hearts have learned to grow.
The foolish and the racist
are not our friends nor yours
they cleave to ancient stasis
and fall for faith’s sweet lures.

We’ve less of that within us,
just humor and a kind
thought for all that’s in us:
poor struggling human minds!
We crave to understand you
sad Losers of the Book
who strive with every sinew
to cope with what Faith took:

Humility and kindness,
tolerance and love,
laughter that can blind us
to the death that lurks above
like the Sword of Damocles
suspended from a thread
while we drink life to the lees
before we march off dead

to the silence of the grave
where solace might await
or then again perhaps the wave
of mystery will abate
and we will see the Infinite
or something much akin
while you with faith so militant
have lost what we might win.

Our doubts have been rewarded
with knowledge growing fast
and our science has recorded
the failings of our past
while you who read your teachers
and refuse to move beyond
the rantings of your preachers
will soon enough be gone.

This doesn’t take much from Kipling’s original beyond the basic form. My purpose was to turn a basically religious poem on its head, and I’m not entirely displeased with the result. There’s an inevitable Tennyson reference, and a bit of quantum agnosticism that’s subtle enough to be satisfactory.

Posted in poem, quantum, religion | Comments Off on Another Hymn Before Action

Imaginary Friend

I’m sorry your imaginary friend
is whispering sweet hatred in your ears
motivating murderous revenge
upon the source of all your bygone fears:
perhaps it is a woman who today
is targeted by your inner voice…
one who has the guts to simply say
she deserves equality and choice,
or maybe it’s a man who speaks his mind
who mocks your deep beliefs as silly lies
told by children of a savage kind
to convince themselves they’re really wise.
You cannot kill us all and in the end
he’ll fail you, your imaginary friend.

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Billions in Weirdness

A friend​ asked me about the science behind this project backed by Indian American billionaire Manoj Bhargava and I thought it worth a little more public response.

There are four technologies discussed on this site:

  1. stationary bike for energy generation
  2. mysterious water purification tech
  3. blood-circulation enhancer
  4. geothermal power using graphene to conduct heat to the surface

The stationary bike thing says 1 hour of pedaling will produce electricity for 24 hours. A reasonably fit human can generate about 100 W of steady output for an hour by “vigorous exercise”.

That one hour’s output has to be stored in a battery and pulled out again, which will lose about 20% in the process, so that’s less than 4 W available over the full 24 hours. With LED lights that’s more than nothing, but solar cells or small windmills would both be better bets. Furthermore, that energy comes from the food the person ate, and humans are relatively lousy converters of food to exercise/energy, so the whole idea reeks of inefficiency.

Furthermore, these objections are stunningly obvious to anyone who has ever taken first year engineering, so I have a hard time believing no one on the advisory team noticed them. Which makes me wonder what is going on.

The water purification technology is not described, so who knows if it works. All I’ll say is I’ve worked in water tech and known some very smart people who have left academia to work in water purification, and while it’s a problem that seems to outsiders like it ought not to be that hard to solve, it really is that hard to solve. So I’m skeptical of claims for relatively small systems with no mention of energy inputs being used to generate a litre per second or so of potable water from the ocean.

The health claim reminds me of men’s hair loss ads. When I started losing my hair in my early 40’s I did some investigation on hair loss solutions. There were all kinds of snake oil remedies being sold, many of which claimed to “improve blood circulation in the scalp”.

There were also skeptics who pointed out that hair transplants worked just fine, which would not be the case if blood circulation were the issue.

Even the one nominally “successful” baldness treatment–Rogaine–only works in about 25% of men, and costs the Earth. Despite being slightly vain about my hair, which was one of my very few physically attractive features, I started cutting it super-short and decided to do my best to age gracefully. It hasn’t worked so far, but I figure there’s still time.

In any case, that’s a long-winded way of saying that while the days of bloodletting are more-or-less behind us, there is still clearly a certain “just makes sense” appeal to blaming all our health problems on issues with blood circulation, despite there being very little evidence that any of them, at least other than arteriosclerosis, which is not treatable by mechanical means. Arteriosclerosis is an inflamatory disease of the arterial wall, and even things like angioplasty, which mechanically clear the plaques that block blood flow, don’t work very well because it’s not a mechanical issue at root, it is a physiological issue.

Finally, the use of exotic high-conductivity carbon allotropes to bring geothermal power to the surface is not completely insane, but it is needlessly speculative. It is true that carbon in the form of diamonds, graphene and carbon nanotubes has a thermal conductivity at temperatures around 100-200 C that is over five times that of copper (2000-3000 W/m.K versus 400 W/m.K).

It is also true that this value only holds for large unbroken sheets of graphene or continuous carbon nanotubes or diamonds that are unbroken and uncut. A single diamond has a stupidly high thermal conductivity. A bunch of diamonds in a bucket are a pretty good thermal insulator, because there is poor diamond-to-diamond heat conduction where they touch (although I don’t recommend insulating your home with bags of diamonds… there are better insulators that are much cheaper.)

No one knows how to create large, continuous sheets of graphene, although there is a lot of work being done and progress being made on the problem. When it happens it may make some kinds of geothermal power more practical, but the rate-limiting step in extracting energy from the deep underground is not our ability to bring heat to the surface, but rather the ability of the rock itself to conduct heat to whatever we put down there.

A typical geothermal system involves fracturing the rock in a zone between two sets of boreholes and sending water down one and up the other, so it traverses a large volume of rock with a large surface area so as to pick up lots of heat without cooling the rock down at a rate that is faster than can be replenished by new heat rising from the Earth’s core.

Obviously this can’t be done with graphene, which is a solid. There may be some way of growing a graphene “root system” deep underground that would be in contact with enough rock surface that local cooling wouldn’t be a problem, but graphene is a tricky material to work with. It reacts badly with water, for one thing, and water has a way of getting down to the lowest point available. It’s a rare thing to find a borehole that stays dry.

So at the very least it isn’t obvious what the advantage of graphene-based geothermal is supposed to be over the regular water-based kind, which is a mature technology that really should be more widely deployed, and probably could be with a little bit of focused investment and some care and attention from a well-led engineering team.

So of the four “solutions” one is enormously impractical compared to perfectly viable alternatives, one isn’t described in any detail but claims to have a simple solution to a hard problem that very smart people have spent hundreds of millions on and have researched over decades, one is founded on a very strange claim about blood circulation that sounds a lot like an advertisement for a sham men’s hair loss treatment, and one is based on applying technology that doesn’t quite exist to a problem that already has a pretty good solution.

I’m a very naive person, so I’m not really qualified to speculate as to what is actually going on here. It’s not even like they are trying to come up with plausible solutions to the problems they are talking about. For a million dollars I’d happily give them far more plausible stories to tell, ones that would not only sound good to laypeople but stand up to considerably more than the kind of casual expert scrutiny I’ve applied here.

But regardless of what is going on, I’m confident in saying that whatever the outcome of this project, the odds of it solving any of the problems it claims to be focused on are quite a bit lower than the odds of it involving the transfer of money from honest but technologically innocent individuals to individuals who are neither technologically nor morally innocent.

Posted in ethics, marketing, mechanics, physics, politics, technology, thermodynamics | Comments Off on Billions in Weirdness

SIWC2015 Brain Dump

The Surrey International Writer’s Conference is a meeting for working writers and people who want to be working writers. This was my first year attending, although I had heard good things about it from friends who had been in the past.

There were four sessions per day on Friday and Saturday and two on Sunday morning which I’m not likely to make it to because two hours travel for two hours of talks on topics I happen to be less interested in is not a great trade-off when my brain is already full and I could use an extra hour or two of sleep.

The conference is not cheap. I got the “basic” package which included all three days, no meals, and no evening keynotes and it ran over $400. It did include morning keynotes which with one notable exception were mostly administriva-related, as near as I could tell.

The notable exception was a short talk by a successful romance novelist who shared her struggles, her periodic conviction she was a failure, and her persistence in “writing around, writing through” the other stuff going on in her life (including having a couple of kids and minor things like that.)

I didn’t write much for fifteen years when my kids were young. I had doubts about my ability as a parent and deliberately walked away from anything that I thought would distract me from that. It was hard, but the results were worth it.

Others who are more confident in their parenting abilities are right to make different choices, but we all end up having to “write around, and write through” other things in our lives. Day jobs, most often, other hobbies, friends, spouses, partners, cats, dogs, and other beings that quite reasonably ask for some part of our time.

The workshops and sessions I attended covered a range of topics from the practicalities of freelancing to the mystery of inspiration. Beyond that, one of the unique features of SIWC is there are opportunities to pitch to agents and to have your work reviewed by an experienced writer. I took advantage of both, making two pitches and having one “blue pencil” session with a local writer who gave me some excellent feedback on a difficult scene. You can only for sign up for one of each kind of session when you register, but there is a rush line to get more on the day. One person I know got a literal handful.

From my notes, the sessions I attended were:

1) Freelancing: this was full of good advice from David Paul Williams, who is a freelancer and lawyer. It basically confirmed for me that freelancing is not materially different from the kind of business I’ve done as a consultant, which was a useful context-setting for me. Freelancing has the same mix of work and marketing I’m used to, the same concerns about contracts, commitment, payment, taxes, and so on. Be easy to work with, communicate clearly and often–especially when you think you’re going to miss a deadline–and build solid relationships. Business 101, but good to be reminded of.

2) Action Scenes with Sam Sykes, who seemed under-prepared. There were a couple of useful take-aways (action is a conversation, and action should have consequences for the characters, not just be an interlude while the story takes a break) but otherwise was a bit thin.

3) This is Not Your Country–about writing the Other–with Q Lindsey Barrett was excellent. She was clear on the difficulties anyone who dares step out of the box of class, gender and ethnicity faces, and up-front that anyone who does so will face automatic and vitriolic criticism. Her attitude is, quite reasonably, that these attitudes border on censorship, and they are simply something artists have to face head-on. I’m OK with that. I have an interest in the history of British Columbia, which means I have to write about native peoples. There only alternatives are to not write about my own people’s history, or to pretend natives don’t exist. Neither alternative is palatable.

So I’ll go ahead and write what I write, and face the automatic criticism by reflexive haters head on. It was a very positive and validating experience, knowing that others have faced the same issues. People like me–who sit at the very pinnacle of the pillar of privilege–arguably have a responsibility to be respectful of the cultures our ancestors wiped out, but that doesn’t mean they are off limits to us. What unites us, our common humanity, is greater than what divides us.

4) Holly Löricz’s talk on editors was excellent. I’ve resisted paying the high price of professional editing, leaning instead on a suite of fairly experimental tools to handle copy-editing tasks, and intelligent first readers to give me the feedback a developmental editor might give, but I do see the logic of it, and maybe I’ll eventually go that way.

That was Friday’s sessions, interspersed with pitches and blue pencil, which resulted in a couple of expressions of interest to see proposals. I’m going to cut 50,000 words from Darwin’s Theorem before submitting the proposal, though. It needs it, sad though it makes me. The advice to “kill your darlings” is the most difficult for any writer to take.

5) Saturday was even better. It kicked off with a good session with Hallie Ephron on secrets and lies, and how to use them while being fair to the reader. Darwin’s Theorem has plenty of secrets, and I struggled with them a lot. I think this session gave me some tools to understand how to do better in future.

6) Next was another Holly Löricz session on proposals and pitches. I had already bought her book (co-written with Chip MacGreggor) on proposals, and found the talk useful and practical. I have a hard time summarizing my work, and the practical, actionable advice she gave looks very useful. I’m vaguely excited about writing my next proposal, which is not the way I’ve ever felt before.

7) After that came Chip MacGreggor on branding, which was interesting. It’s always nice to see someone with a PhD who has wandered far afield and done well with it. My “brand”, insofar as it exists, is “cerebral, visceral, and poetic”. That’s the promise I can keep to my readers. Dunno what the value of it is, but that’s who I am.

8) I saved the best for last: Jasper Fforde on “The Last 5%”. It was amazing. I’ve enjoyed Fforde’s writing, and it was fun to see him in person. It was more fun to see him break into a long discourse on poetry immediately after I had written “He’s looking for the poetry” in my notebook. It was even more fun to figure out what’s wrong with my prose.

He was talking about the levels of quality in writing from amateur to adequate to professional, where most of us can reasonably expect to end up. But beyond professional is inspired, and he was concerned with how to bring about that “unteachable” transition.

One of the things he talked about in a diverse, fluid and intelligent talk was a model of human beings as “spikey balls”: he depicted someone he knows who is an academic who has a couple of very long spikes representing his expertise in his field, but not much else. Boring. He encouraged writers to cultivate an interest in “stuff”: all kinds of diverse topics.

“OK,” thinks I, “that’s pretty much me… so why is my prose so pedestrian?”

And the light dawned.

Severe arrogance alert.

I am a very good poet. I don’t know if my poetry will last–it barely has any following today–but I am completely comfortable in saying it’s really good.

And one of the things I’m aware of as a poet is how much of the weird knowledge I have gets into it. Because that’s the other really arrogant thing I’m going to say here: I know a lot about a lot of things. I originally put a list of topic areas I’m reasonably expert in here, but that was too arrogant even for me. Suffice to say while listening to Fforde go on about the importance of knowing a little about a lot of things I found myself wondering if that was so important to writing inspired prose why was my prose so, well, prosaic?

The thing is, I don’t know a little about a lot. I know a lot about a lot, and I see connections between everything.

My poetry is constrained by the form and focus of the poem. It’s too short to fit everything in.

My prose, on the other hand, is over-connected. I have the same problem in improv, often missing offers because I see a dozen possibilities where there is in fact just one clear one to a normal person.

This is my fundamental insight: my prose is over-connected. That’s what’s wrong with it. That’s what is keeping it at the professional, pedestrian, level.

So I came away from Jasper Fforde’s talk with a much clearer idea of what I have to do to improve my prose: find ways to impose disciplines on myself that will constrain my writing to the same tight focus that my poetry gets from form. That will reign in my tendency toward over-connection and free my prose to be inspired.

This is something I can do.

Ergo: the Surrey International Writer’s Conference is the third in a series of conferences, workshops and festivals that have contributed enormously to my development as an artist in the last three months, starting with Joe Bill’s intensive in August, passing through Bill Binder’s workshop on the math of improv at VIIF (and also Brad McNeil’s action improv workshop and to some extent Adam’s game class) and ending here.

The person I did the blue pencil session with objected to a paraphrase of Elliot’s line from Little Gidding that she felt was too close to the original to pass muster. I’ve not made up my mind about that, but I’ll use it here in any case. I have come back to the place of my beginnings, to know it properly for the first time.

Posted in life, poetry, writing | Comments Off on SIWC2015 Brain Dump