Dec 30, 2014

Thank Google for time travel


Plan A was to start the New Year right by posting every day.

Plan B was to gain some momentum by starting on my birthday, December 30th, and starting the Birth Year right.

And so I posted on December 30th. Then Failed.

So back to Plan A.


Today is January 2, and I've failed.

But Google lets me time travel

Since this post is dated December 31, 2014 it must be that Google has let me go back in time, write this and post it.

Then it must be that I time traveled forward to January 1, 2015, and posted this there.

Either that, or it's still January 2, 2015 and Google has let me backdate my posts.

I'm not saying which.

But I am saying:


Thank you Google.

I'm the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle years old! Yay?

Yes, it's true. I'm 72.

Besides being the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle, 72, my age, is:

  • the product of two consecutive numbers, 8 and 9.
  • the sum of four consecutive primes:  (13 + 17 + 19 + 23). 
  • the sum of six consecutive primes (5 + 7 + 11 + 13 + 17 + 19).

And a bunch of other stuff besides. Thanks Wikipedia. And that reminded me to make my annual donation, and then to write a G+ post, which I'll quote below and then link to. 


Because I just spent a bunch of time writing my G+ post, and then wondered if I could render it, and then spent a bunch more time actually rendering it and making it look the way that I wanted to.

And because I'm the sum of the eighth row of Lozanić's triangle years old, and when you're that old, and it's your blog, then you get to do what you want--providing Blogger lets you do it. 

And it does. So I did. So there.
How many Wikipedia pages a year do you read? What's each page worth to you? Well, yeah, not that particular page. But on the average? And in aggregate?
For me, a lot, and I hope for you, as well.
It's worth a lot to have a fairly trustworthy resource for information that you care about? Yes, I know it's not always accurate. It's not absolutely trustworthy. And sometimes it's downright lame. And no matter what attempts are made for objectivity there are issues that are so charged that edit wars have broken out, and sanctions threatened against people who misbehave.
For example: Climate Change ( and ( "The Arbitration Committee has permitted Wikipedia administrators to impose discretionary sanctions on any editor editing this page or associated pages." Meaning: "Be nice, or we'll cut you off."
Wikipedia is not an anarchy, but a community with rational government based on clearly stated principles. The principles are spelled out as clearly as possible, and evolve as the community learns more. What's it worth having a transparent governance model for a site you rely on?  
Yes, there are politics involved. If there are people there will be politics. But the politics are (mostly) polite, and even though I am sure there are some bad actors the ethos of the community is to produce information that is written from a neutral point of view, with  verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources:" ( And that community standard, along with the ability to enforce the standard keeps the politics (mostly) healthy.
The ability to enforce the community standards--that is, to exercise the power of government--is granted to people based on their contribution and the contribution of any Wikipedian can be objectively measured. What's it worth having a government where power is given to people who have objectively demonstrated their commitment and contribution to the community--rather than people whose primary skill is their ability to convince people of their good intentions and to convince people of others' bad intentions?
What's it worth having a laboratory in which his sort of new governance model can be explored and can evolve?
For me it's worth enough to make a substantial money donation every year, and this coming year I intend to back that up with a time contribution.
This is a project I believe is important. This is a community that I believe is earnestly attempting to help us all become more knowledgeable. This an endeavor that I support. It's worth a lot to me.
I hope it is to you as well, and that you will find a way to show your support, financially or otherwise.

Dec 9, 2014

Dysfunction in the society of mind

Today I suffered an episode of mental decompensation. Decompensation is an eight dollar word for a breakdown. Mental decompensation sounds better than mental breakdown, but a breakdown is what it was.
I found myself crying, for no reason that I could discern. Part of my mind was thinking: “Wow! This is kind of interesting. I’m crying. I’m really feeling sad. And I have no idea why.” Another part, the part attached to my lungs and tear ducts and related apparatus was causing my body to sob. Wailing. It was pathetic. And at the same time it was kind of funny.
I've gotten into a daily routine the past few weeks that’s kept me on track and productive. It’s one of the reasons that I’m actually getting shit written, from time to time, rather than having it all stuck in my head. The routine is: wake up; weigh myself; take my ADD pill; get dressed and shaved; have breakfast with Bobbi, drink water and coffee. We go over my rolling to-do list, and then I do my Daily Pages along with my first tDCS session. Then I do stuff on the list for the rest of the day.
Sometimes my Daily Pages will turn into a post. Other times my daily pages will be something that I try to turn into a post and haven’t yet done. Kind of like compost. But I’m making progress on that front. Posts are better than drafts; drafts are better than Pages; and Pages are better than nothing.
Today I didn't do my Pages. Instead, I wrote emails and made a few stabs at writing a few different things, and I found myself unable to focus. I’d start one thing, then jump to another, and another. In between I did a lot of getting up and pacing around. Then the Great Decompensation.
Daily Pages have served two purposes in my life—albeit inconsistently. One is as a morning ritual, a way to get the day started and get my mind focused. The other is when I’m working on a knotty problem, personal or technical. I sit down, pull out my notebook, and I write myself out of the ditch I’ve gotten into. This almost always works.
So, tearfully, I started writing. I tried to give the sad part of my mind a place to express itself: to tell me what it was feeling and why. I alternated between my normal handwriting, for my sane self, and ALL CAPS for the part of my mind that was so very miserable. The ALL CAPS voice expressed sadness, and anger. It wrote that it wanted to die or at least go unconscious, and it could do neither. I told it that death was off the table, but I’d help it (but not the rest of me) go unconscious if that was what it wanted. But, I suggested, we might find a better solution, and I was willing to help.
It ranted: I'M NOT GETTING THE SHIT DONE THAT I WANT TO. Then the sadness went away and the all-caps stopped and I wrote some fairly constructive things about a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about, and that segued into a tDCS session, a fast walk up and down my driveway, and this, which I’m pretty happy with as I write, and which I’m right now thinking I’ll post after fixing grammar and typos in this first draft.
What I wrote about and what I've been thinking about is how the mind works and, in particular, I've been thinking about how my mind works, and how I could organize my mental processes differently to do a better job of meeting my own goals.
The framework for my thinking comes from Marvin Minsky’s book The Society of Mind (Wikipedia summary here, full text here and MIT Open Courseware lecture here). Minsky was one of the pioneers in AI, back in the 60s when computers first came on the scene and AI was not seen as the hard problem that it’s turned out to be.
The early thinking was that the mind was a computer and that creating artificial intelligence was just a matter of writing the right program. That’s true to the extent that any computational problem can be carried out by any computer or system that’s Turing Complete. But more modern thinking about AI and about cognition in general views a mind not as a single computer, but as a collection of individually simple processes that Minsky called “agents.” The agents cooperate, collaborate, and sometimes compete. They operate in different ways, pursue different objectives and produce different solutions. Action is taken when some process, possibly involving other agents, intermediates between agents that solve problems and agents that control motor areas. And shit gets done.
Minsky’s contribution was to think about mind not as a computer, but as a society. Since we understand the way that human societies work, we can use his metaphor to think about the way minds work and how artificial intelligences might be made to work.
In a normal individual, under normal circumstances, the society of mind works cooperatively. Competing goals and solutions are evaluated against each other. Compromises are considered. Substantial consensus is reached. Individual agents in the society of mind may not be satisfied with the consensus, but the degree of their dissatisfaction and the power that they can muster is usually insufficient to disrupt the action undertaken by the majority.
But in some cases things don’t work so well. Sometimes a vocal and disruptive minority rails against the majority decision. Sometimes a vocal minority can create enough internal disruption to block the majority’s choice, forcing either inaction or a less desirable option on the rest of the society.
Think of that as the Tea Party of the mind.
This happens to me. When my own society of mind is working effectively, I think through the options and choose the one that seems best. But sometimes deciding to act on the choice that seems right fills me with sadness or with anger. I may feel so much upset that I’m unwilling to follow my own orders. Or I feel so much mental turmoil that I’m unable to. I find that my ability to control my own behavior is impaired.
That’s what happened to me this morning. There are agents in my society of mind that control my fingers and produce typing when my fingers are touching a keyboard. There are others that translate thoughts into words, and others that translate the words into finger motions, and so on. At the top of my society’s hierarchy are agents that have stuff that they want written. There are some that want to write about politics. Some want to write about technology. Others have ideas about economics. They compete with one another to control or influence the agents that do the actual writing.
And they’re not just competing with one another. There are agents other agents with other intentions. Some will have their way, sooner or later, which is a good thing because if some of them didn’t make me eat, I’d starve, and if others didn't have me go to the toilet, I’d explode.
Perhaps the parts of my mind that want to produce writing are organized a little differently than my earlier description. Perhaps I've got a bunch of agents that want to think about economics, politics, and so on, but don’t give a shit about writing, and I've got another bunch that want to produce writing, and don’t care a bit what the writing’s about. And then there are agents that like editing—that can always find a way to make a sentence clearer or to reorganize words differently.
Whatever. There are agents. They need to cooperate to get things done.
Getting all these agents to work together in a way that provides the greatest satisfaction to the most powerful coalition of agents—or alternatively in a way that forms a coalition with dominant power—is a tough bit of social engineering or mental politicking. Fortunately I have agents that are more-or-less up to the task. They do the job without “me” (whatever I am) having to intervene. And that’s why I seem to be a moderately capable, functioning human being.
Sometimes things go awry, and that’s what happened today. While most of me has been satisfied with most of what I've been doing the past week or so, some part of me was getting increasingly upset, and finally, today, the meltdown.
Because I’d been thinking about the Society of Mind, once I did my Pages and got the disconnected parts of myself reconnected and communicating, I convened a committee to study the problem and make recommendations. Well, no, that’s not really what I did. No committee was convened. Rather an ad-hoc collection of agents got together, attended to the problem and without much effort, the moving hand on the Page produced the following analysis
Organizations get work done when individuals and departments are focused on a defined task, when communication between and among them is effective and supports the task and when disruptive forces and obstacles are removed—sometimes by parts of the organization that specialize in disruption removal and obstacle removal.
When I write, I decided, a set of agents naturally form around that task, and the fact that my writing process is often dysfunctional (from the perspective of agents that want to get actual writing done and completed and posted, or whatever) is because the usual team of agents are incomplete, or include disruptive agents, or because power is not being allocated properly to agents.
Specifically, when I write, the agents include those that have ideas and care about expressing them, those that translate the ideas into words and keystrokes and so on, but also agents that want to edit, and who are given too much power. And most time there is no agent that actually cares to finish the thing and get it posted. Or if such an agent is present, it does not have enough power to accomplish its end.
So having had that insight, and having a fundamentally healthy society of mind, I sat down and ripped this draft out, creating word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, a process that delights the agents that love the act of writing.
I finished it in one pass. Reviewed it in another, making only a very few changes (editing agent under control). I had Bobbi check it for typos and for obvious stupidity.
And now, I will move my mouse over to the Publish button and….

Update: You can find the Society of Mind in pdf form here.

Nov 23, 2014

tDCS: better cognition through electricity?

For the past month or so I've been doing regular tDCS sessions. What's tDCS? The FLA stands for transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Basically you run an electric current through your brain for a while and it makes you better.


Well, that's what the research says it does. It's a mild current, and a relatively short time, but everything I've read says it's unlikely to be harmful, and likely to be good. My subjective view is that it makes me better. That may be for reasons that are less related to the science of neurostimulation and more related to the science of the placebo effect. And from the sense of empowerment I get from saying "Fuck you!!" to the cognitive decline part of the aging process.

If any blogologists have noted how much better written this and the the last few paragraphs are compared to my usual drivel,  you now have the answer. I'm doing a tDCS session as I write this.

But seriously, I am really doing this. I don't have objective information that shows that it's helping, and won't have any owing the the difficulty of doing double-blind sham-tDCS-controlled tests on myself, but here's my experience. I do the tDCS while I'm doing something else: sometimes it's something that I like, such as writing, and sometimes it's something I'm neutral-to-negative about, like organizing some crap in my office, and sometimes it's something that's kind of annoying, like reconciling our credit card account. And very often, not always, at some point I think: "Wow! I feel unusually good." And I realize I'm doing a tDCS session. And I check the timer on my device, and I'm usually 7-10 minutes into the current (NPI) session. Which proves exactly nothing, but I don't care.

I'm still working the bugs out of the system, so I still experience one of the common, negative side effects: a kind of itching burning sensation under the electrode pads. It's enough to annoy me, and even to discourage me at times, but not enough to stop me. I think it has something to do with getting the concentration of the conductive solution right. Or maybe I've got Sensitive Skin and I'll have to Suck It Up And Live With It.  Eventually I'll figure it out. Or not.

And what makes it easier to push on through is that I've now got a tDCS buddy to help me over my distraction and push past the minor skin irritation. Who is it? Astoundingly, it's my generally techno-skeptic semi-luddite beloved life partner, Bobbi. She calls it "electrocuting her brain" but she's doing it along with me, at least one session per day. I try to do three. Shows the power of true love. Or desperation.

I had been researching tDCS intermittently (or inconsistently, if you want to get judgmental) for about five years. Everything that I've read (links to some of my sources are at the bottom) has said pretty much the same thing: most people experienced no undesirable side effects, mainly minor skin irritation (like me); a few have experienced headaches, which are also a common side-effect with placebos; many experienced positive effects.

The research often compares three configurations: Anodal tDCS, in which the stimulating electrode, the one stimulating the brain is the anode and the cathode, often called the reference electrode, is on forehead, check, neck, or arm. Cathodal tDCS in which the electrodes are reversed. And sham in which there's nothing going on. Maybe some cayenne powder on the electrode for the sting.

It's always possible that there are long-term negative effects, but I'm not too worried about that. The whole idea of long-term negative effects is irrelevant to amusing to someone over 70 like me. And in the presence of ample evidence of short-term positive effects, I say it's worth the risk.

The device I'm using comes from [Trans-cranial Technologies]( "When only the best in tDCS therapy will do." Which may be true. Or the best may be from [Fisher Wallace]( "The Proven Device for Depression, Insomnia, Anxiety & Pain; Featured in The Wall Street Journal." FW costs about twice as much, and it is FDA cleared, so maybe it is better, but I'm not about to do any double-blind sham-controlled studies to check it out. I'll just keep electrocuting my brain with my TCT device.

The first tDCS device to get me excited was called [GoFlow]( The link is to a Kickstarter-style video explaining the concept: a complete, $100-ish open-source consumer-style unit. Stick it on your head and turn it on. No wires, pads built in and positioned. I signed up to be notified when they had something to sell. They tried going on their own; then tried Kickstarter (rejected!!!) then finally, after repeated delays, they quit. [Their site]( is now a forum.

In the meantime I'd investigated other devices and found the landscape looked like this:

* Fisher Wallace at $800 or so at the time, plus possibly another $100 to get their shill-doctor to prescribe it
* DIY from schematics at a couple of bucks for parts, and take your chances
* Wait for something better

One thing I learned, and you may as well: if you Google for tDCS and especially if you land at FW's website, then for weeks your Google ads will promote FW, and your YouTube video ads will all have FW content. I think I'm due for more FW ads now.

My next serious run at getting a device came after I joined the [Maine Hackers Club](http:\\ One of the regulars there, Michal, is a brillant hardware hacker. I found the [Open Stim Project]( which provides both a hardware reference and control software. For the price of the parts Michal built me a board and populated it. But I needed pads.

That sent me to [tdcs-kit](, for a $40.00 device, including pads. Now I was set up, but still not happy. I believed that both this device and Michal's were safe, but still. If I'm going to run a current through my brain, did it make sense to use the cheapest thing that I could?

My brain deserved better.

So I convinced myself that it was worth the $379 that they wanted and placed the order. Only to find that the shipping cost from Hong Kong was another $100. But in for $379, in for a $479, so I placed the order. No regrets.

If you're interested in finding out more, [diytdcs]( a good starting point. They'll point to you a number of other resources, including the [tDCS subreddit](

For tdcs montages try [this](

Nov 19, 2014

How does it all come out?

Teenagers, assuming that they think at all, think they are immortal. I know I thought I was immortal. And although when I was a teen I thought that I thought, I now look back and think: "I don't think so!" 

Older people, assuming that they think at all, think differently. I know I do. Although I wouldn't be surprised if a later version of myself looked back on these thoughts and thought: "I don't think so." 

Evolutionary psychology says there's a reason that young people think they immortal. Perhaps we'll discuss that another day. Practical psychology says that there's a reason why older people think otherwise and I'll talk about that now: As someone gets to my age, assuming they aren't already dead, they'll see more and more of their peers dying. The more dead friends, the more they'll believe that they'll follow the rule and not be the exception. I know I do. 

I remember a conversation I had a few decades ago with Bill Harmon, the father of a friend. Bill was enough older that I thought he might be contemplating his own mortality and he was smart enough that I thought his insights might be useful. 

He wasn't afraid of death, he told me, but it annoyed him to know that he wouldn't get to see how it all comes out. 

My wife, Bobbi, a mythologist by inclination and training (possessor of a well-earned PdD in the subject) has taught me to look at life through story. And there are so many interesting stories! 

At the macro level there's the story of the universe: one that's changed a lot since I first learned it in pre-big-bang days. We have a story about its evolution from those first, hot moments; we know a lot about its current story; and we we know that the universe's end is cold and dark, but perhaps not as bad as we think. At least if the ideas of the brilliant physicist Freeman Dyson has an interesting theory about the future of intelligence in the universe. Dyson says that intelligence is eternalBut is he right? Close to right? Unlikely we'll know how it turns out. But we can read his story, "Infinite in All Directions" here

Then there's the story of the planet we call Earth, being reshaped by the upstart species that we belong to. That is, assuming you are the same kind of creature that I am.

I have three biological daughters that I know of--and I hope that's all of them--and I have 3 tenured sons, married or soon to be married to my daughters, all with interesting, evolving stories. I have five grandkids, each beginning their own stories. I have friends with stories. Branches of science and threads of technology I follow, each with their own stories. And there are the stories of softer subjects that I follow. For example, self referentially, there's the story of our unfolding understanding of story itself. 

Old stories continue. New stories begin. Few stories truly end. 

Mine will not end, It will go on without me, and slowly fade. 

And sadly, I won't get to find out how it all comes out.

Nov 17, 2014

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light

This morning I remembered Dylan Thomas's poem, written for his dying father, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

You might like listening to Dylan Thomas reading the last quatrain of the poem on YouTube. 

Or you might read the ending below

And you, my father, there on the sad height,Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.Do not go gentle into that good night.Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or go for broke and read the entire poem, here. But I digress.

I first read the poem years ago.  I saw, in the then-future, my own father going. I expected he'd go gentle, because he was a gentle man. And indeed he did. But, as I recall, I said to myself:  "Self, not me. I'm going out raging. Raging. Raging. Raging at the dying of the light. Yeah! Booyah!"

Now I'm older, and things are different. For one thing, I don't say "Booyah!" Gave that up when I was sixty. And I recognize that I'm not a rager, and really never was. A fighter, but not a rager. And, as this blog, among other things, gives witness, I'm fighting, fighting, fighting. Though I know it's a losing fight.

That's how I hope to go out. Fighting. But maybe not. Sometimes I see a different ending, where I stop fighting, and decide to go.  Gentle-like. I can imagine now what I could not imagine before: a time when I say to death, "Okay, Death. I'm tired. I give up. Take me." 

Because of tiredness. A bone-wearying soul-destroying tiredness. Happens to me a few times a year, maybe when its allergy season, or maybe when I get some kind of low-grade infection. More often now than when I was younger, I get tired. Tired. Tired. So tired.

When you're torturing people (something that I neither confirm nor deny doing) and you don't want to leave any evidence of your torture and your water boarding gear is in the shop getting repaired, then the recommended torture technique is sleep-deprivation. After enough sleep-deprivation, strong people crack. They break down. They give up secrets. They betray their friends. And sometimes they think about going gentle into that good night, instead of raging, raging, at the dying of the light.

It's happened to me. Sometimes. I get so tired that for a moment I think that even death is preferable. So I give up, and I take a nap. And then I'm OK.

Still, I hate being so vulnerable. And I hate thinking about what might happen if I can't sleep because of pain or something. Or when sleep doesn't refresh me like it does now. I know I'm no hero, but I think I can deal with substantial pain. But not tiredness.

When that good night beckons I ain't going gentle into it.

Instead, like right now, I think I'll take a nap.

Nov 16, 2014

Senior creativity: inventing new words

I'm usually annoyed at the changes in my mental infrastructure. Blown fuses. Memory parity errors. Slow reboots. Noisy signals. No BSD yet, but that's only because I'm not running Windows. At least I hope I'm not.

I don't see the changes, of course, only their effects, and from the effects I infer the underlying causes. I hear sounds, but can't translate the sounds into words or the words to meanings. I forget a well-known fact.  A few weeks ago I forgot my zip code. At least I think I did. But I'm not sure it was my zip code I forgot. Maybe it was my telephone number. Maybe it wasn't a couple of weeks ago, but a couple of months ago.


That's a metamemory loss: I've forgotten what it is that I forgot.

A common failure mode, which I've written about before, is word blending: my mental machinery is trying to express an idea and uses a kind of map-reduce network to do it. Tasks are dispatched to develop alternative formulations of multiple variations of the idea; tasks spawn subtasks to choose appropriate words and phrases; then all of the mapped variations are reduced to a single, coherent speech-stream. In theory.

But sometimes the reduce part of the network fails, and instead of choosing one word or another it gives conflicting orders to the vocal apparatus. And out comes a new word. Or a new sound. Or the system crashes, and I need to reboot.

I may have the causes wrong, but these are the effects. And it's not just me. Today, Bobbi asked me to get a spinge, Really? A spinge? I'm not sure what word was blended with sponge to get spinge, but something was.

We decided--actually she decided, and I went along--that we consider this not a failure mode, but a new form of creativity. "What's a spinge?" She asked. "We should make up a new definition."

So, for all of you (both of you? All three of you?) reading this, a spinge is a spinning sponge.

Got a spill? Spinge it, don't sponge it!

Mad a mess on your binge? Clean it up with a spinge!

Get your spinge in time for Christmas.

Hurry, while spinge supplies last.


EDIT: the original version said a spinge was a spinning ponge. WTF is a ponge? That may be the subject of a future post. Or not.

Nov 14, 2014

Fooling myself about my mental state

For a while, around the time that I started this blog, I was using Lumosity, a website that provides games that exercise mental skills. Arguably (as in: they would argue) using Lumosity improves your mental ability.

I did the exercises for a while and then, as with so many things, I lost interest. Recently I returned to play some more. I was surprised, unpleasantly, at what I found.

First, of course, and not surprisingly, my performance had gone down. The whole idea of practice is to keep your performance up. So when you don't practice, of course your performance should drop.  Comparing myself to my age cohort I found I'd dropped from being in the 90th percentile (where I've spent my mental life, usually at the high, or very high end) to being in the 80's. That one digit looms large.

But what was more surprising was how I compared to younger cohorts. Here's how I rate:

Age   Percentile
60-64 73.8
50-54  62.7
40-54  47.3
30-34  29.7
20-24  23.7

To make matters worse, my performance has deteriorated over the past four weeks. That may be due, in part, to the fact that I'm using my Chromebook rather than my ThinkPad, and I think I'm better with the Thinkpad keyboard and mouse.

OK, so what does that mean? 

Assuming that Lumosity measures some mental quality--let's call it brightness--then here are the hypothesis that explain the results:

  1. Lumosity signs up people with the same distribution of brightness within each age cohort, and I'm really falling off a cliff.
  2. The younger a person who signs up for Lumosity is, the brighter that they are likely to be, and I'm doing fine
  3. Brightness is less strongly correlated to intelligence than it is to hand-eye coordination and younger people have spent more time playing games, and I'm fine
  4. Or, taking a more extreme view, "Lumosity's Brain Games Are Bullshit"

I can't think of a mechanism that would make (2) be true. 
I'd like to believe that (3) is true, and it is probably a factor.
So I'm going to go with (4), which is a less charitable version of (3)
Or this hypothesis: replace "brightness" with "reflexes." That's consistent with the evidence, and so much better for my ego.

This statement:
The Stanford Center for Longevity joined today with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in issuing a statement skeptical about the effectiveness of so-called "brain game" products. Signing the document were 69 scholars, including six from Stanford and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists from around the world.
from here, ices it for me. I'll get more done by replacing my Lumosity time with aerobic exercise.

So that's what I'm going to do.

We'll see how things change.

Thanks to Zemata for the link to bullshit.

Oct 31, 2014

Losing ground, but making a game of it

When I started this blog I was 70. My goal was to write every day. I failed. 

So I tried again. And I failed again. But failing didn't daunt me. I've had lots of practice trying and failing. I tried and failed again. 

And again.

Now, a couple of years and a few failures later, it's time to try (and possibly fail) again. 

I'm older. I'm nearly 72, no longer the perky 70-year-old I once was. The ever present signs of aging are--well, they are ever present. I'm losing ground. Physically. Mentally. 

A few weeks ago I'd had it. "Enough!" I said. "I'm digging in. I'm going to recover some lost ground--or at least slow the decline." Well, I didn't actually say that. But I might have if I was writing a play about my life instead of living it.

So I decided to make a game of it, even though I knew was a game I was going to lose.

Face it: We're all going to die. You are, and more important, I am. And on the way to dying is the process of decline, euphemistically called aging. The aging that I imagined is different than the process that I'm experiencing. 

First, my imagined process of aging was, well, imaginary. Unreal. Theoretical and hypothetical. Aging was words. There is a difference, and not a small one, between the words "losing mental abilities" and the fact of losing them. The idea is kind of interesting. The fact is sucky. At least it was until I started taking action. Now it's getting a to be fun. A little. Sort of.

Or at least interesting enough to write about.

It started when I noticed changes in my speech. No one else noticed--or was willing to admit that they had noticed. But I did. When my speech system hiccupped--a stutter, or "too long" a pause looking for the right word--a metaphorical red light went on in my head. And recently the light's been going on too often.  Hence, action taken.

To speak we need to coordinate a set of complex, largely unconscious skills. Most often we able to articulate thoughts without "thinking."  By "thinking" I mean the deliberate process of creating, considering, selecting among alternative ideas, and alternative ways of presenting those ideas. The stream of ideas is converted to a stream of words, which are then translated to a stream of sounds, and movements of the lips and tongue and other parts of the vocal apparatus to manipulate those sounds into words. Magically, effortlessly, the words pour forth.


Old people complain that young people talk too fast. But old people used to be young once, talked at that speed, and had older people tell them to slow down. Young people don't talk too fast. Old people listen too slow. 

Turning ideas into sound is a complex intellectual task, and so is turning sound back into ideas. I didn't realize how hard it is until I start losing the ability and until I thought about what was going on. Here's what I think happens. 

We think we hear the words in a sentence like "I want to go to the store," and know that someone wants to go to the store. But that's not how it works. If someone is talking to you in American (rather than English) you'll hear a sound stream that's more like "Iwunnaguhtuhduhstaw." Now you have to figure out where the words might begin and end before figuring out what the words might be, before attempting to decide what they might mean. It's an iterative process and if the first division of sounds into words doesn't make sense, we try another. This all takes computing power and time. The less computing power, the more time. 

My brain is my computer, and as I get older my clock runs slower and I've got fewer processing units to throw at the problem. As long as I've got enough CPU to resolve one utterance before the next one starts, things are alright. But if my window for computation closes, if someone says something before I fully understood what they previously said, my mental speech-to-meaning apparatus crashes and I can't understand anything. My choices: "Will you please repeat that--slower?" or "Uh huh."

The road to brain deterioration runs straight through "Uh huh." Brains are lazy. When a brain learns that failed speech-to-meaning translations are acceptable, it doesn't try as hard. Next time it will fail an easier translation with a longer window. And so it goes, all the way down to senility. 

The first time I became aware of the speech-to-meaning translation process I was in my thirties, watching to a play done in Irish dialect. I realized a lag between the speaking and my apprehension of the meaning. It was like watching a badly dubbed movie, or one for which the projectionist (remember those) had not looped the film (remember that) properly in the projector (remember them). 

It was interesting. It continued. And today it happens even when I listen to people who speak American in environments that are too noisy. 

On the output side, I'm increasingly aware of moments when my tongue and lips are trying to move in two (at least) different directions as my vocal apparatus tries to emit two words with roughly equivalent meanings at the same time. I assume that some mental module that would previously have chosen between the words and sent only one to the sound production apparatus is either not working at all or is failing to complete its computation in its computational window. 

When that happens, I might blend the two words, starting one and finishing the other. Or, in the worst case, the entire linguistic apparatus stops. Period. Dead. And there's a long, uncomfortable pause while it resets. Or an even longer period when it reboots. 

There are other failure modes, but I don't want to catalog them now. Or maybe ever. Instead I want to make the system run better.

To do that, I've decided exercise it more. One way is by dictating some blog posts. Sometimes I'll write them longhand, then dictate them. Sometimes, as with the last part of this one, I'll just dictate. 

Dictating from scratch has a many advantages. First of all, it does not give me the opportunity to endlessly edit, tweak, and tune what I'm writing. When I'm typing I fiddle endlessly. When I write by hand I fiddle less. When I dictate, I say it, and its done. I may edit a bit later, but I seem to be able to keep that under control.

Second, it gives me a way to exercise the entire mental and physical system from generation of ideas, to choice of words, to generation of sound. 

 I can force the pace by consciously trying to increase the rate at which words come out of my mouth. Sometimes that results in the speech generation machinery breaking down. Sometimes, I can't generate ideas fast enough. I adjust the timing, and give it another go. I'm getting a hell of a work out. 

I'm losing ground. I'm eventually going to die. But until I do, but I'm making a game of it.

Jun 19, 2014

My descent into editing hell

I like writing. That's why I write. That's why I'm writing this.

It would be nice if my writing was amazingly good, but it's not. It's good enough. I need to remind myself of that, because otherwise I don't finish what I write. Worse, I descend into my own, private editing hell.

Here's how it works:

I start writing when I find something that interests me and which might be interesting or useful to others. If the topic is an introspective one, as this one is, I've got time to do some unconstrained writing. If the topic is a factual one, as this one is not, I'll soon find a fact that needs checking. I'll start to Google and I won't quit until my mind's been buried under an avalanche of fact.

Why?  Because ignorance is a disease and I don't want to be a carrier. And because I don't want to be wrong. Or because it's a bad habit. Whatever the reason, my obsession with knowing everything about whatever I am writing about is one of the things that gets in my way.

The other is editing. I'm a good editor of others' work, and a lousy editor of my own. When I edit others' work then unless the structure of a piece is utterly, horribly, hopelessly broken--which it rarely it is--I leave the structure alone. I make small corrections and improvements. I wordsmith. Change voice. Reverse the order of two phrases. Add or remove transitions.

But no wholesale rewriting. Ever. It's my job to edit. Not to rewrite.

I might turn a piece back to its author, then read it again when the author's done with it, but I always I keep my editing within those boundaries.  Wordsmithing. Transitions. But no rewrites.

That discipline breaks when I edit my own writing. I start out following the rules I use for others but pretty soon it's open season on rewriting. I edit and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until I've boiled away all the joy I started with. I end up with too many versions of the same piece, no one of which seems substantially better than any of the rest. Beginnings and middles, and no end.

The pattern's now clear to me.

I need to pretend someone else wrote this.

Good job, someone else.  You can post it now.

Jun 11, 2014

Failure is inevitable. Because death.

A picture of the hot house at the Botanical ga...
A picture of the hot house at the Botanical gardens. The hedge at the front said " Sex + Death" I have no idea what this means only that they are the 2 things in life that are truly inevitable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
No escaping it. We're all going to die. That includes me, but that's not important--except to me, my family and friends. But 'we' includes you, and that's important--at least to you, your family, and your friends.

Point is, death is inevitable, and death is the ultimate failure. Therefore failure is inevitable.

So what?

So maybe (I'm talking to myself here, but you're welcome to listen in) small failures are not such a big deal. And the big failure at the end? Also not such a big deal, given the way that the game is rigged.

Failure is the price we pay to play the game. And assuming you're having a good game, it's not too high a price.

May 27, 2014

9 Months later: what's up with that?

I haven't written anything for this blog for nine months. And I haven't written much else during that time. Maybe some emails. A few things for a course on memoir that I took. Time to get going again? I hope so, because I like writing. But I hate it, too.

Maybe hate is too strong a word. Maybe it's just frustrating because I suffer from could-be-betteritis. Could-be-betteritis is a disease characterized by the belief that whatever one does, it could be better. Duh. Of course it could be better. And by itself could-be-betteritis is not a problem. But when coupled with other conditions, it turns deadly.

For example: this. What I just wrote. What I am writing, now. It could be better. Of course. It could also be finished. But it won't be finished if keep making it better, which is what I'm doing, even as I'm writing this. 

I go back and change a word. The version that I had just a minute ago described 'should-be-better-itis' as the name of the accompanying condition that turns it deadly. But that's not it. It's not that it should be better. I'm beyond that particular 'should.' 

And it is getting better. If you could see this as it's evolving on the page you'd agree. More to the point, I look back, and I agree: I've made it better. I've also made it longer, more complete, so better in that way. So where's the problem?

There are two problems. Or at least two. The first: I don't seem to be able to say "it's good enough." It's good, but it's not good enough. And what's good enough?

According to memory someone asked Henry Ford III, "How much money is enough money?" His answer: "Just a little bit more." So what's good enough? "Just a little bit better."

The second problem is that there comes a time when I can't tell whether I'm making it better or I'm just making it different. And I don't seem to care. I just keep working on it, revising it, until all the energy is gone. Most things that I start to write eventually find themselves in the purgatory of drafts. There they wait. If they were living beings they might hope to ascend to publication. If so, they hope in vain.

But they don't find themselves in purgatory, do they? I put them there. And that's not a nice thing to do. I'm not nice to my writing. 

Take this guy, right here, the one that I am writing. Its purpose was to express some ideas about my writing. And it's done that. And its purpose was to be published. Or that was my original purpose for it. Now a new purpose has become dominant: it's "to be better than it is." Impossible, of course. So let's get back to the original purpose: to be published.

So, little blog post, you're not going to blog draft purgatory. You're not going to be much better than you are right now. You're going to be published.