Thursday, July 26, 2012

Links aplenty for July 26

Caine Monroy is a remarkable child but I also have to wonder how much of creativity was due to the twin muses of boredom and plentiful building materials.

One summer, his father took him to work frequently (every weekend?  every day?) and Caine had nothing to do.  At his father's business were a lot of empty boxes and he got started building (and a follow up).  Enjoy these videos about the process and a surprise flashmob that visited.

Caine looked at the boxes but saw more than stiff paper receptacles for auto parts.  He saw blank surfaces for coloring and  construction materials.  Scientific American has an article (not about Caine) that discusses how rethinking labels boosts creativity.

Caine made money with his arcade but I think he liked the process more than the financial results.  His 'Funpass" is good for 500 plays and costs only $2.00 after all.  If he were offered more money, would he be more creative?

Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E.H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled.
The author, Tim Parks, wondered, 
do I always write as well or as badly as I anyway do regardless of payment, so that these monetary transactions and the decisions that go with them affect my bank balance and anxiety levels, but not the quality of what I do?

Not really related: Bruce Schneier discusses how to get a start in security - the business that I, at least, connect with computer encryption.   His advice is good for most fields and boils down to 1) Study, 2) Do, and 3) Show.  The third point describes demonstrating your knowledge and skills.  Blogging, podcasting and commenting on the same are his examples.  I don't know how well I will do with his self-study course in cryptanalysis but the code-making-little boy in me is eager to investigate, if nothing else.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Friendly Atheist doesn't know how to write

Actually, his blog writing is great and many have recommended I Sold My Soul on E-Bay.

In a recent post on his blog, he wondered how people find time to write and what they wear...

I’ve been writing most of this book late at night when everybody else seems to be sleeping. Fewer distractions. Lots of time to concentrate. I’m better able to focus. And then I just pass out when the sun comes up. (Ah, the joys of being a teacher on break.)

But seriously. I don’t know how other people do it. Especially when they have real jobs and kids and lives.

It is easy to understand that the way to write is to sit down and write. Period.  It is also easy to understand that the best way to diet is to eat less and exercise more.  It sounds easy but most people need a way to trick themselves into getting into the right frame of mind.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Who knew you could change existing games?

I learned the game, Rock, Paper, Scissors years ago, probably back in elementary school.  Last year, I learned the extension, "..., Lizard, Spock"to the game (1, 2).  This is pretty cool, so I taught some of my students as a new way to play (Koreans, of all ages, love Rock, Paper, Scissors).

It wasn't until I taught my son the game that I learned something.  There is no reason to stop at 5 elements to the game.  He quickly suggested adding Cider and Balloon to the game although we were both hazy on how and why they beat or were beaten by the other elements.

As an ESL teacher, I am now very interested in the game and ways to add to it.  It seems clear that you need an odd number of elements so that each element can beat and be beaten by half of the others:
New element beats (n-1)/2
New element is beaten by (n-1)/2

And it helps, I think, to draw a polygon with five, seven, nine or more sides to diagram how each element affect the others.

Diagram from the above Wikipedia link and here, another Wikipedia description I just found which describes the same information as I independently came up with.
As an ESL teacher, it is the last bit that is useful.  We all know:
Rock smashes scissors but is covered by paper.
Paper covers rock but is cut by scissors,
Scissors cut paper but are smashed by rock.
In the Lizard, Spock alternative:
Spock uses a laser on scissors and rock, but is disproven by paper and poisoned by lizard.
Lizard eats paper but is crushed by rock and decapitated by scissors.

My students will be making their own additions to the game next semester... and I need to thank my son for reminding me to consider changing established activities.

Time to play CalvinBall (1, 2)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The protagonist is better loved by the readers than the author!

Many authors of well-beloved characters have grown tired of their creations but have felt bullied by their readers to keep adding new stories.  Forester's Hornblower, and Fleming's Bond are two big examples.  But Doyle's Holmes is probably the most famous and Doyle's efforts to end the series and kill-off Holmes are almost equally well-known.

Scientific American looks into the problem of killing off  a hero.

...when Arthur Conan Doyle had killed off his famous detective almost ten years earlier, in “The Final Problem,” the news was, to put it mildly, not well received. The Strand—for many years, Holmes’s home—was inundated with letters from jilted readers. Conan Doyle found himself the target of angry mail and vitriolic attacks. It’s even said that City of London clerks wore black armbands to mourn the detective’s passing. ...It’s safe to assume that on some level, Conan Doyle knew that killing Holmes may not have been the best thing for him to do. He just couldn’t help himself. “I have made up my mind to kill Sherlock Holmes; he is becoming such a burden to me that it makes my life unbearable,” he told Sir Henry Lunn
So, when is Rowling going to write the next Harry Potter?

Gord Sellar is busy!

Sellar is an online acquaintance and a bit of a role model for me.  He recently had his story The Bernoulli War published in Asimov;s Science Fiction and has signed a contract for a Korean translation of his short stories in a single book.

He is similar to many authors I have featured on this blog who describes his work as, well, real work.  I don not have the link handy but I impressed by the detail he went into in revisions to his work before offering it to publishers.

This is another busy summer for him as he works on several projects and also asks for your help in funding the Clarion Workshop.

I'll be working on a couple of short stories and film scripts and starting a novel project. Those are vague goals, but more specifically:
- I'll complete two short film scripts, or one feature-length film script.
- I'll send at least two new stories out to market, and revise one existing story and send it out.
- I'll begin drafting a novel, with the synopsis/outline first, and then the text itself.

Whoever makes the biggest donation will earn the right to choose the name of a character in one of the short stories I write during the write-a-thon. I’ll contact you and let you know!
His sponsorship page.

XKCD takes your questions

I've long enjoyed Randall Munroe's xkcd comic for years and am now interested in his 'What if' website.  Here, he takes questions on a variety of subjects and offers thoughtful answers as well as humourous commentary.  His background as a NASA employee gives him the credentials for hard-science questions as displayed in the first question he answered: What if a pitched a ball at nearly the speed of light.  He described what would happen - nuclear powered destruction for all nearby - and also pointed out that the (now vaporized) "batter would be considered hit by pitch and would be eligible to advance to first base."

Suddenly, I want to take hypothetical questions here.  Indeed, could you imagine a world where you couldn't ask hypothetical questions?

Rules for Improv... and suggestions for life

I am reading Tina Fey's Bossypants and have just read her rules for Improv and work.  Well, I think the rules are from Second City, but she applies them more widely.

Rule #1 — AgreeThe first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.
When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.
Rule #2 — Not Only Say Yes… Say Yes AndThe second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.
If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.
But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.”
Rule #3 — Make StatementsThis is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

She makes further explanation at this point, and after each of the quoted sections, but I don't want to put too much here.  I like it and suggest you click over - here is the link again; go read the original.
Rule #4 — There Are No Mistakes… Only OpportunitiesIf I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?
Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel.

Nick Cave on inspiration

Previously, I've repeated Cave's announcement that he is not in a creativity contest.  More recently, he explains more of the gritty work involved in creative pursuits.
Cave is not the type of songwriter to sit around waiting for lightning to strike. 
‘‘Inspiration is a word used by people who aren't really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I'm in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.'' 

I have only heard a little of Cave's music - and like what I have heard - but I see from his website that he is involved many fields.  His books are listed at Goodreads.

Via Boingboing.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Learning how to cheat

As a way to learn about security holes and defense, instructors told students they had 24 hours to memorize 100 digits of pi.  Upon protests, the students were told they only needed to answer the question, how they managed it was their choice.  Being caught cheating was the only way to fail.
Links first.  I learned about the research at Boingboing, and a PDF of the study is here. From the PDF:

We considered, but chose not to go as far as forcing students into a position where they must cheat on their own initiative, but without being told to do so. We believed this would place students into an unfair ethical dilemma, send the wrong message, and that most, if not all, students would simply fail the exam rather than cheat illicitly....
Students took diverse approaches to cheating, and of the 20 students in the course, none were caught...
One student hand wrote the answers on a blank sheet of paper (in advance) and simply turned it in, exploiting the fact that we didn’t pass out a formal exam sheet. Another just memorized the first ten digits of pi and randomly filled in the rest, assuming the instructors would be too lazy to check every digit. His assumption was correct....
Exploit Trust - Explicit or implicit trust models are exploitable opportunities. Despite our awareness that the students were cheating, we still inadvertently let our guard down. For example, we wouldn’t have stopped a student from using the restroom during the exam. During our group discussion, students suggested that going to the bathroom to cheat would have been an easy-to-implement approach. It is because of our inherent and unconscious trust that we leave ourselves open to exploitation in the physical world and online. As security professionals we must learn to think like the jaded police officer or prison guard who never takes statements and actions at face value....
Develop Backup Plans - Adversaries rarely seek to accomplish their objectives through a single, all or nothing plan. Several students demonstrated this principle by developing backup plans in case their primary cheating tactic was compromised.
I found the work interesting and want to find a way to use it myself.
Previously and Not Really Related: Economics of Caring about Cheating and creative students considered unethical.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

More on writing: Stross and Mapes

First, an article about Creston Mapes.  The article is at Amazon and discusses how wonderful the options for e-book publishing are for struggling authors.  I have and love a Kindle myself but can see this article needs to be taken with some salt.

Creston was certain that the books deserved a bigger audience. So, he decided to take advantage of Amazon’s independent self-publishing platform, which allows any author to bring their books directly to market. He got the rights back to those three novels, put his own covers on them, and used the self-service platform to put them on Kindle.
“That’s when the magic happened. Kindle Direct Publishing enabled me to promote my newest book, Nobody, for free during one weekend in February. I told my author friends, and they helped share the Kindle Store link for Nobody with their circles of friends and readers.”
Creston smiles. “Blast off,” he says.

Although I am cautious, his story rings true.  Other authors have reported similar results, particularly authors who did not get publishing deals.

I have waded through self-published books and, while recognizing some good ideas, have cringed at the style and details.  Perhaps Mapes was lucky to have a commercial publisher vet and edit his work (I don't know if this happened, but that seems to be what publishers are for) before he self-published.  Nobody can be found here.

Two years ago, the Big Hominid discussed what editors are for.  He favors the Grammar-nazis and I have to admit that seeing mis-typed words, even when the meaning is clear, takes me out of the narrative and I need to consciously work out the problem before re-immersing myself.
Stross is an author I have become an admirer of.  His 'Laundry Files' series - which is not about dirty clothes, but spies and intelligence agencies in a world with Lovecraftian elder intelligences interfering.  Amazon just downloaded his newest book to my Kindle mere hours ago.

At Reddit, he recently answered a lot of questions.  I didn't notice this in my first readthrough, but he discusses some of the issues brought up in the article above:

Biggest message: find your customers and sell them what they want to buy. DRM is bad for business. Territorial rights restrictions are bad for business. Amazon are utterly hateful and evil -- they will kill you and establish a monopoly if they can -- but their one redeeming feature is that they're good to customers: so learn from them.
He goes into detail about Amazon here.

On writer's block:
Writers block: when I get it, it's because my subconscious spotted that I'd make a huge structural mistake in constructing a novel before my conscious mind became aware of it, and threw on the brakes. So I've learned not to sweat it: take two days off, then back up a chapter, read through, and try to work out why I'm suddenly uneasy about continuing.
Many authors have stressed the importance of writing ideas down and I have discussed commonplace books (used for day-to-day to-do lists and ideas and ...) on this blog.  Stross apparently doesn't go this route:

[–]argibbs 11 points  ago
I believe Roald Dahl used to keep a little notebook with all his ideas in, and would jot stuff down whenever andwhereever the idea struck. (might not have done, it's been years since I read that nugget). Do you keep a stash of ideas on file (and if so in what format?), or is it simply you write whatever idea strikes most recently? (Related to but not the same as having extra books filed away for when writers block strikes.)

[–]cstross[S] 33 points  ago
No, I don't keep anything on paper (except within an actual novel in progress, at which point I need a file to keep track of plot threads, characters, and so on). If an idea is compelling enough it'll stick in my head until I am forced to write it. If it's forgettable, who cares?

[–]wanderingtroglodyte 15 points  ago
I'm pretty sure if my family had a banner, our crest would be someone deep in thought, saying "Must not have been important."
97% of our conversations "I was going to tell you something! I uh.. uh.. eh.." "Must not have been important!" Click.

I have enjoyed Stross's Merchant Princes series which I understand to be based on Zelazny's Amber series.  I feel Stross's version to be darker and grittier and also quite original; I can see the ancestry in some of the events but it feels fresh and new.  Here is Stross on plagiarism:

[–]brokenlocomotion 12 points  ago
How do you make sure you aren't "inadvertently plagiarizing?" I think up ideas a lot but am sure they have already been done somewhere or that I am ripping something off I have read and cannot recall specifically. Original creativity seems difficult.
And thanks for the books...I love science fiction and appreciate the work that goes into putting out novels to entertain us.
[–]cstross[S] 34 points  ago
First: plagiarism requires you to copy someone else's words. You can avoid this by, er, not copying! Writing your own story around the same ideas is not plagiarism; at worst, it's being unoriginal.
Having said that, you're right: coming up with truly new ideas is hard. But I've got a method: I look for a couple of obvious ideas that have been done before (try: folks who can travel at will to parallel universes; in their home world they're the aristocracy, because: magic powers) and then look for the second-order side effects: stuff that other authors didn't dig into (for example: wrt. the previous idea, what are the consequences of these folks' ability for the ongoing economic and political development of their world? Can it have negative consequences? If so, what are they?)

Read more at the link above.