Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Writing Aids I Use

This picture is from the Museum of Civilization near Ottawa. It is a table made from blocks of wood. The artist wanted the wood to be like rough brushstrokes. It's sort of a 3D impressionism.

I write short stories, very short stories, poetry, novels, plays, blog
entries, and scientific papers and books. I do a lot of writing-- it's
high on the nobility list. This essay is about the tools I use for


I like to write on my laptop in a chair in my bedroom. Beside me is a
small shelf with some books on it.

  • Baby Names. I got this tiny book for a dollar in the
    checkout line at the grocery store, and I use it to help my
    writing. It's got names for men and women and their meanings. If I
    don't use this book I find myself using the same names over and
    over. It's also nice to have the meaning of the name have something
    to do with the character or story.

  • 14,000 things to be happy about by Barbara Ann
    Kiffer. This is one of those cheesy books you make fun of at the
    Hallmark store. It's just a list of 14,000 things. Some are really
    things to be happy about (e.g. "a space suit"); others are more
    questionable (e.g. "straightening the pantry"). But I'm glad
    they're not all happy, because I use this book constantly for
    inspiration. Most of the very short stories I wrote for my
    collection were inspired by entries in this book. I'd open to a
    random page and read a random entry, like "a bowl of fruit," and
    think of a story. It's been great, though a little embarassing to
    have on my shelf.

  • Birthday Secrets by Jill M. Phillips. It's a horoscope book,
    with one entry per day of the year. I bought it because the
    descriptions sort of provided instant characters. I find I don't
    used it that much, because usually the personalities of my
    characters need to fit the plot. I thought I'd put it here though,
    because it's on my shelf and someone else might benefit from a
    similar book. This is another embarassing book
    to have on the shelf. People might think I believe in astrology. I

  • Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary by Bessie Redfield. This is
    a very well-thumbed book. It's great when writing rap songs or
    poetry. I don't use it so much anymore because of the cybernetic
    poet (see the software section).

  • The Book of Dreams. Yet another embarassing book, out of
    context, to have on my shelf. It's a book of what things in dreams
    mean, e.g. "Deer. This foretells quarrels and dissentions. In trade
    it denotes embarassment and failure. An unlucky dream for
    merchants, sailors, and all officials. To a young person, a faun,
    or young deer, signifies inconsistency, to a married woman, it
    means fruitfulness." Total rubbish, but you can see how it can
    inspire stories to write.

  • Roget's II Thesaurus. I never open this.

  • Dictionary of Word Origins. by John Ayto. I think I've
    had this book for over 10 years and I think I've looked something
    up maybe twice. For some reason though I feel like it could be
    useful for writing.

  • Dictionary of Problem Words And Expressions by Harry
    Shaw. I've used this a few times. Has stuff like when to use
    "lighted" as opposed to "lit."

  • An Illustrated Dictionary of Classical Mythology by
    Gilbert Meadows. I co-wrote a play based on the Greek myth of Jason
    and Medea, and I am planning a Greek myth TV series, so I keep this
    handy. If you often write about a particular subject, having a
    reference around is a good idea.

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk and
    E. B. White. Everybody says this is a classic. I have not read it,
    but rule 1 of page 1 is to make things like "Davies" possessive by
    adding an "'s" as in "Davies's."

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and
    Dave King. I will read this after I do the next draft of my novel.

  • Webster's Dictionary.

  • The Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. A
    book on the rules of punctuation. Sounds boring, huh? It would be
    except that the example sentences are so funny, e.g. "Come here,
    Nicolas, and hold my mouth shut with your big, spring-loaded
    hands." I use this when I have a punctuation confusion.

  • Story Starters. Basic story ideas for inspiration.

  • 36 Dramatic Situations. I keep this around, though I
    don't think I've used it yet.

In addition I have several books that I've read once just to make me a
better, more productive writer. I recommend the following:

Books on How To Write

  • How to Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. About
    what goes into a best-selling novel.

  • Bird By Bird by Annie Lamott. Inspiring and fun to
    read. I got the idea of carrying around index cards with me
    everywhere from this book.

  • How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier
    with Frances Spatz Leighton. Excellent book. I'd tried several
    times to write a novel, but never was able to do it until I learned
    how by reading this book. Now I have a crappy first draft of a

  • The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This famous book is a
    12-week course on unblocking your artistic self. It's hard work,
    and I don't think I've met anyone who's actually gone through it
    all. Nonetheless, the book is very inspiring. This book gave me the
    idea to write for 20 minutes every morning.

  • The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. An inspiring
    and accessible guide to writing a Hero's story, a la Joseph
    Campbell. Geared to screenwriters, but applicable to any narrative

  • The Dramatist's Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet. The best book
    on writing plays I've read. Highly recommended.

One thing that's amazing about books on writing, compared to books on
other subjects, is that often they spend a great deal of time with
motivating you to actually write. For some reason, it's hard for
writers to get their butts in the seat and do their craft than it is
for artists in other fields. That is, you don't spend a third of a
book on painting on how to motivate yourself to get into the studio.


  • Index Cards and a Pen. Got this idea from Bird By
    I carry index cards in my back pocket all the time, and a
    pen in my front pocket. It's handy for making quick diagrams for
    people, giving people book references, etc. It's also great for
    making sketches when bored. I have a box slowly filling of pictures
    on index cards with my drawings on them. In terms of writing,
    though, I write down writing ideas. When I get home I go through
    the index cards in my pocket and put the writing ideas in a box
    with the other ideas. I look through this box when I want
    inspiration. It never fails. I also have a box for the used ideas.

  • Palm Voice Recording. I have a Palm Treo, which I
    adore. I got a program for it called "Voice Memo," which I have
    associated with a button on the side. I can record whatever with
    it. I use it when I don't feel like writing something down but have
    a good idea. I use it a lot in bed and in the car. When I get to
    work I listen to all of them and add things to my to-do list, put
    writing ideas on index cards, etc. If you don't have a PDA, you can
    get small cheap ones to put on your keyring. I think any writer
    should have some kind of voice recording device on them most of the

  • Write in the morning. I have a morning routine. I make
    breakfast, write for 20 minutes, walk the dog, and go to work,
    always in that order. When writing is part of your routine it's
    much easier to keep at it. I wrote the first two drafts of this
    book I'm writing (called How To Be A Great And Successful
    ) over a 10 month period of writing for 20 minutes
    every morning. Nighttime routines don't work for me because my
    nights don't have enough consistency. Sometimes I'm out dancing
    till late, etc. So the mornings work for me. I recommend this to
    anyone who has any desire to be a productive writer. I got the idea
    from The Artist's Way, which suggests the "morning pages,"
    which consists of three hand-written pages every morning. I didn't
    like this because 1) it was long-hand, and I hated wasting time
    transcribing it on the computer, and 2) pages mean different things
    in different media (three pages of novel are completely different
    from three pages of script.) Also, I like to go back and change
    things in the morning. So instead of 3 pages I picked 20
    minutes. Historically I picked 20 minutes because that was the time
    it took to hard-boil an egg. I would write while my egg cooked. Now
    I have a dishwasher, so I fry my eggs. But the 20 minutes remain!

  • Write Club. First rule of write club is "Don't talk about
    write club." I can write about it, though. Every monday at Carleton
    there is a group of writers that meet. We read our stuff aloud and
    everyone comments on it. I love this. You find yourself wanting to
    write to have something to present to the group. This group is
    focused on poetry, but I've been bringing in my very short
    stories. I've had other great experiences with write clubs. In
    Atlanta I was very active with Working Title Playwrights, and
    I had a private write club with Anthony Francis, with whom I am
    starting a phone writing club.

  • Nobility List. If you have a nobility list, and writing
    is important to you, then make sure it has an entry on the list.


  • LaTeX. I love to write technical things in LaTeX.

  • Microsoft Word. I write my very short stories and plays
    in Word.

  • Emacs. I write by blog entries in emacs. That's why the
    formatting comes out so crappy. I have no internet at home, and I
    write the blog entries at home on emacs.

  • Cybernetic Poet. The Cybernetic poet is a cool piece of
    software that features an editor for writing, and another window
    with suggested things to write. You can have it suggest rhymes, the
    end of the line, or the rest of the poem. The information comes from
    the AI that has a database of poetry of many great poets. You can
    even select the poet you like, such as Yeats, and have suggestions
    come only from his works. It's a lot of fun to write with this. And
    the great thing is the little window is easy to ignore. It's just
    there for your peripheral vision, should you choose to use it. I'm
    reminded of my friend playwright Margaret Baldwin, who started using
    voice-recognition software to write her plays. I asked her how
    accurate it was. She said "It's not very accurate, but sometimes I
    like what it thinks I said better than what I actually said." You
    can download the Cybernetic Poet free.

The thing I really have not mastered is submissions. Submitting non-technical
work for publication, or plays for production, is, to me, incredibly
tedious and because of the small probability of success, has a very
low utility for me as an activity. I have dreams of hiring somebody
someday to do the submissions for me.

For a while I had a routine of submitting a play every Sunday to some
theater company or contest, based on calls for plays on the net. But I
just got so bored doing it. I write fiction and plays because I enjoy
it, and because it makes me feel more whole. The submission process
does not. Given that my mission in life is, ultimately, science, I
have not been able to justify spending time on the submission

Of course, if you don't play the game, you can't win, which ensures I stay an
unpublished fiction author.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Pac-Man Art At Ottawa's Rasputin's Cafe

I have a series of paintings based on the original Pac-Man video game called "Ghost Culture." Several of these paintings will be on display at Rasputin's Cafe, 696 Bronson Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the whole month of May.

There will be an opening the first Thursday of May (the third) at 5pm. If you are in Ottawa, please attend and have some free cheese cubes or whatever.

You can see the paintings online and read about them at:

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Unreasonable Questions

It really disturbs me how people demand certain kinds of answers, never thinking that their demands are unreasonable. I was at a party when someone was trying to convince me that there were several problems that science would not be able to resolve. As an example he mentioned the paradox of the universe. Everything must have a beginning, but what happened before the beginning? I told him that the most popular theory in cosmology is that the big bang was the beginning of time itself, and, as such, there was no "before" the big bang. He asked me how this could be so. My physics isn't good enough to provide an answer to this. I told him that it was a consequence of the mathematics of the theory, which I wasn't familiar with. I also noted that it probably would take both of us a lot of math training to even appreciate the explanation.

He and the other person in the conversation would not accept this. My inability to give them an answer to this "paradox" in terms they could understand only supported their position, according to them. It appears that they were using common sense notions of how the world works (e.g. everything has a beginning) and applying it to cosmological events. My inability to explain the paradox in a way they could understand, and my inability to provide an explanation without violating their commonsense notions, supports their notion that there are some problems that science will never resolve.

I recently read something in Gould's Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes that reminded me of this. Creationists have tried to wrestle with the problem of why cruelty exists in nature. Classic examples are the ichneumons, wasps which paralyze a caterpillar and inject eggs. The caterpillar stays alive while the offspring eat it from the inside out, saving the vital organs for last so that the caterpillar stays alive longer. Creationists came up with different justifications for why God would make something like this, none of which were very satisfying. I like how Gould puts it: "...the answer to the ancient dilemma of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn't any answer-- and that framing the question 'in our terms' is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens."

The lesson here is to understand that when we pose problems and questions, we imply, often tacitly, assumptions and expectations that might turn out to be unreasonable.

P.S.: I do not argue that science can, even potentially, answer all questions. I merely am attacking the example given by my party-mates.

Gould, S. J. (1983). Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. W. W. Norton and Company, New York.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

World Building

Sometimes stories are praised because they create a world of their
own. As the story fleshes out the characters, sometimes the world they
live in becomes detailed and fascinating on its own. Some authors,
like Michael Chichton, focus so much on the workings of the world that
the personalities of the characters involved are kind of irrelevant to
the story and what's good about it (The Andromeda Strain is a
good example).

I'm a big fan of world building, and I've been developing some ideas
about what it takes to have a well-built world for a story. I'll start
with an example of a story that does not build a world: Nick Hornby's
About A Boy. I love this book, and the movie too, because the
plot and characters are touching and funny. The world, however, is
indistinguishable from our own. The book is realistic fiction. We have
no trouble believing that this story could happen in our world. This
is intentional. It's still a great book, but does not benefit from
building a new world.

An example of good world building are the Star Wars
films. Lucas was, for the most part, very careful about consistency in
this world. A few examples:

  • None of the aliens were all that alien in
    personality. They were all just people, with flaws and
    personalities. Even most of the droids were like this. Compare this to
    Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, for example, where the alien life form
    was so weird compared to human beings that neither the characters nor
    the readers could figure it out.

  • No paper. There's no paper in the world of Star Wars. But
    going further than that, nobody is ever seen even typing anything.

  • The Force is a limited magical power. As we watch the movies we
    get to understand the kinds of things someone who uses the force can
    and cannot do. Typical Force abilities include limited mind control,
    rough telekinesis, jumping and falling safely, absorbing energy,
    predicting attacks, etc. No Jedi or Sith would ever transform into a
    wolf, or read thoughts, or create a fog, or heal someone's wounds.

Okay, you get the idea. One of the great things about consistent
world-building is that you get a feeling that you understand the
world. This is a good feeling, a feeling of accomplishment. The world
works by its own rules and you understand them. When there are
anomolies, we trust that the world makes sense, so we think it's worth
trying to figure out. For example, why do some Jedi vanish when they
die and others not? This topic has been debated on the Internet by
fans for years, but note that they would not spend the time to try to
figure it out if they didn't trust that the world was relatively
well-constructed and rule-driven. More on this later.

The other good reason is that changes to the world can now have
a greater impact. For example, in episode six, Return of the
the Emperor uses "force lightning." What appears to be blue
electricity comes out of his hands, hurting Luke. Part of what makes
this exciting is that we've had two and a half movies telling us that
this was basically impossible! So we're terribly interested when it

Sometimes the interestingness of the world results in taking fantasy
away, as in Troy, which took a legend filled with gods and magic
and was told in a way that actually could have happened. The reason it
worked was because they were consistent with this idea.

Okay, on to some bad examples of world building: the Harry Potter

I know there are a great number of Harry Potter fans out there, and
the coolness of his world is probably something that attracts these
fans. However, all I see are missed opportunities.

Though Harry Potter's world has a lot of good ideas, they are
disconnected and have no consistency. For example, compare the magic
in Harry Potter to the Force in Star Wars or the power in the
Wheel of Time book series. It seems to me that anything
goes. That is, the magic is so random and arbitrary we never feel we
know anything consistent about it. Which spells require magic words
and which do not? Which require a magic wand? Why? I have all the same
criticisms for the magic in the book Jonathan Strange and Mr

It's very important for certain things to be impossible in a world,
but in Harry Potter, nothing seems impossible. The downside of this is
that no matter what happens, magically, we're never really surprised,
because nothing that can happen can violate any rules we have in mind
about how magic works. This is because there are no rules.

The author loses some major opportunities for impact by not being
consistent. For example, we don't hear about the prison called Azkaban
until the beginning of the third book. We hear that nobody can escape
it. Then, soon we find out that someone has escaped it. This is so
lame. If she'd planned it better, she'd have been talking about
Azkaban in the first two books, and constantly talking about how
impenetrable it is, then by the time someone escaped from it, the
event would have some impact on the reader. But as it is, it appears
that she brings up an absolute rule just so she can break it a few
pages later.

Another example: Hermione has a time travelling magic. But she only
uses it in one of the books before it's discovered. Think of how much
better it would have been if the reader's discovery of this magic
explained lots of mysterious stuff that has been happening throughout
the series!

This is why you don't get huge Internet forums trying to figure out
the whys of magic in this world. Nobody thinks it's figure-out-able,
and that is the essence of faulty world-building.

Now, I've only read the first two books and seen the third movie. But
I was talking about this to a woman in England and she told me "even
though you haven't read the other books, I think if you did you'd
think this even more." Not that I want to hang the Potter books
completely out to dry-- I'm sure they have lots of great things about
them. I'm just pointing out that world building isn't really one of

Sometimes I see tantalizing bits of world-building that just don't go
far enough. For example, in Kill Bill: Volume 1, we see a world
kind of like our own, but a bit more violent. There's a great shot of
the Bride on the airplane, flying to Japan, with her swords in a
holder by her seat. There's no way this could happen in our
world. Also, on the motorcycles, there are places to hold the
swords. Why didn't Tarantino take this idea further? He could have
made all kinds of cool changes to make this more of a world where
swords were commonplace, and the environment accommodated it.

A work of art doesn't need to be long to build an interesting
world. There's a video for a Futureshock song that I've seen over and
over. For one thing, it features pop and lock and liquid dancing,
which I think is totally beautiful. Relevant to this essay, it shows a
world like contemporary Japan in which everyone does this kind of
dancing whenever they have a spare moment. It's a joy.

I get irritated when stories have an opportunity to show me a new
world but don't. For example, in the book Blindness, everyone
on Earth goes blind. The author, Saramago, does some decent
exploration of the idea: people in small bands, walking around,
looking for food. They can't find their houses again because street
signs cannot be read, so they stay where they can. They live off the
food that's around, but can't grow any more food because they don't
know how, as blind people. Just as they are running out of food they
get their sight back. Come on! Seeing how society would further
collapse is part of why I wanted to read the book!

28 Days Later is a zombie holocaust movie spun as a disease
movie. The "28 days" refer to the zombies killing everyone. The story
happens with the few survivors. I kept thinking the first 28 days
would have been a much more interesting movie. The film happens after
the collapse but before any re-stabilization. One of the reasons I
like Day of the Dead is that it deals with a world taken over
by zombies, but there are spots of stable safety.

While I loved the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer series, I was always
hoping the vampires would take over and I'd see a new world, but it
never happened. They seemed to want to make that world look, from the
outside, just like ours, which works all right, but to me it seems a
touch cowardly.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Neural Plausibility of Connectionism

For those of you not interested in cognitive science, here's a picture
of my pug wearing her winter coat. For everyone else, onto the cogsci...

I was recently looking at Martindale's book Cognitive Psychology: A
Neural Network Approach
. Most ideas of how the mind work are
broadly categorized into "information processing" theories and
"associative" theories. As described in the introduction to this book,
both are based on metaphors: the former that the mind works like a
computer, and the latter that the mind works like a brain.

The idea that traditional cognitive science looks at the mind as a
computer has always bothered me. It's not quite right. Or at least,
it's not quite right anymore-- maybe it was right at some point. My
first reaction to this is "no, we don't look at the mind as a
computer, we look at it as a computer program." There's a big

Computers have registers, a central processor, a memory, input
devices, etc. Computer programs, on the other hand, are much more
broad. If fact, they're almost too broad to be any use as a
metaphor. But there is a nugget of importance there: traditional
cognitivists view the mind as basically a computational object, and
that thinking consists of manipulating representations.

The problem with this notion, though, is that it includes the
associative theories too (neural networks, connectionism, etc.)
Indeed, when people make connectionist models of the mind, they are
often implemented as computer programs!

However, the traditional cognitivists think, roughly, as the brain as
the hardware and the mind as the software. And, as we know, the
workings of the software need not have any similarity to the working
of the hardware. To take a simple example, something can work in
parallel in software but serially in hardware. The idea of a "virtual
machine" is very valuable here. There is a physical machine, but the
virtual machine, which is created through the processing of the
physical machine, has its own rules of operation that we can endeavour
to understand.

I really like the idea that connectionists see the mind as working
like a brain. At first glance, though, doesn't it sound kind
of... obvious? Some like to say that the mind is the brain. It
seems, as many say, that the connectionist approach is "neurally
plausible." I think this is why I'm finding so many undergraduates
fascinated with connectionism. It appears, at first glance, more
scientific, more likely to be right, if we are actually taking about
how the brain works at the same time as talking about how the mind

But hold up, that's not what is being said! To say that the mind works
like the brain is not to say that the mind is the
brain. A metaphor might help here. Imagine someone were to tell you
they had a new theory of traffic congestion, and that it works like
schools of fish. You might think "okay, that sounds like it could be
promising." Then another person told you that they had a better
theory: traffic congestion works like a car. The school of fish
theory sounds much more plausible, doesn't it? I mean, if traffic
congestion systems worked like a car, there should be analogs to the
AC, the engine, the seat, the oil, the starter, the windshield wipers,
etc. in traffic patterns. Nuts, right?

To a traditional cognitivist this is how we see the inherent
legitimacy of the connectionist approach. The brain is not a good
metaphor for the mind simply because the mind is implemented on
the brain, any more than cars are a good metaphor for traffic jams, or
cell physiology is a good metaphor for the workings of the nervous
system, or saying that Microsoft Word works like a computer, or that
DNA works like an atom. In all these cases, even though the
higher-level system is implemented on the lower-level one, it's clear
that they work on very different principles. Just because the nervous
system is, in some sense, nothing but cells does not mean that the
system as a whole works like a cell.

The credit we give connectionists are due to the ability of their
models to explain and predict what we know of the mind-- that that's
nothing to sneeze at. They've been great for lots of things. But the
fact that it's brain-like should not give it some special appeal.

It's irritating when connectionist fans don't appreciate this. Every
one of them bends over backwards to say that the nodes, or units, in a
connectionist network are not models of actual neurons. But if they
are not models of neurons, then what, exactly, is the inherent
benefit of having a neural metaphor?
That is, if the
connectionist network is a virtual machine running on the physical
neural hardware, just like a production system could be running on
neural hardware, then why should we give it any more credit for
"neural plausibility?" Until connectionists take a stand and say that
they are actually modelling the neurons in the brain, I don't want to
hear anything more about connectionism's "neural plausibility."