Coding & Writing: Twins – Part II

[This is a continuation from the previous entry:  “Coding & Writing: Twins – Part I”]

Writing, on the other hand, satisfies a different need. If Coding is the sexy Daisy Ridley-esque supermodel that graces Vogue covers then Writing is the prim and proper one. The one who sets aside time each day for French and piano lessons.

As wonderful as coding is, at its core, it’s a methodology with a very specific aim:  It’s a tool to fix a very specific problem or address a very specific need.  For example, I have a movie-lover friend who watches a ton of Netflix.  But he often needs subtitles in Farsi, a language that Netflix doesn’t offer.  So my friend was able to write a Chrome extension that superimposes Farsi (sourced from Open Subtitles) onto his Netflix videos– all because he knows how to code!  Another example: A few months ago I was looking at the rather large Google Photos collection that Bagel and I have accumulated together.  I wanted a way to randomly see a photo exactly 365 days ago I’d taken (“a year ago on this day…”).  Well, by looking up to the Google Photos docs and seeing how the API worked, I was able to download one of Google’s starter samples and code my pet project very quickly in a weekend!  Mission accomplished!

Writing, IMHO, is not as direct.  Writers write for all kinds of reasons, but personally, I write because I feel it nourishes my soul.  Reading is good; and I do a lot of that too.  But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really enjoyed writing.  Another consideration to all this is that unless you’re an artist (a painter, comic book artist, musician, song-writer, etc), chances are that most days you aren’t creating anything.  At the office for your job, you may move stuff around and tell what people what to do; you may organize TPS reports, reconcile budgets, and whatever.  But only when you write are you putting something to paper that previously did not independently exist.  If you’re writing a story, the characters you’re creating are wholly unique and products of your own imagination.

Coding is the brash and confident one who knows who she is and what she wants.  The loud Rey Palpatines of the world.  Writing, though, is much more the reserved and demure model, of the Regency England strain.  She’s quiet and studious, always contemplating and pondering, full of wonder but also struggling with doubt and uncertainty.  The simple truth, as inconvenient as it may be, it that most of us don’t actually know who we entirely are or what we wholly believe.  We may know bits and parts of ourselves, and what we think we believe (both about ourselves and about the world); but the tectonic plates are always shifting– sometimes slowly, and sometimes faster.  Writing it the process that helps me sort out all of this internal movement and maintain my center.

Fulfilling the Promise of the Internet – Part II

[This is a continuation from the previous entry:  “The Unfulfilled Promise of the Internet – Part I”]

Visions for the future are also a dime a dozen.  (Visionary people, like Musk and Bezos, who can actually reify their visions are a much rarer breed of Pokémon though.)  Here’s a vision for the future– one I just thought up this morning; won’t even cost you a nickel:

As I’ve previously mentioned elsewhere, I personally actually hail from a software development background.  Though I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading, I’ve never formally trained in an MFA program or pursued a humanities degree.  What’s been interesting as I’ve been recently diving more into reading and writing is how little of people’s writing I actually see on the internet.  Sure, there is AO3 and some personal blogs that exist out there.  But on almost everything I’ve seen, the updates are infrequent.  I’ve stumbled over many blogs that haven’t been updated in years and appear all but sadly abandoned.

This is really strange to me.

In the coding world, we have an idea of “GitHub”— a central repository to which people commit and push their code as they finish programming.  On any given day, I may finish coding one or more features to a pet project I’m working on and push those additions and changes to my GitHub account.  Overtime, my GH profile then becomes a portrait of not only my “coding ability” but also a historical record of my journey and growth as a software developer.  It’s really a fascinating historical artifact and if you look at my commit history you can very clearly see:  “Ah, here’s where he learned about fat arrow functions in JavaScript!” or “Ah, and here’s the period where he got super into list-comprehensions in Python!”  One person’s GH profile, in this way, becomes a representation of the person as a coder.

It baffles me why a similar concept/construct doesn’t existing for writers.

My vision for the future:  Every human being on earth, since the time they turn 13, keeps an online blog.  The blog may be private or public but the state mandates that the person journal in the blog, every single day, writing 400 words a day.  The entries would follow the format laid out in “The Alphabet Game” (each day’s entry must begin with that day’s letter).

Over time, using fancy ML and data science techniques, we could then deconstruct every human being’s “persona” based on a super-detailed analysis of their daily blog entries.  Writing 400 days, every single day, is a powerful corpus.  (Over 365 days, you would have 365*400=146,000 words!)  By closely analyzing each person’s corpus of writing, we could discern your political opinions, religion beliefs, and entertainment preferences.  We would know where you stood on social policies (eg. “Universal Basic Income”) or what you thought about certain celebrities (eg. “Ben Affleck”).  We’d know you intimately at an incredibly granular level.  Additionally, in some months, the state would issue challenges like:  “In September, one of your entries should cover, ‘Your favorite author’.” or “In August, one of your entries should cover ‘Your favorite film director’.”

Right now, we live in a strange looking-glass world where we know so little about the politicians we elect into office or the SCOTUS Justices who take the bench.  It’s turned into a truly deranged situation where, actually, the less we know about someone, the more likely s/he is able to win an election or be confirmed!  Because that person becomes a kinda “blank slate” that the electorate (all of us, plebeians) can project our hopes and wishes upon.  Anything known about you in 2020 becomes “baggage.”

But this is outrageously weird, right?  Shouldn’t we demand to know more about these people that we’re putting into positions of great power who rule over us? Not less?  If my daisy world became reality, then people who wanted to operate in the public sphere would be forced to reveal their daily journals to the public!  And we’d see their experiences, memories, opinions, and beliefs in daily, ~400 word snapshots. All since their teenage years!  Most importantly, we’d see their journey through life and how they became the person that they currently are.  Wouldn’t that be something?

The Unfulfilled Promise of the Internet – Part I

Unfulfilled promises are a dime a dozen.  Having high hopes dashed for a promising prospect that sadly never fully reifies is an all-too-common occurrence.  But when I think of all of the Freddy Adus and Amazon Fire phones of the world, there is no greater disappointment than the current state of the internet.  Honestly, some people reading this likely didn’t even exist back in the 1990s, but in today’s entry, lemme tell you whippersnapper youngbloods a story of what we had all thought the internet would become back in the day of Gateway 2000 PCs and dial-up modems.

So, the usual short caveat paragraph:  Obviously, there are many good things about the current internet.  I can order eggs and milk from Jeff Bezos’s empire and have it literally (within two hours!) delivered to my doorstep. (Now, to be fair, it happens on the backs of essentially slave labor, but that’s a diatribe for another time.)  Likewise, I can spin up The YouTube and listen to virtually any song or watch any movie clip I wish on a whim.  All these things are unequivocally good.  (Well, the slave labor part is less unequivocally good, but the convenience is good, I mean.)

Now onto the glaring and gigantic disappointment:  Originally, there had been a belief that with “the information superhighway,” humanity was going to usher in a new utopian supranational, truly global community.  There was an idea that when you signed into an AOL chatroom, the person on the other side may be half-a-world away from you and hail from a totally different culture, but that person would be, in a way, fundamentally good.  S/he would be, like yourself be a decent human being; an inquisitive sort curious about the world and its ways.  There was an entire idea (mythology?) that complete strangers would connect and learn from each other.  On the internet, no one may know you’re a dog; but there was also a belief that you could shoot up a single flare up into the great night sky and that a group of likeminded people, fundamentally kind and decent, would find you.  And that a community of love and mutual learning/understanding would ensue.

Fast forward a quarter century and all of that seems like a sick joke now.  Everywhere I turn, it’s two-second memes.  There is no getting to know complete strangers in any genuine or authentic way.  Instead, there are only walled gardens and ruthless scam artists.  I have no idea whom I can trust and on Facebook– the system purportedly built on “Real ID” in order to facilitate “trust”– God forbid if I express any thought that is “against popular opinion”– doing anything of the sort will simply get you lynched by the hate-mob.  In twenty-five years, the internet literally degenerated into the lowest common denominator.  No, even worse than that, actually, if that’s believable.  We largely make each other worse human beings online.  We really do.

But… wait! Is all hope lost? No! We are human beings! We never surrender! We never quit! It is simply not in our DNA! The human species survived the Bubonic plague; we sure as hell aren’t going to be defeated by the likes of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Thus, I think I have an idea that could help restore “The Internet” (or at least, a tiny part of it) to what it was originally meant to be! Tune in tomorrow to find out more! 😇

TikTok: The Beginning of the End of American Tech Supremacy

TikTok is one of those of those apps that was honestly barely on my radar.   Oh man, if there were ever a sign that I’m super-old and practically prehistoric, this would be it.  That some new “short video sharing” app had skyrocketed into the stratosphere, somehow succeeding where Vine had failed, that also managed to defeat long-entrenched incumbent powerhouses like YouTube and Facebook Video.  I was genuinely shocked, I tell you, shocked.

But last week, a16z ran one of their handy “news summary” episodes that happened to cover TikTok and so I got to learn all about this newfangled, shiny object.  To me, TikTok is noteworthy not because it suddenly became super-popular among teens and tweens, but because it is the first super-popular global app that’s gotten a foothold in the American market that was built in China.

How were internet super-giants such as Google and Facebook outflanked by the much-smaller, nimbler TikTok?  The always-thoughtful Eugene Wei wrote a great in-depth analysis of how TikTok was built from the ground-up to prioritize a watcher’s “interest-graph” over his/her “social-graph.”  Dinosaur-era networks like Facebook were built on the foundational theory that you’ll most probably like what your friends like.  And that may or may not be true.  But what’s incredibly more powerful is if the algorithm can simply understand you— TikTok’s super-granular tagging (done by armies and legions of humans in China) is a large part of what makes this possible.

The young blood today likely doesn’t know this, but I’m old enough to remember a time when “Made in China” was actually a sign of extraordinary cheapness and low-quality.  It was a kinda pejorative label applied to some commodity item being built by the lowest bidder in the middle kingdom.  Well, that era has certainly ended.  Software prowess, innovation, and invention –which many thought for the longest time was the sole dominion of Silicon Valley and the Americans– has been taken over by the Chinese.  I’ve written before how I believe this next century will be The Chinese Century and this whole latest TikTok saga just further reinforces my belief in that sad inevitability.

What I think is especially intriguing (if somewhat predictable, I guess?) is that America’s response, under Trump, towards this new changing of the guard is to simply threaten to ban TikTok in America, or at least force ByteDance’s divestiture.  At the moment, it’s increasingly looking like ByteDance will be selling and handing over all US operations to Oracle (which is fascinating).  Oracle, the enterprise colossus run by Larry “It’s not enough I win; everyone else most fail” Ellison.

Buckle in for the ride folks; this is probably the Fort Sumter moment of the global geopolitical tech wars.  Things are about to get interesting.


Synchronicities have been on my mind recently.  First pioneered by the German analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, a “synchronicity” is the idea that there are no random coincidences.  In other words– coincidences happen for a reason.  And even if we, the puny human, cannot comprehend what or why an event has occurred, there is a greater masterwork at play, a bigger story being told, that we are simply not privy to.  Our windows of perception are tiny, myopic, and pathetic in the grand scheme.

Suffice it to say, there is a tremendous attractiveness to this idea. Various religions and schools of philosophical thought have long worked synchronicities into their teachings. In Buddhism, for instance, there’s the entire idea of karma and resurrection. That whatever slings and arrows we may be bearing in our current life (or good fortune, too), are the direct consequences of our decisions and actions that we made in our previous lives. That there is indeed a method behind the madness.

Obviously, this is an unfalsifiable belief.  There’s no way to prove its affirmative or negative, so there it goes, onto the dusty self right between the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot (good ol’ Bertrand– love that guy).  But like religion, belief in synchronicities is a kinda salve in world that can at times otherwise be cold, cruel, and unfeeling.  It comforts us to believe that a tragedy or accident was meant to happen.  That the towers were meant to fall.  That, for some reason, that was God’s plan.  That Gramps was supposed to die of cancer or that the family dog was supposed to be hit and killed by that asshole drunk, college kid.  When humans tell themselves stories that impose meaning onto the chaos, it gives us hope.  Hope that a new day will dawn and that the sun will yet again, one morning, shine once more.

On the topic of synchronicities, today I took the leap and posted an entry onto the /r/writers subreddit to see if there were any brave souls who were willing to partake in this daily “Alphabet Game” writing challenge with me.  (I even ended up setting up a whole new subreddit dedicated to the project!)  I’ve been lone-wolfing it for about two months now since the beginning of August and was just curious if anyone else would be keen on joining the great adventure.  And I got some takers!  /u/MrHeavenTrampler, /u/munchmallowqueen, and /u/Fluffyfrenchfries have all enlisted!  Wohoo!  Haha, welcome aboard, ladies and gents.  I have no idea where this ship is going, but we’re off!  Onward to new horizons!  🎉

Mulan (2020): Atrocious

Disney kowtows to China with Mulan (2020) and still manages to spectacularly fail.

Remaking a classic, beloved cartoon into a live-action is no easy task.  And I have a lot of empathy for the multibillion dollar conglomerate empire that attempts the feat.  I really do.  But it is rare and truly striking to me that one could mess up this badly.  Disney’s new Mulan (2020) live-action doesn’t quite reach “Crimes-Against-Humanity” badness.  No one’s going to quite get dragged to the Hague for this one.  But Niki Caro and the (non-Chinese) writing staff of this latest Disney+ dumpster fire certainly gave it the old college try.

Bagel and I watched the movie this past Tuesday and since then I’ve been sitting with my thoughts, trying to organize some kind of coherent review on what happened.  I think, in summary, Mulan (2020) is the single most anti-feminist and female-anti-empowerment story I’ve seen in the past decade.  It’s genuinely very impressively backwards and I couldn’t believe that so many major American outlets had reviewed Mulan (2020) so positively.  (The movie currently sits at a solid 75% by professional critics on RT!)

As many people have noted elsewhere, but I’ll repeat again briefly here:  In the cartoon, Mulan was just an ordinary girl.  She joins the army under the guise of a man, and through hard work and intense training, manages to solve problems to save the day in very human ways.  In this 2020 live-action version, Mulan inexplicably has superhero powers because she’s been endowed with some kinda mystical “Qi” energy/ability/talent from birth.  Additionally, Mulan suddenly now has a younger sister who’s only teleological purpose, as far as I could discern, was to just get married because that’s apparently what all women in China who don’t have superpowers are allowed and expected to do.  Bagel, I should mention, also hated the movie and sent me this video essay that really excellently deconstructs all the ways Mulan (2020) is terrible.

Other headscratchers and disappointments:  That whole Gong Li subplot, the criminal omission of Mushu (Dumbledore’s Fawkes phoenix and Gong Li’s witch-creature-thing makes the cut but not a magical talking mini-dragon? C’mon!), and the super-criminal omission of everyone’s favorite “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” song.

If I had to sum up all of my opinions about Mulan (2020) into a single thought, it’d be this:  Disney turned Mulan into a Marvel superhero story and created a female-anti-empowerment masterpiece in an attempt to crack the Chinese box office, but totally failed.

Quitting the Rat Race is the American Dream

Quitting the Rat Race is the American Dream.  Over breakfast this morning, I had an interesting discussion with Bagel about entrepreneurship and working in America.  As I’ve mentioned before, Bagel is not American– she hails from Bageltopia.  And Bageltopians possess a significantly different cultural value system compared with Americans.  For Bageltopians, the prime good in respectable society –the highest one can aspire to achieve– is to work at one of the Big Three companies in the country.  I don’t know what the exact math works out to, but the Big Three in Bageltopia accounts for something like 50% of GDP, I bet.  It’d be like the Google, Facebook, Apple of Silicon Valley (or Microsoft and Amazon of Seattle; or in a previous era– the GM, Ford, Chrysler of Detroit).  Anyway, the entire corporate landscape in Bageltopia is dominated by these three companies and every year, new college graduates fall over themselves applying and trying to win prestigious admission via a very intense selection progress (a lot of standardized testing!  Scantron bubble sheets!).  While we certainly have more famous companies in America, I was telling Bagel that here in this country, in America, we much more admire and respect the small business owner or entrepreneur or artist.

Additionally, what’s really super-weird to me is that in Bageltopia, Bagel was telling me, society actually looks down on small business owners and artists. The thinking there is that the only reason one would work for themselves is only because you’re not able to find gainful employment with one of the big companies. Thus, self-employment, being an artist or small business owner, is actually a kind of scarlet letter and hot branding of failure and epic social shame of unthinkable and immeasurable magnitude. (You think I’m being hyperbolic but I’m really not! People really believe this in other parts of the world! I do not kid you!)

Obviously, this is only my opinion, but I feel in America, one of the quintessential dreams of making money is actually the opposite of joining a Big Famous Company.  Sure, there are plenty of folks who aspire for those kinda sinecures.  But even better than that is making your own company and working for yourself.  To not have to report The Man every day and punch the clock. But to be The Man.  In America, we all wish we could quit the Rat Race and escape the daily grind– not join it!  The dream is to open a small auto shop or café around the corner and be constantly raking in the moolah even if you’re not on the job!  Or write a book or Christmas song/jingle and then earn royalties on that work in perpetuity (ie. forever)You could be vacationing in Fiji or backpacking across the Andes and still have the money pouring in every month.  To Americans, I feel this is our American Dream.


Parenting is one of those topics that occasionally crosses my mind.  In recent years, I’ve known several friends who have made the leap and while everyone dresses it up in very beautiful language, I personally believe a more unpopular theory on why some couples become parents.  It’s unromantic but I also think it’s true.  Of course, certainly not true for everyone.  But I do think this is true far more often than not; even if people aren’t ready to admit it:  They get bored.

When people first get married, it’s romantic and sexy– the so-called “honeymoon period.”  Nowadays, most couples (at least in the western world) cohabitate and live together for a good stretch of time before ever tying the knot.  Thus, marriage itself, doesn’t actually change anything.  You get to jointly file your taxes and get some tax breaks that way (single people are truly punished in this country, tax-wise, IMHO) and also your insurance premiums also unfortunately go way up if you’re getting coverage under a main provider.  But other than those logistical, clerical changes, not much else happens.  Oh, I guess:  In society, for whatever reason, saying “you’re married” confers a kinda seriousness/maturity/gravity.  That’s definitely a thing.  Never mind that half of all marriages end in divorce in America; married people occupy at least a slightly different valence in societal dynamics when it comes to perceived maturity/respectability.

But my take is that after several years, after the initial heat and frisson dissipates, and then many couples kinda look at each other and realize that they’re bit bored.  If they’re both working, they’ve likely saved a good amount of money at this point and they’re not quite sure what to do next.  (I have heard –again, this is totally anecdotal– that many women feel a biological instinct/urge around the 30-year mark so that may be part of it too?  I’m honestly unsure if this can be generalized.)  But I postulate that many married couples look at each other at a certain point in their marriages and just kinda say, “Eh, why not?”  And then try to make babies.  They desire a new project to work on that’ll keep life interesting and keep them together.  It’s like starting a new RPG quest that’ll knock 18 years (or more, if you make multiple babies) off the clock.

Can Originality Be Replicated?

Originality has long been the last bastion of human creativity.  Sure, John Henry may have died in the end and lost to the locomotive, but human beings have generally taken pride in the steadfast certainty that even when Skynet does eventually take over, at least the damn machines won’t be able to paint great art, compose orchestral masterpieces, or write works of literary genius that touch the deepest depths of the human heart and soul.

Well, no. At least, I don’t think so.

Bagel asked me yesterday why exactly I was embarking upon this crusade to input an entry a day, cycling through the alphabet as many times as necessary, in order to put everything I know, each entry 300-700 words, into WordPress.  Aside from being a fun exercise that helps me practice writing daily, the other real reason is I’m trying to generate a corpus of material for Wobble2– a facsimile of all of my thoughts, positions, opinions, and beliefs.

I have a theory, entirely unproven, that given the right corpus, I could code a reasonable replica of myself, at least for a limited universe of Q&A.  The dream here is to write software that could eventually synthesize answers in a way that I, Wobble Prime, would answer them. This premise is directly inspired by The Turing Test and TV shows like Westworld and Devs. If the simulation generates identical answers as the original, why is the simulation any different or “less than” the original? (Gotta love humans and our fascination with making ourselves obsolete!)  So, here’s an example desired outcome:  Eventually, I want to build out Wobble2 to a state where it could answer a question like, “Would Tom Hanks make a good president?”

To answer this question, Wobble2 would need to look up its entry for “Tom Hanks.”  And then it would need to look up its entry for “president” (and infer that the question meant, “President of the United States”).  From here, Wobble2 would need to compare all of the qualities I associate with good/bad presidents and cross-reference those traits with Tom Hanks’s characteristics.  Finally, depending on the results of that comparison, Wobble2 would then render a “Yes/No” response, an emotion associated with that response (“hell yeah!” or “tepidly optimistic?” or “that’s a very bad idea.”), and some supporting body of evidence for how it got to its conclusion.  I still have kinks to work out, but in my head I think it could work!  This is, in a nutshell, how I’ve been spending my time these days.

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Eleanor Roosevelt (spurious?)


Novelty is one of the main drivers that keeps me going.  One of the challenges of 2020 is that with a global pandemic afoot, folks have not been able to venture outside and follow their usual routines.  The sustained and prolonged inability to go to an office workplace, interact with colleagues, and just have a change of scenery and pace has been enormously unhealthy.  I consider human beings as generalized differential engines.  We understand everything only as a series of contrasts.  As Huxley wrote years ago in Brave New World:  “There is no black without white and no night without day.”  This is actually one reason I started this personal daily writing project back in August– it is a salubrious way of marking time.  Every day, I write on a new subject which forces my mind to stretch itself in new directions, toward new horizons.  The human brain like any other muscle in your body:  If unused for long periods of time, the brain will atrophy and devolve into grey mush.

Additionally, novelty is a motivation all its own when it comes to the creative arts.  During his session this past Saturday at Muskogee, Lev Grossman was asked, “What makes a good story?” His answer really stuck with me as he cited a scene from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925).  Woolf wrote about a high-society woman (Dalloway) on the bench and even after the woman went to sleep, Woolf just kept on writing the scene. Grossman said he’d never seen writing like that and it just absolutely blew his mind.

This idea, “Do what has not already been done before.” is another reason I write and code.  I enjoy thinking up projects that I’ve never seen before but feel should exist.  This ability to take a figment of one’s imagination and reify it into the material world is essentially magic.  For me at least, the act of creation is what it means to be alive. As long as we are continuously growing, always learning something new, and following our interests and curiosities wherever they may lead us, then there is always a reason to live. The world is too big and our puny human lives are too short to waste any more time than we already do.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

When Mental Models Go Stale + Levels of Certainty

Mental models are important.  But we need to always consider how fresh our models are.  I like and agree with Derek Sivers’s take that he normally never immediately responds to most questions because his answer will “be erroneously based upon old and outdated self-knowledge.” So here’s my rant for the morning:  IMHO, people really should attach a confidence interval (or “level of certainty”) with their predictions or comments.  Generally, unless I otherwise specify, I usually speak with around an 80% confidence.  Meaning, I am roughly 80% certain in whatever I’m talking about and in my position.  But sometimes, I am much less or much more certain.  In those cases, I will usually specify.

For example, yesterday a friend asked me about Sam Harris.  I know of Harris and have listened to his podcast before.  But several years back I’d lost interest in him and had stopped listening.  Every single one of his episodes –at least for a stretch that I’d listened to– had devolved into an opening ten minutes of airing grievances.  Whether fairly or unfairly (most likely the latter), I’d come to think of Harris, at least as he presented himself, as “the most aggrieved man in America.”  (Also, his podcast’s old name, Waking Up, always struck me as enormously condescending.  So that was already one strike.  His podcast’s new name, Making Sense, is marginally better but still has a whiff of superiority about it that slightly irks.) As of yesterday, my mental model of Harris had understandably gone stale.  That is, I had no idea what he’s up to nowadays, what news surrounds him, etc.

Thus, when I opined on Sam Harris, I think it was responsible that I gave “my-mental-model-of-him-has-staled” qualifier.  I have data on him that I can convey to you, but my impression is an old impression.  And thus, just being cognizant of that actually makes me more amenable to receiving and processing new information on Harris.  If more people followed these guidelines I’m laying out, I think we’d live in a much saner world.  People should go about being, and sounding, much less certain.  You’re more willing to receive and process new data if your cup isn’t already flowing over. The world is rapidly changing and we’re constantly revising our internal models to approximate what on earth is going on around us. In fact, coupled to this thought: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become infinitely more weary of anyone who sounds certain about anything. In fact, if we ever converse, the more certain you sound, the less I’ll probably think of you. (Also, no offense intended, but if you’re young, this especially applies to you.)

Lev Grossman: A Beacon of Light and Hope for Aspiring Writers Everywhere

Lev Grossman is one of my favorite writers.  I don’t remember exactly where I’d read it (it may have been on his blog?), but Grossman once recommended a way of writing long-form fiction that has really stuck with me:  Create two new Word documents.  In the first document, list all of the mechanical events that you want/need to happen in your story.  For example:  Alice meets Bob, Alice wins the World Cup, Bob’s dog dies, etc.  And then in the second Word document, list all of the feelings that you wish for your reader to experience when reading your story.  For example, a feeling may be “grief and loss” or “victory and triumph.”  After you have finished both Word documents, now see how many events you can pair from Document A with feelings from Document B.  Eg. “Alice wins the World Cup” could be paired with “victory and triumph” and “Bob’s dog dies” could be paired with “grief and loss.”  Also, multiple feelings can be associated with the same event.  It’s a fun and informative exercise which also then serves as a good kinda roadmap for your long-fiction writing!

Grossman also occupies a special place in my brain because he is one of the few authors I have actually ever met in person.  I have two signed books!  The first was when I met him in 2011 at the Barnes & Noble on 86th and Broadway when he was promoting The Magician King (at that signing, a fan had asked, “Mr. Grossman– did you ever think about titling TMK another name?  To which LG had replied:  “Well, I actually felt like calling it, The Magician Queen.  But that was only after seeing an advert for TMK in the Times.”)  The second was at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2015 when he once did an event.  I still vividly remember these two encounters.  When I’d met him at B&N, I’d asked what advice he had for an aspiring writer.  And his response was:  “Read as much as you humanly can.  Always be reading.” and “Never, never, ever give up.”  He mentioned that it took him 17 years of writing other stuff before he finally wrote The Magicians at the age of 40. (And at the BHS, he signed my tattered copy of Warp!)

Oh!  One more memory:  No signed book at this one, but I also once saw the leverus in Portland at Leakycon in 2013.  I don’t remember the exact details, but for some reason, he (and several other authors) were in heated competition and his task was to extract as many red-colored balls from a source basket full of yellow-colored balls to put into a target basket in 60 seconds.  Haha, until the end of my days, I will always remember the MC (Maureen Johnson, I think?) in the background commentating, “And now here’s Mr. Grossman– demonstrating the Harvard vs Yale technique for colored-ball extraction.”  I’m probably misremembering at least part of that but in the final ten seconds, Grossman just took the source basket and dumped the entirety of its contents into the target basket.  Clever!  All that Ivy League education turned out useful after all!

My final thought on LG appreciation –aside from just the way I love how he writes and speaks (an unholy concoction of “highbrow meets lowbrow” is really the only way I know how to describe it)– is how open he’s been in print and online with his struggles against depression, especially after his divorce from his first marriage.  I just saw him at Muskogee MiniCon this afternoon (go, Thunder! ⚡✊) where he was virtua-touring The Silver Arrow and the man looked, more than anything else, content.  He’s married again now with two smaller children in his new marriage and happily living in Brooklyn.  Good for you, Mr. Grossman, and truly, thank you.  I’m so happy to see you make it to the other side.

“I don’t believe in magic, [but] books are very, very close. They’re the closest thing we have.”

Lev Grossman (August 5, 2014)


Kitsch is honestly the best. I am such a huge sucker for kitsch. It’ll get me every time. This morning, I wanted to examine it, this strange fascination of mine. Why am I so drawn to the gaudy and flamboyantly terrible? What exactly is it about poor taste that I find so undeniably attractive?

Several years ago, in the Before Times, Bagel and I visited South Dakota.  Of course, we visited Mount Rushmore.  Bagel enjoyed seeing how that was built and I do truly marvel at the remarkable feat of engineering that Gutzon Borglum achieved.  Genuinely extraordinary, especially with the downright rudimentary tools he had at the time.  (Though I suppose you can say that of every generation.  One day, I’m sure future human beings will look back on our time now and wonder how on earth Musk launched (and landed) reusable rockets into and from space.  It’s inevitable.) 

Like I’d mentioned, my interest was much further piqued during the stops we made the following days after visiting Rushmore, at Wall Drug (Wall, South Dakota) and –my favorite!– The Corn Palace (Mitchell, South Dakota).  Is it the aesthetic that pleases me?  I guess, kinda?  That’s certainly part of it.  But I think partially why I like kitsch so much owes to the same reason I worship at the altar of Michael Bay and think the man’s the greatest film director ever. (Again, I remind everyone– Bay has not one, but two, movies in The Criterion Collection. Right up there next to Kurosawa where the man belongs!) More fundamentally though, on some level, I’m annoyed with entire hierarchy and dichotomy of “high-brow” vs “low-brow.”  Like, it genuinely irritates me that some people are so snobbish and hoity-toity about art.  If the entire enterprise is all subjective anyway, then how come a bunch of experts can get together and praise a Van Gough or Rembrandt to high heaven while condemning, I dunno, Penny Arcade or Mega Tokyo?  It’s all subjective!  Why do people get to be snooty about art and fashion at all?

Thus, I consider it my solemn duty to be a rebel and stick it to the man!  I enjoy and celebrate kitsch because, in part, I am philosophically aligned with the principle.  Praising kitsch is a reminder to us all that we really shouldn’t take ourselves (or anything, really) too seriously.  Life’s a transient journey, lived a quarter-mile at a time.  May as well enjoy the ride.


Joker was one my favorite films in 2019.  My first thought after finishing the movie was I couldn’t believe that it was directed by Todd Philips, the same guy who brought you The Hangover Trilogy and Road Trip (2000).  Actually, come to think of it, the first Hangover movie is actually an impressive work of staggering genius.  I learned from one of the Bill Simmons Rewatchables podcasts that Philips famously chose to take a smaller advance on the movie in return for a larger cut of royalties for each subsequent unit (DVDs, streaming sales) sold on the backend.  That business decision has most definitely yielded bank; Philips really hit the jackpot with that one!

Last October, I saw Joker with Talia at the theater downtown, nearly a year ago now.  It’s strange to think of last year– it just feels so long ago.  After we finished the movie, we walked around downtown for a bit and talked.  It was super nice out with orange leaves everywhere and autumn in full ascent.  Good times.  Talia felt the movie irresponsible; to her it felt like Joker was celebrating anarchy.  Gotham had degenerated into such disrepair that the rich (like Thomas and Martha Wayne) had everything while the poor and impoverished Author Flecks of the world were left with scraps.  The system had failed and the situation on the ground increasingly ominous and portentous.  Whiffs of French Revolution were in the air; no one was in the mood to eat cake.

I agreed with Talia’s read on the movie but I felt Philips was actually being responsible.  By showing us, in a fictional movie, a possible timeline of where extreme wealth inequality could lead, my take was that Philips was trying to give the world’s elite and ultrarich a “shot across the bow.”  (Conveniently packaged in an entertaining two-hour parcel, steeped in comicdom’s most iconic lore, even.)  To me though, Joker was a warning that if the wealth gap continued to widen, a bourgeois overthrow was not out of the question and not farfetched at all.

America currently finds itself in late-stage capitalism.  It’s anyone’s guess where the country goes from here but I do think this year, 2020, we’ve seen some other canaries dying in the coalmine.  Between BLM, Portland, and Seattle, take your pick.  Maybe this cries of the proletariat have always existed but I can’t help but feel they’re a tad louder this year.  Just in 2016, we were celebrating Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton— evidence, at the time, we’d finally put racism behind us!  Good lord, that feels like eons ago.

Building a Town

Imagination can at times be like a firehose.  Once the spigot is turned, all of the ideas just come gushing out in a single, messy torrent.  It’s literally a flood of disparate thought fragments that resembles The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

There are thousands of different ways that people ideate and organize their mind maps.  And I’ve tried many over the years.  But the approach that I use now (which I think is working?) is every time an idea strikes me, I immediately write it up in its own individual document.  Then I also index the idea in a single Master Document.  Over time, I can then see the Master Document begin to populate as the beast slowly crystalizes and comes into focus.

One trick I learned from watching the Michael Bay director’s commentary on the Criterion Collection edition of Armageddon is that it’s critical for the creator of a work to have some sort of mental model in his head of the story at all times.  It obviously doesn’t need to be an exact blueprint, but the scaffolding needs to at least exist.  My Master Document of Ideas serves as that scaffolding.

Another metaphor I use internally is likening the process to that of building a town in Sim City or Skylines.  In the beginning, you’ve got nothing– just a big plot of land.  But then you build your first residential house, or library, or park.  And slowly, over time, you build City Hall, the museum, some restaurants, a Monument to Heroes, etc.  Sometimes you might begin work on the town civics center but then lose interest halfway through, scroll to the other side of town, and begin construction on the town sports arena instead.  That’s totally okay!  In Phase I of writing (the “Production Phase”), I’m simply trying to properly get all of my ideas down on paper so there’s a physical record of it somewhere.  During Phase I, I may not yet know how all of the ideas, characters, and settings connect, but eventually, I simply trust that there will be a road that goes from the town square to the town library which is way, way off on the west end, across the train tracks.  I’ve said this elsewhere but I genuinely believe that writing long-form fiction is akin to keeping a faith.  It’s simply doing the work every day and then believing/praying that everything will eventually come together in the end.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter shaped my entire generation.  It is literally no exaggeration to say that.  When I was growing up, the book releases were, I kid you not, actual events.  Our local Barnes & Noble in town would decorate its interior and then at midnight, once the release embargo lifted, dozens of us Potterheads would stream into the store to buy the new book.  Kids were dressed like witches and wizards with the robes, scarfs, and everything.  It was truly a sight to behold.  This day and age, I can’t conceive of a book, any book, inspiring such a turnout.

When I reflect on HP and what it made it so special to me (it was literally released right when I was in junior high school so I was smack middle in its intended audience), I have to point to its worldbuilding more than anything else.  In an interview, Rowling once remarked that she felt “the foremost responsibility of an author is to give the reader a full security and confidence that someone’s hand is unwaveringly at the rudder.”  This quote has always stuck with me.  When you read HP, it always felt like there was a firm hand at the rudder, effortlessly guiding the ship. The world was so rich and fully realized that it felt real.  Not only to middle-graders, but to adults too.  Rowling had a talent for moving the action at a good clip while including just enough mise en scène to make the whole enterprise believable.  It was a tremendous accomplishment.

I have found writers to generally fall into three camps:  “Character-driven” (RCW’s Spin); “Plot-driven” (Da Vinci Code); or “Worldbuilding-driven” (HP).  Personally, I don’t really read for characters.  I like Plot and Worldbuilding.  To me, characters are largely a vehicle for the worldbuilding and whatever “message” or “experience” the author is trying to impart.  For instance, in HP, Harry’s essentially a vessel.  Sure, he experiences pangs of lust for Cho Chang, affections for his friends and family, and ambition for Quidditch, etc.  But the guy doesn’t really have a personality.  He’s a cardboard cutout– the generic middle-schooler that turns into a high-schooler.  There are set pieces like The Big Sports Tournament (The Tri-Wizard Cup) and The Big Dance (The Yule Ball), but mostly –to me at least– Harry’s a paint-by-numbers kinda character.  Which I think is Rowling’s intention.  Because what is fascinating about the HP books is the worldbuilding.  You’ve got Hogwarts and Diagon Ally, the Wizarding High Court, minister, government, and currency.  Etc, etc.  Harry’s just basically there to be an empty seat to take you to Gringotts and everything else.

Harry Potter possesses a kinda bland universality.  Meaning, I don’t really know where Harry would stand on policies like universal basic income, abortion, or reparations.  Again, I think this is Rowling’s intention; that is, Harry doesn’t have very specific politics (other than general banalities like “believing in courage and loyalty”) so he doesn’t run the risk of alienating any potential readers (or their parents!) who may not share his values. It’s a good strategy to sell as many books as possible!

With Great Power

Great power comes with great responsibility. Uncle Ben’s immortal, final words in his last moments on this little blue planet. This afternoon, Cal sent me this article about how the Academy was changing the criteria it uses to award the Best Picture Oscar.  Basically, the new rules dictate that starting in 2022, to be eligible to win top prize, movies will need to meet new “diversity guidelines.”  It’s worth reiterating that these new rules only apply to the “Best Picture” contenders and also that they can be satisfied not just by the actors in the movie, but also the staff crewing a movie as well.  So, for example, as Vox helpfully explains— even a movie like The Irishman that looks pretty overwhelmingly white would’ve, in 2022, qualified just fine.  Scorsese’s longtime collaborators (a producer, casting director, and editor) are all women and the film’s cinematographer also hails from Mexico.  Diversity guidelines met!

Initially, I confess, my knee-jerk reaction was predictably annoyance and umbrage.  Another liberal overreach!  Who are they to tell artists how to make movies?  But then as I calmed down and thought through it more, I slowly warmed to the idea as my more authoritarian leanings kicked in.  A few years back, the whole #OscarsSoWhite mania had hit and significantly damaged the liberal image of Hollywood.  Additionally, I actually agree— forget all of the PC stuff.  The structure of the Academy– meaning, the way it’s actually constructed— grants lifetime memberships.  So predictably, the voting membership heavily skews old, male, and white because of historical circumstances. But in 2020 America, the Academy constituency no longer demographically reflects the country and that’s problematic.

Right now, all of the old white men have all (or at least, most) of the power.  And they’re trying to encourage others to come get some of it!  Good for them.  The Oscars is just a prize.  It’s an arbitrary badge of prestige.  If you want to make movies that don’t meet the new diversity guidelines in 2022, you’re welcome to do so!  No one will be stopping you.  The Academy is a private institution and can make its rules accordingly.  If you dislike it, feel free to take your ball and go home.

My take is that the Academy is trying to do a good thing– correct hundreds of years of racism and sexism in its industry. This is a step in the right direction.  Yeah, artists may feel like they’ll need “to compromise their creative vision” moving forward, but if the new guidelines even help a tiny bit in greenlighting more minority-backed and racially diverse movies, then I think that’s good.  This whole situation makes me think of HR hiring policies at big companies like Microsoft and Facebook or college admissions at elite universities.  There are only a limited number of spots and meritocracy is only a part of the picture.  The reason the woman with a less stellar resume may get the job, or a Hispanic student with lower SAT scores may be admitted is because on the company or college-administration end, there is also an interest in maintaining a diverse workplace or campus.  It behooves other super-excellent male and white students (the future Brett Kavanaughs and George W. Bushes of the world) to meet female and non-white students and employees.  It’s a collective consideration that’s for the greater good.

So in summary:  I’m all for it!  Good job, Academy!  Flex those authoritarian biceps!  Be the change you want to see in the world! 👍👍👍

Understand Your Own Flow States

Flow states are critical in harnessing your full potential.  This is self-knowledge I first discovered in college and have been exploiting and refining ever since.  Paul Ford once insightfully remarked that “intelligence is not evenly distributed” when you talk about the workday or workweek.  Sometimes you’re deep in the weeds and really need to rev up those RPMs in order to debug a tricky coding problem or reason through a piece of logic.  Other times, you’re in cruise-control mode and barely mentally there.  Your body may physically be at the office for the sake of appearances but you’re really a thousand miles away on Cloud 9 daydreaming about that long-lost girlfriend, getting that last donut, or otherwise just entirely mentally blank, from brain exhaustion or something else.  And then other times, you’re somewhere in the middle– the tank’s about half-full.  You recognize you’re sufficiently fatigued that you’re definitely not at your best.  But also that you’ve got a little bit more inside that you can give before you conk out for the day.

Obviously, flow states are a kinda spectrum.  But in my own life, I’ve found that there are broadly four different demarcation points on the gauge that are significant.  The first level, 100%-Awesome, is my first 90 minutes of every morning.  I wake up, make my coffee, and all of neurons are refreshed and rearing to go.  This is definitely when I do my most creative work.  Sometimes, I’m so taken with an idea I don’t even brush my teeth immediately after I wake.  I keep a cot next to my computer setup and I literally just roll straight out of bed to my computer and begin writing.  (Sometimes coding, but usually writing.)

After 100%-Awesome, I usually brush my teeth.

The second level, for me, is somewhere around 70-80%.  At this level, I can do some coding.  Writing is kinda shot.  But there are large parts of coding that is honestly mechanical and blue-collar-esque.  Eg. I need to write mock stubs for the database or need to write a new REST API call.  I know exactly what I need to do.  But I just need to do it.  I can usually give about two hours here in this zone.

Somewhere between Level 3 and Level 2, I try to exercise.  Exercising actually requires surmounting a “hump of inertia” first so if I deplete my energies too much, I’ve found I actually can’t rouse myself to exercise. The trick is starting your exercise routine at the very tail end of Level 2 before you’ve dropped too far into Level 3 territory.

Level 3 is around 40-60%.  Alrighty, at this level, motivation is definitely starting to wane.  The neurons are basically tired for the day and many have checked out entirely.  When I get to Level 3, especially the tail-end of Level 3, I reach for the “cruise-control tasks.”  Unloading and loading the dishwasher or spending time with Bagel like going grocery shopping together.  Usually, Bagel likes to eat together and watch a TV show too.  Well, watching TV is literally among the most braindead activities that exist in modern human life.  So when I’m at Level 3, I can dutifully contribute my daily Bagel Time that she requires in order to maintain our relationship, without wasting any of my high-performance cycles.

Level 4 is somewhere around 10-20%.  At this point, we’ve hit the iceberg for a good solid two hours already and most of the compartments are flooded.  At this point, nothing is going to get done.  Literally, nothing.  I’m in a vegetative state and usually can’t even summon the wherewithal to brush my teeth and shower.  But I have a super-picky OCD-habit where I literally can’t get into bed until I’ve showered.  So if I’ve mismanaged by day for some reason, and get stuck in purgatory, I will literally just lie down on the floor on my back.  The key is starting the daily shutdown subroutine with enough juice left in the tank to actually finish shutting down.  Else, I just get stuck in the middle of shutting down for the day.  Once I’ve sufficiently “recharged,” I then climb up, off the floor (a herculean effort sometimes, truly), and finish the routine– brushing my teeth, showering, and going to bed.

And that’s a typical Wobble day!  The next morning, we do it all over again!

Escape Velocity

Captain Hector was relentless!

Escape Velocity is the concept in astrophysics (specifically, celestial dynamics) that refers to “the minimum speed needed for a free, non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body…”  I actually often think about writing long-form fiction the same way.  After a while, you work up a “speed of writing” (word count per day) and a certain momentum.  But dozens of projects will plateau early, run out of steam, and then languish on the vine and die.  You lose interest in the characters or the story eventually meanders and you lose it.  Every so often though, once in a blue moon, a project –its ideas, story, characters, setting– will have such enthusiasm behind it and possess an undeniable energy that it’ll escape the dreaded Orbit of Failure and escape to the promised land.  This is when you’ve got something.

David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and many others have commented that when they were writing well, not only were the words flowing easily, but it was also as if they themselves were not originating those very words.  This may sound mystical and far-fetched but there’s genuine debate on where ideas and inspiration come from.  Are we, humans, really the source?  Or is there a higher source simply channeling our bodies as mere vessels?  Every era has had their own name of this theory– Socrates and Aristotle called them “creative muses” and Mozart and Beethoven called them “angels.”

My personal belief is that it’s a combination of both.  I think higher powers existing makes sense.  However, they’re necessary but not sufficient.  As I’ve mentioned before, I firmly believe that you need to meet the Universe halfway.  It means putting in the hundreds of hours, but it also means taking care of your physical body and spiritual self.  Eating right, finding love, maintaining hobbies, and exercising.  We can only be vessels of divine inspiration and receive when we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually ready.

The Highest Gear

Desperation is a strong driver.  I sometimes think about J.K. Rowling when she was a single-mother, working in that coffee shop writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with baby Jessica sleeping in the carry cot beside her.  Divorced, Rowling slaved away on a children’s book for five years that she had no idea if anyone would like or even ever read.  I often wonder, what must have that been like?

It’s a well-studied phenomenon that only when we are backed into a corner with our backs up against the wall that we fulfill our true potential.  Only in our most desperate and hopeless hour, when all appears lost and that there’s no way forward, do we realize our true mettle.

While having a safety net may feel sane and reasonable, and is sane and reasonable, it also holds us back.  It makes sense, right?  If you’re operating with the knowledge that there is limited or no consequences for failure, then you can never quite hit that highest gear.  In fact, one reason –when you have the safety net– that you don’t hit that highest gear is because you don’t even reach for that highest gear.  To be clear, the highest gear, beyond the redline, is safely ensconced inside the “break-glass-if-emergency-box.”  There’s a reason that the shifter doesn’t normally go there and is behind lock and key.  It’s a level of performance, a flow state, that is holy.  It’s also one that’s driven by a certain amount of determination that can be only fueled by anxiety and a genuine sense of danger.

Sometimes, I think of the act of writing –especially, long form– as a Faustian trade.  You’re putting all of your heart and soul into a work which may never see the light of day.  And yet, you continue with the project, day after day, driven only by an unproven faith and delusions of grandeur.  Only a (very-potentially-tragic) misguided confidence keeps the entire enterprise afloat.  You literally won’t know, and can’t know, until the deed is done when the final word is written.  It’s legitimately a kind of insanity.