Willow and Peak

I created this piece on July 26, 2015.

Crayola colored pencils on paper

Crayola colored pencils on paper

The other weekend, I picked up some new Crayola colored pencils, because they looked to have good variety and vibrant colors. This piece is largely done with those. My other colored pencil set is more muted, and they’re in here a little.

I wanted to practice trees and mountains here, since they’re not my strong suit. The sky was a fun way to throw in some other colors.

The paper is larger than the scanner in one dimension again, so a piece got chopped off. That’ll be a trend with pieces I’ve done on this size paper. Oh well, onward! Thanks for checking out my piece.

Mountain Etiquette

We’re all familiar with the rules and conventions of sidewalks and streets. This past weekend, I went hiking with my girlfriend, Karla, and I was reminded of similar rules to follow when hiking or driving on mountain roads.

Each person is there to enjoy the beautiful scenery and physical activity. If we increase our empathy and compassion toward others, and follow these guidelines, we’ll help improve everyone’s trips!

This etiquette is helpful to know both if you’re an avid mountain-goer, or someone who only visits occasionally. You’ll be the recipient of this courtesy just as often as you’ll be the donor.

Let Others Pass

On the Road

Perhaps your car isn’t well suited to the terrain. Or you’d rather drive slowly to appreciate the scenery. Or you’re unfamiliar with this type of driving, and are being cautious.

This should be easy to notice, using your peripheral attention, along with a glimpse in the rear-view mirror. If you have one or more cars behind you, please be courteous to the other drivers with whom you share the road: slow down and pull over to let those vehicles pass.

Highways and other roads also have this concept of “stay right, unless passing”. It’s even more important on narrow, unpaved, unmarked, and winding roads.

Allowing others to pass will make the trip safer for everyone. Traffic will flow more smoothly, with less jarring braking and accelerating. There will be less congestion and potential for fender benders, especially when road conditions aren’t ideal.

On the Trail

People of all experience levels share the trails. If you notice someone behind you who has a faster pace, step to the side and let them pass. This goes for traveling up and downhill.

You’ll also likely come across someone you outpace. Making a bit of noise while you approach can help get their attention. If they fail to notice, politely ask to pass on their left. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to let you by.

With taking breaks, you might even pass or get passed by the same people multiple times. Being polite goes a long way when you’re on a lengthy stretch of trail.

Down Yields To Up

On the Road

Drivers going downhill should yield to those coming uphill. Momentum, grip, and traction are often critical to safely passing over roads made of loose gravel, dirt, snow, or ice.

Cars climbing which are required to stop may become stuck, slide around, or slip back downhill. That’s even more dangerous when considering there may be others in tow.

On the Trail

Mountain trails are typically narrow. And there’s a good chance hikers traveling down will have a wider field of view with which to see those coming from below. When they meet, downward travelers should pause and give the right of way to those making their way uphill.

People use a lot of muscles and oxygen while trekking up. They’ve got momentum, which is important in maintaining pace.

Your muscles, breath, pace, and energy levels will all appreciate it when you’re on the receiving end of this gesture.

Remember that, if you’re on a mountain bike, you have increased speed and mobility, so pedestrians always have the right of way. Be particularly cautious around bends and narrow areas.

Lend A Hand

On the Road

A dead car battery is much more problematic when there’s no cell phone reception to use to call for help.

It’s easy to let diffusion of responsibility convince you that someone else will help, but that might not be the case on sparsely-traveled, unmaintained roadways.

A quick jumpstart could make the difference between someone being stuck in the middle of nowhere, or only having a close-call to share when they get back home.

On the Trail

Remember to keep an eye out for someone who may need some help. It’s always better to ask if you’re uncertain than to pass them by.

A twisted ankle is much more serious when miles of isolated trail and thousands of vertical feet separate a person from the car or campsite. Someone’s fear of heights may suddenly overwhelm them, while their companions have gone on ahead.

When you’re the shoulder to lean on, or the guiding hand over a boulder field, you may be the only person who helps get them to safety.

Field of Antennas

I have done some coloring and drawing recently, but I haven’t gotten around to posting yet. Until now!

Cheap colored pencil on cheap paper

Cheap colored pencil on cheap paper

I can’t remember where I had this idea. It was either inspired by this place not too far down the road from me, or I saw something like it in a dream. Either way, I had been thinking of this idea for a little while, and got the urge to color it. It’s nice to take something that’s been rolling around in your noggin and turn it into an actual thing. And tonight I finally got around to posting it on the blog.

I created it on July 24, 2015. The coloring pencils I used for this piece are more muted than some other ones, but I think they lend well to the scene and tone.

A small portion of the bottom has been clipped off because it didn’t fit on my scanner, You can see some distortion there, because of that, but this is than nothing.

Not too much else too this picture. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ll soon share some other pieces I’ve recently worked on.

Introducing The Mechanism Collection

I recently completed The Mechanism Collection. I’ve worked on this on-and-off (mostly off) for over four years, so I am excited to finally show them to others!

The Mechanism Collection is a creation myth.

The first three Mechanisms form the creation myth as first told through oral tradition. The Fourth Mechanism is a more recent addition to the collection.

But that’s about all I want to say here about the content itself. I want people to form their own opinions of the pieces and how they work together.

The main structure and form is there, but they may change a little bit going forward, since I’d like to incorporate feedback I receive from others. This means, if you have some thoughts, edits, or constructive criticism, I’d love to hear it! You’ll help to make the Collection better.

Feel free to hop over there now and read it. Below, I’ll describe a bit about where this idea came from.

The Idea Gained A Foothold

It began back in February 2008, if not earlier. Zach and I were in high school, and we created some music together under the name Of The Fourth Mechanism of Armament. What a sweet name, right?

It was a mouthful, so it got shortened to Of The Fourth Mechanism. A little later on, it was just Of The Fourth. That name would likely be impossible to find via search engine, but I still liked the ideas it evoked. He and I created parts of a couple songs, but that project didn’t really go anywhere. (Maybe we’ll revisit those songs some day…)

The idea of “The Fourth Mechanism” still stuck with me though. It sat and stewed in the back of my mind for a while, but I didn’t do anything with it. Nearly three years later, Zach sent me a piece he’d written. It was his take on Of The Fourth. Fantastic stuff, and that’s what finally got my gears into motion again.

About a month later, in early February 2011, I did some brainstorming on what my take on the Fourth Mechanism would be. It would be part of a collection. The sub-titles that each Mechanism now has are the original ones I came up with at that time.

I have some writings on paper, but I didn’t date them, so it’s hard to tell tell how much progress I made in that initial brainstorming. I likely fleshed out the first two Mechanisms a bit, but not much more.

The Languished Project

If I originally had the idea for these pieces in 2011, why did it take until 2015 for me to complete them? It’s not even a lengthy collection.

The ideas would sit for a while, until I’d get the motivation to work on them. And by that I mean I’d work on them for an evening or two, or maybe even a couple nights over a few weeks. But then the project would fall onto the back burner, and it’d be a year or more before I picked it up again.

That’s still not a ‘why’, is it? Let’s go with: procrastination, and fear of imperfection.

The ideas seemed perfectly formed in my head, but when I went to put those ideas onto paper, things didn’t play out so nice. And the act of writing these things took more effort than I’d expect. If the idea was so perfectly formed in my head, why did it take so much work and time and effort to get them out of my brain? Welcome to Real Life, Kyle.

These disappointments leeched at my creative motivation, and I’d have to wait for the memory of the disappointment to fade, and the motivation to resurface.

Infinite Recursion

Another tendency of mine is to come up the idea for a story, and then try to figure out the world in which this story takes place. What’s are the people like? What’s the setting that serves as the backdrop?

This leads me to think of what countries and cultures exist, and what the history of the world is. So I’d come up with an idea for a story to explain that – why the world is the way it is. Except this story also needs a backdrop and a history and a world, so I’d think on that some too.

You can see the trouble: you keep thinking up ideas for stories you want to write to explain the stories you want to write. This cyclical process is like infinite recursion in computer science, where the program never finishes computing. The function calls itself. Except that function call will also call itself again, and this goes on for infinity. Or until your computer runs out of memory. I’ll give you one guess as to which happens first.

Fortunately, my recursion didn’t continue indefinitely. I worked my way back from story, to history, to before-history, and, finally, to the story that explains how the world for these stories came to be.

(To be perfectly honest, calling them stories is a stretch. They’re more like a couple sentences of nebulous ideas, at most.)

Versions on Versions

As I mentioned before, there were long stretches of time between when I worked on these pieces. When I finally did pick them back up, I’d start off by brainstorming a bit, without looking at the existing stuff. I’d wind up with several, different versions.

Each bit would have elements I liked, so I worked to consolidate them all into large, combo drafts. And I’d re-work these in further drafts, using the existing text as the scaffolding, instead of creating yet-another version.

I liked that this approach led to some new and interesting ideas. But reconciling these individual drafts took a lot of time and effort, so I’m not sure I’d do this again.

Figuring It All Out

When I started out, I had some ideas for each piece, and how they’d tie together. But then I would work on one Mechanism at a time. Bringing one to life would help me better understand how they’d tie together. As each piece became a real thing, it influenced my perception of the collection.

The intent has always been, if I can recall correctly, to have the Fourth contrast the other three. But the details of how the contrast was manifest changed over time. Eventually, I just picked what felt rightest; what I was most interested in exploring. I’m happy with how it turned out, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as well.

The Motivation Train

Over the past year, I’ve worked on these pieces more than ever before. What changed?

The urge for them to exist and to be a thing, instead of flailing as a daydream, was a good kick in the ass. And I worked on them more incrementally, with some regularity. There were still downtimes, but I was able to merge some drafts and get into a rhythm and find a voice for the pieces. That’s particularly helpful. If you take too much time off, you have to find the voice again.

But I also started to take myself and the pieces less seriously. They didn’t have to be perfect. And that made them easier to work on. There’s certainly no such thing as perfect, particularly for a first draft.

The first draft sucks and is not at all what you want, but letting that draft exist in imperfect form is the first step to refining it and letting it take on some personality. The first draft has to suck, however discouraging that might initially be. But it’s the launch pad, and now that the first draft is out of the way, you can work on making something actually worth a damn.

Set A Goal

Earlier this year, I set the goal of completing the first three Mechanisms by my birthday. It provided additional motivation and incentive to work on them regularly. And it felt good to meet the goal.

After that, I didn’t really touch the Fourth for some time. I was okay letting it sit for a little while. Shortly after I picked it up again, I gave myself the goal of finishing The Fourth Mechanism on the Fourth of July. And, by golly, I did it! It wasn’t even as painful a goal as I initially thought it would be.

The fact that this collection now exists is incredibly exciting, even though it’s not the imaginary ideal I had in my head. Now that it exists, I have a back burner free for other ideas. Ideas which can piggy back on these ones. And I’m excited about that potential too!

Wanderlust

Travel.

Make a journey, typically of some length or abroad.

Okay, this definition is quite general. But what about the definition of journey?

An act of traveling from one place to another.

Great, so that’s just as ambiguous.

From the definitions above, travel or a journey could be as mundane as taking a step from my left to my right. Words can mean many things in many contexts.

But ‘travel’ has a specific use that carries a lot of weight. That part of the definition above that goes “of some length or abroad.” It has the connotation of traveling many miles, over unknown lands, outside my country of origin. This definition is accompanied by phrases such as “I love to travel,” “Travel is a passion of mine,” and “I haven’t traveled in a while.”

Epics

The tales featuring heroes and legends who travel great distances through many lands are epics. And this tradition, started millennia ago, is something we grow familiar with while growing up. We hear the amazing feats of Hercules and Odysseus, along with the fantastic places they venture through. In many ways, these experiences are rights of passage.

I’m guessing the connotation I hold of traveling is largely shaped by these epics, and other, more recent stories. The Redwall saga and The Lord of the Rings are two series which immediately come to mind. My love of mountains stemmed from reading the tales which happened around Salamandastron, Orodruin, and the Misty Mountains.

It’s also these stories which lead me to wonder what the world’s like, what adventures it holds, and how I can get there. And this wondering grew into more than curiosity. I had the itch to explore, to see new places, and to leave everything behind.

Desire

Not everyone needs the experience of traveling or living abroad, but some do. Those people will likely already know. They won’t be able to get it out of their head or heart. What if they never did it? The what-ifs would eternally nag.

This urge can be called the travel bug, or wanderlust. Travel bug is reminiscent of a sickness. It might strongly grip you for a time, but will eventually work itself out of your system. Maybe you come down with it several times during your life, but it’s not the normal state of affairs.

Wanderlust is a word we’ve borrowed from German.

It’s the fanciful thought that anywhere else is better than here. A grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side situation. It’s obsession with the idea that being somewhere different will make you happier. It’s the dream of grand places and cities and sceneries and adventures that will forever elude you in your current place. That you’ll stumble upon some deep insight or creative energy.

It’s the feeling that you are not home, and that you’ll find it in the course of your journeys. The feeling that the world is so large and there are so many experiences you’re missing out on unless you get out there. It’s the wondering what it’s like to live a different life. The opportunity to start over. That you’ll find yourself out there, because your true self sure as hell isn’t here.

The lust portion is amazingly accurate. It’s an unquenchable longing for finding yourself, discovering the answers to life, and experiencing more than you could dream. It’s seeking out change because you’re unhappy, and the cure is just over the horizon. It’s when the internal locus-of-control gets flipped to an external one. We haven’t lead ourself to happiness through internal means, but maybe it’s out there in the world, waiting for us, and we just need to wander off, meet it, and seduce it.

So you romanticize this idea of a fresh start in a total alien place for a few weeks or months. You’ve heard rumor of other people doing this, and you’re jealous. What have they experienced that you’ve missed? You deserve it too, goddamnit. The lust compels you.

Reality

You’re not grounded in reality with these dreams, because you’ve never experienced traveling before. And maybe you’re inexperienced in life, so that you imagine that yours is the only place that has issues: is full of rude people, lacks excitement, and has gum stuck all over the sidewalks.

You get to the magical shores of elsewhere, and everything is golden-hued and silver-lined. There are many fantastic experiences to be had by stepping outside your comfort zone; experiencing different cultures, cuisines, and countries.

Shortly thereafter you get caught in the rain with no umbrella; or you miss a connecting train and have to figure out the alternatives, without speaking the native language; or you are sweating like mad from the temperature and humidity.

You see that there’s great wonder there, but also great similarity to where you came from. Things aren’t perfect. There are weird people, funky smells, and the weather has its spells. You realize how many little things are different here. Not better; just different. Even ordering a drink for a meal is a learning experience. Any stress, anxiety, or unhappiness hasn’t fallen away. It came over with you on the flight and snuck through customs.

You visit as many exhibits, museums, attractions, restaurants, cafes, bars, and plazas as you can. You take more pictures than what should be humanly possible. You’re able to brainstorm and note insights for your projects, but the creative clarity, focus, and productivity hasn’t shown up like you expected it to. Being surrounded by such novelty and submerged in the unfamiliar takes energy. Everything’s a learning experience, which is draining.

You realize the trip won’t last forever, which, in turn, causes you anxiety. So you try to appreciate the hell out of it.

Back Again

Eventually you’re back. You see the many ways that there is different from here. You appreciate some familiar, yet comforting, meals. You’ve got stories to tell. Those fond memories are yours, and you’ll remember them for the rest of your life.

Maybe the travel bug will get you a couple more times. You won’t be able to get the lustful notion of adventuring out of your head. And off you’ll go, gallivanting and jet-setting to some new locale. With each additional exposure, you’ll realize that while the world around you changes, you don’t seem to. Well, you can change, but it’s not the world that changes you. It’s your perception of the world that’s key.

Subtle Shift

You’ll notice there are interesting and nice things to do everywhere. You don’t have to be somewhere foreign to feel alive. You’ll notice it’s nice to have “boring”, typical weeks, where you’re not cramming an entire guidebook’s worth of experiences into your life. There are plenty of times when you could be frustrated, or angry, or confused, or pissed off, at home or abroad.

Ah, you just used the word home again to refer to where you started. How’d that happen? The slow realization that it wasn’t such a bad place. It’s nice to have a home, isn’t it? It’s nice to have roots. It’s good to fit in some place and have it be easy to navigate the social cues, understand what others say around you, and know whether you’re supposed to ask for the bill or not when you’re out to eat.

Home is where the heart is, but the heart has to learn what that means, what it feels like. All places, cities, and countries are similar in ways. The world may change, but the one constant is you. No single place is going to make you happy. You have to learn to be happy, regardless of where you are.

Instead, Passion

And you notice the lust has subsided. It’s out of your system. You’re still interested in exploring what the world has to offer, but you don’t travel lustfully or greedily. Your happiness isn’t an X on a map. You’re not checking off boxes on a list. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You don’t romanticize the sense of fulfillment that some different place – anywhere else – will give you.

I’m both happy and fortunate to have taken the journeys I have. But, in the course of those travels, I’ve learned that it’s nice to be home. Additionally, I look forward to my future adventures, with this new perspective. I’ll appreciate the experience, but I won’t demand serendipity.

Let the lust fade and you’ll find a sustainable passion.

Punctuation: Before Or After Quotes?

Inside, Sometimes

Lately, in my writing, I have used dialog. And it’s usually bound to some other part of the sentence.

Larry said, “How would you go about this?”

This makes sense to me. The thing Larry said is all wrapped up in quotes. We have the question mark inside the quotes too, because it’s part of what Larry said. Fantastic.

It’s set apart from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Not sure exactly why that’s there, but it’s the rule. Okay, I can deal with that.

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all,” Terry replied.

This one isn’t all too different. The sentences are wrapped up in quotes. And we even set the quote apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Great. Except… this time, the comma is inside the quotes. It’s the rule, okay, but why in the world is this the rule?

Why Not Outside?

I guess we “need” to join this quotation with the rest of the sentence. Like we did in the first example. I get it, consistency is important. But, why don’t we have the comma outside the quotes?

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all”, Terry replied.

This makes more sense to me, because Terry didn’t speak the comma at all. The comma is a relic of our sentence structure, not anything that Terry verbalized.

But this is also odd, because the spoken equivalent of that sentence really ends with a period.

Perhaps this would be more accurate:

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all.”, Terry replied.

Okay, this seems like it’d make more sense, but it feels strange. The period is the punctuation that was spoken, and the comma is there to join the quotation to the rest of the sentence, but now we’ve got three characters of punctuation in a row.

Shorthand and Convention

Is it a shorthand to omit the period and just use the comma? Maybe it’s not as precise, but it’s easier to write, and we don’t have these awkward punctuation characters throwing a party in the middle of our written idea.

It’s still no reason to favor the comma outside the quote versus inside the quote. Unless we have a standard of making commas hug the left-most word, and the comma has priority in determining proximity to words. The comma hugs the word and then the next-highest-priority character follows, which would be the quote.

Non-Periods

The question mark seems to be a different beast. The following is how you’re supposed to do it:

“Are you kidding, Terry? Do you think I’m daft?” Larry asked.

The quote is a question, so we end it with the question mark. But now we have no comma at all. What the hell? If we omit periods and replace them with commas because that’s a convenience and convention, okay. But why do we just drop the comma when a question mark is involved? I’m not certain, but I’d guess the same is true for exclamation points too.

“It all seems so arbitrary!” the narrater exclaimed.

What if we wrote it like this:

“Are you kidding, Terry, do you think I’m daft?,” Larry asked.

or

“Are you kidding, Terry, do you think I’m daft?”, Larry asked.

I rather like this last option. But I suppose we still have that annoying bunching of punctuation which, while accurate, is distracting. So we English-speakers really hate that punctuation party, and we break it up by omitting the comma. The question mark has left-hugging priority here.

My Stab at the Rules

So far the rules seem to be:

  • If you’re joining a quotation to another part of a sentence, and the other part of the sentence follows the quotation,

    • and the quotation would end with a period if it stood on its own,
    • omit the period, and instead insert a comma next to the last word of the quotation. A quote will follow that. (Periods are so common that one will be inferred even if we leave it out. This is a convenience to the writer, and the reader.)
    • otherwise, the punctuation isn’t a period,
    • add the punctuation, next to the last word of the quotation. Omit the comma. A quote will follow. (It wouldn’t be easy to infer the punctuation from the quotation, so we should be specific and include it. And we don’t want a comma cluttering things up, so omit it.)

Oh, so that’s easy to understand. English makes so much sense.

Although, it might make more sense when viewed through the lens of scribes in past ages who transcribed and translated and copied works by hand. The extra punctuation could slow down the flow of writing by hand, or be hard to get right. So, they invented a couple short cuts, and they had an easier time.

And maybe there was some mid-level shift manager who got a nice bonus for “eliminating unnecessary, potentially confusing, redundant, and ink-ily expensive punctuative characters, resulting in the saving of 400 gallons of ink yearly,” when really it was one of his direct reports who did that. Douche.

Make Your Own

I’d really like to know why these rules or conventions exist. Maybe no one even can say for sure.

I’m tempted to start using the comma-after-the-quote style on my own, and just roll with it. Language can be made to suit those using it, instead of being handed down from the Grammarian gods.

Do what you want. Maybe it’ll stick.

The Dread Companion

Beer hit the ground with a wet slap just before knuckles met jaw with a quick thud. The man on the receiving end kept turning, right on through the exit. The doors slammed against their hinges, and more beer splashed onto the floor. Cool air flooded into the bar, and a shrinking trapezoid of light dumped onto the stone street as the doors swung shut.

A few more men stood up, with frosty beers in hand. “Aye, Vander!” said one of the spectators. Another man gave an approving belch. Vander took a gulp, and motioned for his buddies to follow. The four threw open the doors once more and entered the night. The man no longer lay on the ground, and footsteps sounded to their left.

“There he goes!”

Knowing pursuit must follow, each finished the beer in their mugs and cast them aside. Glass splintered and clattered against stone. They jogged after in an unhurried chase.

“We’re coming, Sarsost.”

Bayrin said, “We know these streets better than him.” His thick boots echoed off the surrounding houses, along with his deep voice.

“Aye,” said Vander, “and Arloft’s ears will help us to track him.”

Arloft coughed and spat phlegm on the ground. “Well, what are you thinking of doing to him?” The edge in his voice was rounded off by the beers.

They turned into an alley on their right, toward the burning lamps on the next street.

“I let Courmar take the talking route,” Vander said, “and we see how that panned out.”

“So now I’ve no reservations for taking other approaches. And if you give me your damn sickness, Arloft, I’ll beat you senseless.” Courmar’s flowing, coastal accent hung in the humid air.

They entered the main road and paused. Arloft coughed again, breaking the silence. Vander asked, “Which way?” as he adjusted the collar which now dug into his neck.

“Left” replied Arloft.

“Look,” Baryrin began, “we’ve got two years wages on the line here.” He swatted at a mosquito flying around his beard. “Are any of you willing to give that up?”

Each of the others gave a gruff “No.” Their minds turned as they caught their breath in the middle of the otherwise-empty street.

“Sarsost’s the sticking point because the Port Authority needs the docks on his property,” continued Bayrin.

“So we force his hand,” added Courmar, whose own hand fanned his ragged hat across his face.

Just then, a pack of dogs erupted into howl somewhere nearby.

“Ahh,” Vander smiled. “That idiot ran right past my place.”

The group took another road which lead off diagonally. At its end, just before the wide cul-de-sac, dogs raced excitedly around a small yard and leapt against the fence in the direction of a noisy fountain.

When the animals spotted their owner, they quieted and rushed over to the fence’s gate.

“If we injure him, then his wife will surely cave,” said Bayrin, sweat gleaming on his brow and matting his long, dark hair.

Courmar added, “Yeah. They’ll need the money for him to recover and feed the kids.”

A large bell tolled through the darkness, six slow times.

Vander reached over his fence and grabbed a leather leash. He straightened it out, grabbed the clasp, and then unlatched the gate. He opened it just enough to reach his arm through and grab one of the collars. The dog shook the others away and Vander quickly pulled him through the gate, before shutting and latching it again.

“Sit.”

But it ignored the command and bared teeth at Courmar. Vander brought his fist down on the dog’s snout.

“I said, ‘Sit,’ hound.” It obeyed, but fidgeted on its haunches.

“Your dogs are beasts, Vander,” Arloft sqeaked.

“But no one else will fuck with them, or my place.”

“He’s right there, boys,” said Bayrin. “Those shits’ll scare anyone.”

“Let’s go find him.”

Vander clasped the leash to the collar, and the dog bound forward until out of slack. Nose to the ground, and claws scraping on the street, the hound pulled them all forward.

“No one spits in my face without answering for it,” Vander told the group. He again wiped his sleeve at his red face.

“So we’ll break a couple ribs and bloody his face, don’t you think?”

They’d come ’round the water fountain, and now stopped to look at Arloft.

Courmar said, “You don’t think he deserves more than that?” He sank down to the street and fingered through the gravel.

“Just for being a pain in our asses?” asked Bayrin.

“He knows the Port Authority can’t gather the funds until we’ve all signed the deeds to our lots.”

“And he’s holding out just to spite us.”

“Using that bullshit cover of ‘sentimental value’,” Vander said. “I know he hated his father.”

The hound jumped forward, barking into the distance. The men saw their quarry, smiled, and headed toward a dirt path. Courmar turned back and flung a rock in to the fountain with a plunk.

“Well, I’m still not-“

Vander cut Arloft off, “Then you can stay the hell back and watch. Or not. Just shut your trap.”

They made their way between a bank on the left and a church on the right. The flower beds along the path gave off sweet scents. And coughs and sniffles were the only thing out of Arloft now.

The hound jerked Vander forward, eager to find the smell of that man again.

“If he took the bridge there, then he’s a sitting duck.”

Bayrin and Courmar laughed in agreement as they now made out the high walls of Tower Isle. They saw a glint of light toward a statue on the far side of the small island, and had their answer.

Vander yanked back on the leash; the dog just coughed and continued pawing onward. Their footsteps thudded across the wooden beams of a bridge. Under it swiftly flowed a branch of river which joined the main after its quick diversion around the island.

The Tower loomed to their right, and at its very height sat birds calling in the pre-dawn air. The church’s bells rang out again and those tolls and trills bounced around the tall walls like an insomniac symphony. A dim light fell across the path ahead.

The group neared the statue and the hound caught scent of Sarsost again. It lunged toward the crouched figure, jerked Vander a bit forward, and strained against the leash. The four men stopped.

“You chose a bad spot to run to,” called out Bayrin.

“Though it makes it easier for us,” said Courmar.

“Sit.” And this time the hound immediately obeyed. The dim light faded.

Sarsost’s fingers grasped at the base of the statue as his eyes darted around anxiously, looking for help. They found none.

Vander unhooked the leash, and the dog stayed in place – tail wagging furiously.

“Go.”

The dog bolted forward and up the slight hill on which the statue sat. The light brightened the area again, and reflected in Sarsost’s eyes. He finally got hold of a stone and pried it free. Then he swung it at the dog, but missed.

The beast’s teeth sank into his arm, and he let out a cry. The dog jerked its head back and forth, taking the arm with it. Holes in Sarsost’s arm widened and blood rushed out, down the hound’s muzzle, and dripped from fur onto the dewy grass.

Fangs left the arm and found a new hold on the throat, while claws raked the face. The animal’s snarls and crushing bite drowned the screams. It again shook its head and a small yell escaped just before Sarsost’s wind pipe broke. His head hit the ground and a gurgle left his mouth, “The star. The star.”

Vander walked up the hill to where the dog stood panting. “Good boy.” He patted the hound on the back, where blood hadn’t sprayed.

“Heel,” and the dog returned to his side. Vander clipped the leash once more. The other three men did not come closer. Arloft stared off toward the church.

The first few rays of daylight crept through the clouds and fell upon Sarsost’s face, but the blood and wounds told that no light burned within those eyes.

“Do you see that on the church bell tower?” asked Arloft.

“Not now, man.”

“I can’t tell if it’s a gargoyle or a man.”

Courmar laughed, “Arloft can’t even look a dead man in the eyes.”

“Come,” said Vander, as much to his hound as to the men.

“I’d expect the Port Authority to have the last property deed by dusk.”

The cloud cover shifted and Arloft lost what he’d been starting at.

“We can wash the hound in the fountain and then have a few more beers at my house,” said Vander.

A star twinkled behind the bell tower, and Arloft felt a pit grow in his stomach.


This is a sister piece to The Dread Star.

Is Distraction A Disease?

After my last post, I searched on distraction, and came across the article In Defense of Distraction. The author, Sam Anderson, discusses whether we’re faced with some modern plague that’s eroding our attention and ruining our lives.

Initially, the answer seems to be “Yes”, even according to experts. But he spends the rest of the article exploring idea, and eventually disagrees with this answer.

Competition For Attention

More people are alive today than have ever before been alive at once. And many people have professions that require, generate, or depend upon knowledge. As we create new knowledge, the abundance of information, along with the ease of sharing and access, creates a dilemma.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More information competes for the finite resource of attention. The more information we digest, the less attention left for other tasks. You can try to divide your attention further, by multi-tasking, but we’re not designed to multi-task. Our brain’s architecture has bottlenecks which prevent parallel processing.

One of the people he interviews says:

“… even ten years ago. It was a lot calmer. There was a lot of opportunity for getting steady work done.”

But this viewpoint is based on a social and cultural environment from the past. And as our society and culture changes, so does the way our brain operates. Thanks to neuroplasticity. The author argues that we are currently, or are at least capable of, adapting to our new environment.

If people find the lack of attention so dangerous, why don’t they just opt out? Disconnect from the Internet, turn the phone to airplane mode, and do what they might otherwise be too distracted to do? Saying there’s no longer an opportunity to do steady work implies the distractions are impossible to avoid. But the more likely answer is that we find the distraction impossible to resist.

Addicted to Distraction?

In my previous post, I mentioned the variable reward nature of reading articles online. I’ve heard this idea before, particularly related to checking email. This is also mentioned by Sam:

As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles.

Checking for new, interesting articles can be addictive. There’s the unpredictable chance I’ll find one that’s life-changing. And if I don’t check often, I potentially miss out on that reward. Spread this across multiple online services, and one can spend the entire day toggling between browser tabs in a quest for more dopamine releases.

So, people don’t, won’t, or can’t opt out from the distractions, because they’re addictive and our brains crave them. I can see this as an explanation for why attention is decreasing these days, but it seems a poor excuse for why it continues to be an issue.

While addictions are real and exist, we aren’t powerless about them. We can overcome additions, especially when we understand them and have a real motivation to eliminate them.

Jackhammers

An analogy used in the article is “jackhammers”, or the things that take away your attention.

For Gallagher, everything comes down to that one big choice: investing your attention wisely or not. “The jackhammers are everywhere—iPhones, e-mail, cancer—and Western culture’s attentional crisis is mainly a widespread failure to ignore them.”

Instead of flexing our ability of executive control, or attentional self-control, we let the shiny objects distract us.

“You can’t be happy all the time,” Gallagher tells me, “but you can pretty much focus all the time. That’s about as good as it gets.”

Except, this sounds like addiction to productivity or focus. Even meditation seems co-opted to increase productivity and focus attention. What would Buddha think of that?

Then, the article delves into the topics of neuroenhancers and lifehacks, the embodiments of this addiction to increasing productivity.

Neuroenhancers

“Neuroenhancers spring from the same source as the problem they’re designed to correct: our lust for achievement in defiance of natural constraints.”

To legally use neuroenhancers, one needs a precription, but this might change as public sentiment for the enhancers changes. People use supplements of many kinds, illicit or not, to push past their barriers. Aren’t they akin to protein shakes and caffeine-laden coffee?

We try to push past natural human limits by using these neuroenhancers. But what new limits will we find beyond our current horizon? And will we search for new drugs to push past those as well? Rinse and repeat.

Lifehacking

Lifehacking is the self-help phenomenom of using tips, tricks, or hacks to get yourself to do more things and keep from procrastinating in life.

What drives people to search for lifehacks? Are they so cripplingly unproductive they use these to turn their life around? Or are they already productive but now in search of a “better high”? Neuroenhancers are one type of lifehack.

“Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement,” he continues.

This is interesting. Like the idea “it’s what you do that defines you”. Or “what you think, you become”. Your thoughts and emotions and preoccupations shape, in a large way, the person you become. Surround yourself with people who are like who you want to become.

Seems to make sense. If you’re mindful of where you put your attention, you’ll have power to control what kind of person you are. You can shape who you become, by choosing what you focus on. If you drift through life thoughtlessly and aimlessly, it’d be no surprise to end up as someone you’re not happy being.

Addicted to Productivity?

The variable ratio schedule of distraction can lead to dependence and addiction. But does productivity also follow a variable ratio schedule?

Like a person frequently refreshing their email inbox, to see if there’s something new, can a person repeatedly try to focus and be productive? When they fail to focus, that’s like not having a new email; they’re encouraged to try again shortly. But when they are productive, that’s like seeing a new email; it delivers that dopamine release, and reinforces their behavior.

Finding lifehacks related to productivity fills both these roles. The distraction is a little reward jolt. And it feels more productive, because you’re reading about being productive. And then you can apply the tip, and that might make you more productive. Or at least feel more productive, which is likely all that matters. If you’re then more productive, you get another little reward jolt.

In our quest for productivity, we’ll work and focus. And we’ll feel good about that. But will we soon find ourselves highly-productive, yet still unhappy? Highly-productive will be our new normal, our new baseline, and we’ll be unhappy with that in short order. This will drive us to seek new lifehacks, new neuroenhancers, in order to push past our new normal productivity levels and reach a higher ledge – to be ultra-highly-productive.

Necessary Distraction

Sam also suggest that distraction is necessary to focusing later.

This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.

If I never followed any of my distractions or other thoughts; if I never allowed myself to explore tangential ideas, then several of my recent posts would never exist. And creativity is connecting existing ideas in novel ways. If we focus on following what we know, just to be productive, we preclude seeing things from another angle.

Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic…”

Fractal Thoughts

Our thoughts are fractal. Each sentence is composed of many words, and each word has many related thoughts. Each word within that related thought has additional, related thoughts. So you can explore one topic within a paragraph and find an entire world of ideas to entertain and delve into.

The hyperlinking nature of the web is analogous to the linking our mind does with memories. I can think of being a child, then swimming at the city pool, then the belly flop which lead to a lifeguard rescuing me, and how I later became a lifeguard, being tan for the summer, but quickly losing it in the fall. Each of these a narrative arc boiled down to a single phrase.

Benefits of Inattention

He suggests that ADHD may be beneficial. Maybe it’s an adaptation to our new world. I’ve heard this in another article too. Children are diagnosed with ADHD, because they don’t fit into the typical school system and its learning style. But these children can grow up to be successful adults, because they’re free to find work that fits their personality and learning style. We require all our children to learn in the same fashion, which spawns learning disorders, but adults have more freedom in how they approach life, so that those “disorders” can be advantages in their own right.

Both Can Be Advantageous

Will our culture become more fractal, and thus favor people whose thinking mirrors that nature? I expect we’ll find that shallow, wide focus will prove valuable just like deep, narrow focus can be. The focus used will depend on the task at hand. Attention isn’t one-size-fits-all; nothing in life is. The real power lies in knowing which to use for greatest effect.

The Purpose of Distraction

The smartphone: a gadget with horsepower and potential. It’s useful as an immediately-accessible notebook, a navigation aide, or instantaneous-communication enabler. Yet, I typically use its endless-distraction feature – I read articles, or skim social sites.

It’s easy to say I’m piddling away my time with meaningless distractions, especially when I flit between multiple things. But this phrase “meaningless distraction” has a weight and connotation. Is the distraction useless, meaningless, and time-wasting? Or does it serve some purpose?

Playing a game, reading an article, scrolling past photos from friends – they aren’t in and of themselves meaningless. But they aren’t something I imagine myself liking to, or needing to, do. They don’t help fulfill my goals, or make me feel productive. Yet, I do them anyway.

There are often times when I’m not sure what I want to do. I have many options, but none seem immediately appealing. This is when a distraction bridges that uncertainty gap. It’ll do until I finally make up my mind.

Playing around on the phone is an easy out. And there’s also the variable reward part of it. Occasionally, I’ll see an article that’s worthwhile and thought-provoking. If I gave that up completely, I’d miss those. In that light, it seems about balance.

Even without the variable reward, it’s nice to take a mental break. Ahh, the mental break… So is distraction a way to mentally check out for a short time? A way to recoup some mental energy, so, in a little while, I can continue on with the day?

I can think of other tasks I use to clear my mind. Like doing the dishes because it doesn’t require much thought. Or hoping in the shower because my mind is free to wander. Like lying in bed because I woke up early and don’t want to get up yet. Or watching an episode of a show on Netflix because it doesn’t require the mental focus that reading a chapter in a book would.

In some sense, if I can’t decide what to do, then it’s decided for me. I’ll opt for distraction. And that distraction must be the thing I really want to do, at that moment. Otherwise, why the hell am I doing it?

If I later do some “productive” task, what’s the harm? Perhaps the distraction helps me get a second wind. Clears my mind and helps decide what to do next.

It’s appealing to count the “productive” hours in a day, but we aren’t machines. One cannot ramp up a thousand RPMs and crank out more productive hours. Not on a continual basis, at least. Downtime and distraction can serve to recharge and refocus.

Further, I wonder if it’s better to entertain a distraction than to do some task because I feel compelled to. The distraction has the potential to give me energy to hop into something I want to do, whereas the guilt-inspired task will just drain me.

There’ll always be more I want to accomplish than I’m be able to. But I can’t let that weigh heavily on me. So long as my life isn’t constant distraction, I won’t worry much about taking small breaks.

Our Coming Hive

I read another article tonight called Hive consciousness. It got me thinking, and, though it didn’t start out that way, my writings here seem a follow-on article to my post Undreamt Networks.

Storytelling

Storytelling allowed humanity to shift from reactionary bag of meat into a foresightful bag of meat. Instead of only responding to sensory stimulus, we can decide whether we’ll respond.

And we use our pattern matching to know that these prints in the dirt, along with the broken branches, mean that prey has been through here.

We told ourselves stories when we thought of the hunt. That our prey was in search of water, since there’s a stream nearby, and we can catch them there now.

Because we got the dopamine reenforcement when those stories were correct, or dopamine withheld when those stories were wrong, we told ourselves stories more often. We got better at storytelling with that feedback loop.

Seeing the future is something we easily do. We’ve modified the world around us more than any other creature in history, thanks to our predictions.

This has huge ties to the ideas in the Ishmael books by Daniel Quinn. They changed my perspective and outlook a lot, so I enjoy the opportunity to integrate it with other material.

Conciousness

According to research mentioned in the article, when the hemispheres of our brain are split in two, we form two personalities. One in each hemisphere. When connected via the corpus callosum, as is normal, a single personality takes stage. The personality that we know and are familiar with. Running on dual cores. A whole greater than the pieces.

Or the pieces might fall apart. It might only be temporary, by anesthetizing one half of the brain, but that’s enough to create a new personality which operates on the single hemisphere, the single core.

Our consciousness expands to fill all the available space, like gas in a container.

So if we connect many brains together, there should emerge a consciousness that’s more than the sum of the pieces. But the brains must be connected with low latency and high bandwidth. And with the extra grey matter, the consciousness should adapt. The individual subsumed by the larger personality powered by the larger resources.

Once we connect a hundred brains, a personality different from all of those hundred, individual minds will exist. When one brain is disconnected from that larger group-brain, the personality shifts some. Changes. It adapts to the neurons it has available. Still an “individual”; just not one we’ve ever known.

The Hiccups

The article asks us to think of what safe guards we’ll need. One jumped out at me as I red the end of the article: we need to ensure that we, as we currently are, the individual person we are before we hook into the group, exist, on our own, for at least part of the day. In order to keep our personalities, to some degree, there must be time limits on how long you can be part of the hive.

Then again, what happens when the interface has a hiccup? Our brains experience sleep, seizures, blackouts, and hangovers. Our technology experiences obsolescence, hard restarts, lag, and out-of-memory exceptions.

Will we have schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and gambling addiction, and stage fright when we have more grey matter? I’m willing to bet there’s a whole range of disorders and phobias that only manifest when operating with more cores. In the same way that a beetle doesn’t have OCD, and a single-threaded program doesn’t need concurrency.

Our Personality

Is personality like a muscle? If you don’t exercise it, does it weaken? If we are attached to the group for years straight, and then disconnect, will our regular personality still exist? Will it be there waiting for us to return? As if we’d just parked a car at the airport and it’s ready to drive when we return?

Does connecting to a hive mind, and experiencing the thoughts through the larger consciousness change our brain and alter our singular personality? Perhaps just by connecting to it, we’re changing our regular self.

But this is weird. Some times you’ll exist. And other times you’ll disappear into the brainsoup of the collective brain. And even that hive mind doesn’t have its own, fixed personality. Adding or removing you from the pool changes it. The personality would be likely be chaotic and shifting. Is that even a way for a consciousness to successfully exist?

Perhaps it’ll tear itself apart through flux. Or, the consciousness will never come to know boredom and be able to focus orders-of-magnitude better than we can, since we can become content and accustomed to our surroundings, which wouldn’t happen with this constantly shifting of consciousness.

What Is Self?

Why do we even care about the notion of our self being who we truly are? Is it just romantic? It’s already fleeting, in that our self is gone when we die.

Additionally, the self is only the way it is thanks to the chance of being born, the experiences we have, and fortune of being restricted to two hemispheres of one brain.

As long as we have a consciousness, isn’t that perfectly fine? We can be part of the larger mind and still be just as much alive as when we’re solo. Perhaps even more alive in the group, by unlocking new potentials.

This solo self is all we’ve known though. And the uncertainty is frightening. It’s something we’ll confront though. Some people won’t ever consider it. Others would rather never go back.

Could We Go Back?

Maybe once you’re connected, there’s no way to know the other side. Maybe you can’t even remember there’s a “smaller” person waiting for your grey matter when it’s unplugged from all the others. Unless you’re forced to disconnect. Or you’re told about it.

And you can “know” that idea as fact even if you can’t “grasp” and “feel” and “understand” it. In the same way that I know other people exist and are their own beings as real and complete and alive as I am, but I can’t know, feel, or understand what that truly means. Empathy isn’t Knowing.

The Mutable Self

Or perhaps, everything is relative, and the personality is fragile, mutable, and malleable, like we’d never expect it to be.

After all, which of us has the same personality as we had at age 5, or 15, or 25? Or even a year ago? We’re a person who exists in a single body and single consciousness. But that definition of “single” only makes sense at a high-enough vantage point.

Our current body has none of the same cells it had when we were born. If you look closer and closer, the atomic self becomes the quantum foam of age, location, and experience. We’re no longer the same cells as at birth. We’re no longer the same personality as when a child.

How do we perceive that the person in the past is Us? Sharing memories of that child and sharing the same genes as the baby gives us the ability to say we’re still that person.

When we come to share knowledge, ideas, feelings, and memories with more grey matter at a lower latency and higher bandwidth, over a longer period of time, perhaps that will be what we consider our true self.

Going forward, we’ll fill out the galaxy of being and form asteroids, planets, suns, neutron stars, and black holes of consciousness. The genetics will fade to irrelevant.

A Drop in the Cosmos

Can we connect rat brains and use them to think human thoughts? Are there some algorithms or thoughts that we can only experience when we’ve got access to 20,000 brainpower under a single hood? What happens to those of us who won’t or can’t be part of that?

Will our species split? The nautilus has existed for hundreds of millions of years. It’s not the exact creature it was then, but it’s pretty damn close.

This may be what Arthur C. Clark in his Space Odyssey book series and Christopher Nolan in his Interstellar film allude to. A kind of being we can’t comprehend.

The neuron is not itself aware, even though what it comprises is aware, even of that individual neuron.

Perhaps there is room for humanity as we know it today, even if some become a different beast. Unless we keep the trend of total war, in which case only one will survive.