This also puts me in the mind of good ole pykrete—file it all under “Doing More with Less, and Doing a Ton with Basically Nothing”
Good Buddy AMEM writes:
You ever write a piece on productivity?
To which I reply:
I’ve written scads of advice things to folks who’ve emailed me expressing interest in freelance editing/copywriting, but nothing sort of generically about productivity in the “GTD” sense.
Anyway, when it comes to that, two pieces of advice jump to mind. The first is something a rabbi said during High Holidays services once, which amounted to “God doesn’t really give a shit about something you did one time; it’s when you repeat things over and over again that God takes notice.” The rabbi was talking about sin, basically advising against beating yourself up over a single fuck-up. Instead, make good and move on to Do Good Things (which may or may not square you with any Magickal Sky Fairy, but is certainly a helluva lot more socially productive).
But this position—that the thing you do one time isn’t what you are—goes for everything, good and bad: You aren’t a thief just because you stole something one time, and you aren’t a writer just because you wrote and sold one good thing. The last story/book/article/brochure does almost exactly jack-shit to help you write and sell the next one. You are a writer because you write every day. So, decide on the thing you want to be, and be that thing for at least a little while every day.
This sounds sorta stupid—or, at best, equal parts stupid and profound, like the Wise Men of Chelm—but still, every story I’ve sold in the last, I dunno, eight-ish years has been mostly written 25 minutes at a time weekday mornings while children slept.
The other piece of advice is straight from Ramit Sethi, who is sort of a huckster and sort of dead-on about most of what he says (albeit in a huckstery life-coach-ish way). Anyway, one one his big pieces of advice (at least a few years ago, when I was more actively following him) was to stop saying “I don’t have time for X.” All of us are busy and all of us blow precious minutes and hours dicking around on Facebook and leafing through shitty magazines and watching crap we don’t care about on YouTube and whatever. We have time for it. You can get up 25 minutes early every morning and write stories and novels 25 minutes at a time. You can get in shape—great shape, really—25 minutes at a time. You can learn about retirement savings or knitting or how to eat all vegan 25 minutes at a time. We use time as an excuse, because we don’t really—in our hearts—give a shit about the things we say we want. Just like TLC warns, we are scrubs “always talking about what we want / then we sit on our broke ass”
The real problem isn’t the time, it’s the prioritization. So, just the honest and start saying “I’m not prioritizing that.”
- “Lose some weight? Sorry, I’m not really prioritizing going to the gym right now.”
- “Hate my job? I’m not prioritizing finding a new one.”
- “Feeling perpetually pyscho-emotionally fucked up? Yeah, well, I just can’t prioritize finding a shrink and going to sessions.”
(These are all drawn from my life, incidentally.)
Changing your language like this forces us to really look at what we’re doing, ’cause when your kid says “Can we go play at the park?” or “Can you read me this book?” or “Can we watch this show?” and instead of saying “I’d love to sweetie, but I don’t have time” you say “I’d love to, sweetie, but I’m not prioritizing that right now”—well, you feel like a royal douchebag, and you do the important thing instead of the thing you thought was important.
So, that’s the advice:
- Be the thing you want to be for at least a little while everyday.
- Don’t talk about “time,” talk about Priorities.
After a long trip, the dashboard of our Scion xD lit up like a Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday Display.
Since this is our “good” car (in contrast to our Prius with the bum AC, which is miserable for summer road trips), I high-tailed it to the mechanic, terrified that we’d done Something Bad to the car that we’re relying to get us through at least another two years (at which time our youngest can enroll in public school, freeing up $1200/month for an auto payment on something big enough for us all to not drive each other to the brink of murder during every damn road trip).
- Our mechanic (Rons’s Garage, God-of-yr-Choosing bless ’em!) is fantastically honest and
- It was nothing
So why the light display?
We’d left the gas cap off.
We fueled up as we rolled back into town, as my wife needed the car for work the next day (a ~30 mile drive). And we hadn’t screwed the cap down all the way. A loose cap makes the car’s computer believe there’s an air leak somewhere in the fuel system (’cause there is–around the lose cap. If you’re wondering why the car gives a damn: To ruy efficiently, you need to maintain a proper fuel-air ratio in the engine, and it’s easiest to control this if you have a sealed fuel system. On top of that, petrol fumes are bad news for the environment, so many car’s additionally check for leaks just to make sure you aren’t wrecking up the joint with stray hydrocarbons).
The car can run basically fine like this, and there’s no real danger of damaging the engine. Put the fuel cap back on, reset the warning light, and all is well.
The lesson: If your car is throwing a CHECK ENGINE light, make sure the gas cap is tight. If it’s loose (or you lost it), then tighten it down (or replace it), and keep driving. If there’s nothing obvious wrong (no sluggishness or weird noises) and it isn’t nearly time for an oil change, you’ll be fine, and the light will reset itself within 100 miles. If it stays on, then go to the mechanic.
Ron didn’t charge me, because he’s a solid dude (which is why I keep going there). But plenty of guys would charge you for figuring it out (they did spend time pulling the code from the car’s computer and troubleshooting my dumbassery), and a few would even use this as an excuse to “repair” some “major problem.”
THE SHORT VERSION
If you use LinkedIn, then your email and LinkedIn password have probably been compromised. If you reuse the same password across several sites, then you are likely a total sitting duck waiting to get exploited. Go change passwords NOW!
THE LONG VERSION
This breach seems to have gotten less press than usual, even though it’s liable to have a broader impact on folks, so I want to make sure it’s on everyone’s radar:
An enormous hack of LinkedIn accounts has surfaced (details). Crackers snagged ~164mil login credentials; since the passwords were stored as a unsalted hashes (i.e. “not securely”), the vast majority of these passwords were cracked.
I took the liberty of checking a couple friend/client email addresses while I checked mine (using this tool), and found that most of the emails I checked were included in the hack (as was I). LinkedIn hasn’t proactively informed anyone I’ve contacted about this. So, I’m spreading the word.
The immediate problem is losing control of your LinkedIn account (which, let’s be real, doesn’t necessarily mean much for most people). The bigger problem is that many folks reuse the same password on many sites. If the email:password you used on LinkedIn is the same as the one you used on Twitter or Facebook or Gmail, then those accounts are now also up for grabs. While a LinkedIn account may be of limited value to criminals, a Twitter or Gmail account can be much more useful, and a bank or credit card account—let’s not dwell on it. Did you start changing passwords yet? Go change passwords NOW.
THINGS TO DO RIGHT NOW
- Go here (Yeah, it looks sketchy; it’s legit) https://haveibeenpwned.com/
- Plug in the email address you use to log into LinkedIn (or any email you use to log in to any site; this service tracks many data breaches)
- If you get a green bar, you lucked out. If you get a red bar with “oh no!” in it, continue to step #4
- Read whatever details the site offers about the breach(es) you’ve been included in, and change your password(s) immediately.
- Also set a new password anywhere else that you used that same password
Passwords are inherently crappy. It’s just a fact of life. Consider upping your security in two ways:
- Set up “two-factor authentication” (also called “2FA”) on any account that lets you do so. Different sites have different systems (and, alas, call them different things), but they all boil down the same: Once 2FA is set up, logging into your email account (or whatever) will have an extra step. First you enter your username and password and hit submit (like normal). Then they ding your phone (either with a txt or via app) and wait for your to respond (either by clicking “accept” on the app or entering the six digit code they’ve texted you). If you don’t respond, you can’t get in. This makes it impossible for someone to log into your account unless they have your username, password, and your phone. Much more secure. (I’ve added 2FA to several personal web tools I depend on, as I was getting hammered with a brute force attack a couple weeks back.)
- Please seriously consider using a “password manager” or “password locker.” This is a piece of software (or service) that securely stores your usernames and passwords for all of your accounts. That way, you don’t have to chose easily remembered passwords for all of your accounts. Instead, you choose one very good password for your locker, and then let the locker generate insanely hard passwords for your individual accounts (all of my passwords are now 20+ characters long and randomly generated). Lots of folks like LastPass and 1Password. I prefer KeePassX and use MiniKeePass on my phone (I have lots of nit-picky reasons, but the tl;dr: The software implements good encryption algorythms in a secure way; it’s open source and well vetted; it’s not “cloud based”—”the cloud” is just “some other dude’s computer” [with all that implies, viz. security risks], and a cloud computer full of the master keys to folks’ online lives strikes me as an attractive nuisance, at best).
Sorry to be your bad news bear today; I hope you all get green bars and nonetheless CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS, GET A PASSWORD MANAGER, AND START USING 2FA WHENEVER YOU CAN!!!
Artists: Even if you are lukewarm on Weezer, this interview with Rivers Cuomo (the band’s frontman) is so worth your time. I’ve got more than a little experience with collaboration, creativity under duress, constrained writing techniques, and Oulipo-like methods, and yet I’ve never come across a process like this, which is at once ornately technical (spreadsheets, demo files, something akin to A/B testing) and is so meticulous in the interest of harnessing randomness and stripping context and formal planning out of the creative process.
Weezerians: To those who dig Weezer already, know this: The stories in their songs are not stories they wrote, but stories you wrote in response to the fragments they gathered and the formulae they use to collect and organize those fragments.
Kudos to alert reader Drew Stafford for pointing out this little guy:
That’s compact little ready-to-use LM386-based amplifier, ready for you to add input, speaker, and power (a 9volt battery will do ya), all for under $5, with free shipping (i.e., not a lot more then what you’d pay for components to build such an amplifier yourself). Pretty slick!
Back at the beginning of March this list of Chuck Jones’s Rules for Coyote-Road Runner cartoons made the rounds:
(The pic, taken by filmmaker Amos Posner, shows a display in the Museum of the Moving Image’s “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” exhibit. It’s identical to the Coyote-Road Runner Rules Jones listed in his 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist)
There’s some question as to the consistency with which The Rules are followed, as well as their pinned-to-the-wall workaday legitimacy, but as I work through a set of hard revisions on an almost-just-about-right SF novella, I’ve been thinking about these rules–not because I’m employing any of them in my edit (I’m not), but because they embody a different way of looking at constraints[*], and I’m very fond of drafting with a fuck-all attitude and revising with a sharp blade and very narrow constraints. By hewing to constraints we drive our work towards the Graceful Universality of fairytales, Willie Nelson songs, Basho haikus, Jones’ Coyote-Road Runner shorts, and the like. Besides, even if you miss the “graceful universality” bullseye, it’s effort well-spent, since the entire target constitutes “stuff someone will pay money for” (i.e., “work that meaningfully touches people”).
Jones’ Rules have been floating around the Internet for more than 15 years, during which time the list has swelled to as many as 11 items listed (in fact, Wikipedia editors only culled back to nine following Posner’s tweeted picture, even though Jones’ canonical nine-item Rules have been in print since 1999). Interestingly, the earliest instance of the Rules swelling beyond the Canonical Nine traces back to its *first* online incarnation back in 1999, which includes this 10th Rule:
(Rule 10.) The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
This isn’t in Chuck’s Nine Rules because it’s something he explains a few pages earlier in his memoir, while setting up the discussion of the Coyote-Road Runner Rules. he returns to the idea in his analysis at the end of the book. It’s tacked on as a 10th Rule in that ancient webpage, but it’s really the 0th Rule, the fundamental Truth: The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote, and to a greater or lesser degree the Rules guide the forward energy of each story toward this goal. The Coyote is humiliated not so much by an active antagonist (that damnable Road Runner) as by his environment, by the core physics of the universe, by shoddy consumer goods, and by his own mania.
You know, like the rest of us.
All of which is a nice reminder for me, that any part of the craft–all of the rules of thumb and editorial tricks and writing tactics and daily grinding–exist to serve the 0th Rule of the Coyote and Road Runner: You need to cultivate the audience’s sympathy for the protagonist. “Sympathetic” doesn’t mean “likable.” Likability, in my humble, is bullshit: We don’t “like” Richard III, on balance, or Hannibal Lecter, or Walter White, or Lady MacBeth, or Medea–but these are among the most compelling protagonists in Western narrative.
Similarly, “sympathy” isn’t “pity”; pity is a form of contempt. We feel superior to those we pity. But I don’t think most audience members ever feel superior to even the very disagreeable protagonists I’ve listed above, flawed and awful as they are. Why? I imagine it’s because, like Coyote, they may be failures, but they certainly aren’t quitters. We can respect that, and sympathy rests on a measure of (often grudging) respect.
Now there’s most certainly another 3k words I can put to this–especially as it applies to the modern argumentative essay and social media–but let’s stop here, with the nuts-and-bolts Write Better advice:
- Our job is to cultivate sympathy–not to be liked or pitied.
- We write better when we hew to constraints that guide our readers toward “feeling with” our characters (even the Bad Guys).
- There are many ways of formulating constraints; it doesn’t matter how they constrain you, so long as they do in fact constrain, that you at some point in your process feel hemmed in and annoyed by the Rules that you’ve set for yourself.
Or, in other words, accept the Fundamental Truth that Chuck Jones never deemed worth saying–that most artists come to see as so self-evident that it doesn’t bear mentioning:
You cannot catch or eat the Road Runner. But you always must chase.
One of the things I think about a lot when I’m writing–but have only written about a little and tangentially–is cognitive load: The amount of data we expect readers to juggle and integrate. Readers only have so much cognitive bandwidth; writing that begins to overload this bandwidth is, at best, “challenging”–or, more frequently, simply frustrating and tiresome.
Managing Someone Else’s Cognitive Load
One way (the primary way?) of managing cognitive load is to balance the new/interesting/challenging items/structures you want readers to handle by giving them very easy-to-digest formulaic frameworks. E.g., Do you have a very complicated plot? Then either give them a very constrained set of characters (e.g., very few in number–like in Primer–or highly caricatured, like in The Usual Suspects). Numerous or very psychologically complex characters? Keep the story running in real-time (Hitchcock’s Rope), or confined to a single location (Reservoir Dogs), so readers don’t have to track both shifting alliances and shifting time/place. Very elevated language, or a challenging invented argot (Clockwork Orange, looking at you)? Keep the plot straightforward and the structure rigid (Clockwork is, at its heart, a very simple morality play broken into three equal-weighted acts, and tracing a downright medieval character trajectory).[*]
And so on. There’s a million combinations, but it starts with realizing that your reader’s attention is finite and precious, and you need to make hard choices in directing and managing that attention.
The 45/45/10 Formula
My fall-back formula for managing cognitive load in a story is to break it into 45/45/10 by word count:
- The first 45% of the words are the Setup: Characters and situations are presented and relationships made clear.
- The next 45% of the words are the Tangle: A complication disrupts (or at least complicates) the situation laid out in the Setup.
- The last 10% of the story is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse.[**]
45/45/10 stories have pretty consistently proven easier for me to place than anything else, and I believe that’s because they are much easier to read. (It’s a very common pattern–you see it all over short stories and novels–and students of creative writing will no doubt notice that it’s basically a boiled-down version of the infamous three-act structure I was going on about last week. Just to make a quick point about process, though: I fall back on the 45/45/10 as a way to analyze things I’m revising, or to help me suss out where I should go next if I lose the thread of my narrative, but it isn’t like I use it to generate stories. It’s a formula into which I plug in characters, situations, and problems, not a handle I crank so that a black-box will poop out a salable story.)
Penn & Teller Cut Through the Tangle
So, all that said, here’s Penn & Teller’s version of Sawing the Lady in Half. I love P&T, but not just because they are good magicians (in fact, having seen them live now and again, I can see that they aren’t always that hot, in terms of the mechanics of sleight-of-hand; they botch things just as often as any other live pros). What I love about P&T is that they make the fact that magic is a narrative art front and center; it’s not about technique or gimmicks or effect, it’s about telling stories (just like good ads and good poems and good stories). And, because I’m still a post-modern comp lit student at heart, I’m tickled even further by the fact that their stories are always metafictions, stories about the nature of stories themselves, and story telling. They are meta-magicians whose work, over the long haul, comments on and critiques their craft in a deep and loving way. I love that meaty, rich approach, which means that even if I occasionally find the execution a little weak, I don’t care because the overall narrative of the trick is itself delightful and instructive.
As is the case here: this trick–and oldy, but a goody–falls tidily into my best belovéd 45/45/10 formula: They give as a full Setup–with four characters (one of them being us, the audience, who in P&T’s stories is always a character), they Tangle that Setup, and then they Resolve it in a way that implicates everyone involved (including us, the audience). it is a tight and lovely 3min35sec. Watch it, and watch the clock while you do:
This is *vital* survival skill for folks who depend on corrective lenses. For example, both my mother and wife are basically blind without their glasses (my mom is actually legally blind without hers); misplaced glasses are a huge problem.
If you are an optometrist, you should teach this to folks first thing when you prescribe lenses for them. It can be an actual life saver, right up their with hands-only CPR and the knowing to Heimlich an infant[*].
If you’re generally curious about pinhole technology and how pinholes work, you can check out this article I wrote for The Magazine, “Light Motif.”
As the wind blows the hanging chair in my big old maple up to a 45-degree angle, then whips it around to batter the tree and threaten dog-walkers, I’m reminded of this incontrovertible fact: Springtime is an Awful Time for Kite Flying.
In most of North America spring breezes are gusty and move around the compass; this is *awful* for flying kites, which really work best with a steady, constant breeze (even a fairly weak one). But thanks to the Peanuts Industrial Complex, Americans have inseparably associated Spring and kite flying, much to their enduring frustration.
That’s not to say getting a kite up in the Springtime is impossible, just that it’s much harder. While ground-level breezes are often all over the place, higher wind can be nice and steady, so if you can get the kite to climb fast, you can still make a go of it. The diamond kite in my book performs pretty well in fickle spring breezes (the book includes two kite designs and lots of tips; there’s a brief version of just the diamond-kite build available for free online).
Here are some more kite flying and building tips: Snip, Burn, Solder Blog: Kite Season is Here! (N.B.: This post was written in the *Fall*)