Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing

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:

Continue reading “Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing”

Lost Your Glasses? Make a Pinhole “Lens” with Your Fist #PROTIP

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.”

Continue reading “Lost Your Glasses? Make a Pinhole “Lens” with Your Fist #PROTIP”

Reminder: Springtime is an Awful Time for Kite Flying

Fed Ex Diamond Kite
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*)

Paint Your Nails, Change Your Habits

Here’s the thing about habits and rituals: They are enormously evolutionarily advantageous. We are cognitive misers; making decisions and remembering things take energy (which is finite), and forgetting things can be very costly–even deadly. So, we’re primed to form habits, because they offload this effort. The productivity books and blogs are full of anecdotes about Famous Admirable People establishing rituals to free up their headspace (e.g., Einstein had a closet full of clothes that all matched and never wore socks; he could just dress at random without putting effort into choosing garments).

Any task that you can initiate in under two seconds[1] is not perceived as requiring effort; it easily slips into habit and automation: Putting on a seat belt, switching off a light, grabbing some M&Ms from a bowl on someone’s desk, glancing at a cellphone.[2]

As this little list makes obvious, there are up and downsides to this mechanism, as an unhealthy or downright dangerous habit can form and ossify just as easily as a good one.

So, I love that this guy’s nail-polish hack–by creating a consistent distraction–effectively increases the cognitive effort of the habit up beyond the threshold, so the automation falls. Maintain this consistent cognitive load, and the habit softens up and becomes far more susceptible to modification.

Red Thumb Reminder – YouTube

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DIE HARD (its Origins), Violence, Redemption, and Xmas (Plus a Bonus Writing Tip!)

Good pal Mojo got me thinking about DIE HARD again the other day, and it brought to mind the novel that movie is based on, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER by Roderick Thorpe–which I read over Xmas last year. Below I’ve pasted a slight polishing-up of my Goodreads review of NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (which I gave 4 of 5 stars) from early this year.

Takeaway: “Xmas stories are inherently about redemption, as is Xmas, which for so many families seems to be the Hail Mary pass of the emotional calendar.”

And also this fact: As Americans we have quietly accepted–in our narratives, and in our government actions, and in our news stories, and in our lives–that the truest Redemption comes through Violence. I don’t state that as media criticism, but as Fact: The Big Win if we want to reduce the amount of high-speed lead going into bodies in this country won’t come from bickering about banning X or buying back Y or screaming about Z’s right to keep and bear As, or screeching that all the Bs are a bunch of Cs for valuing their Ds more than the lives of Es . . . or whatever. It won’t come from threats (no matter how dire) or from punishments (no matter how sever). We will significantly curb our violence when we start telling each other new stories about how to address problems with something other than Force. Full stop.

So, please, be gently–with yourself and with everyone else–on these Days of Awe.

Anyway, that got harsh, and I apologize; it’s Funseasoneveryonehappytime! So, the review:

Here’s the caveat on that rating: This book is actually 5+ for fans of DIE HARD (not the franchise, which God willing *has no fans*, but the original movie), but probably something like 3 stars for Normal Humans Not Already Wrapped Up in an Exploration of Crime Fiction and 1970s Nihilism (for those touring American crime fiction looking to get the lay of the land, I give this an honest 4 stars–and there we sit).

This book is sturdy enough–the pace is good, the bigotry relatively muted, the writing basically stays out of the way–but I’m going to go out on a limb and says that the only thing that makes it remotely interesting to the vast bulk of modern readers is that it’s the basis for DIE HARD (which, incidentally, is my favorite Christmas movie. In case it can’t go without saying, I’m not Christian–but nonetheless feel this film, both in content and mood, captures something ineffable but central to the Xmases of my youth. I can even go so far as to let DIE HARD 2 in on Xmas. But it stops there, Bruce Willy, despite you being my shiznt. For real.) But it’s NOTHING LASTS and DIE HARD taken *together* that’s so fascinating, because they’re basically Dark Twins.

DIE HARD retains the structure of NOTHING LASTS: The basic formula is the same (Problem Solver arrives to CA via plane, ends up sucked into loved one’s raucous office Xmas party, thugs invade, elevators, machine guns, cops and walkie-talkies, ho-ho-ho, &c.), all of the set-piece action sequences that make DIE HARD a delight are carried over from the movie, and both are similarly rooted in a downright iron-clad commitment to the Aristotelian Unities of time/space/action[*] They are, in essence, the same fundamental story told differently, like two bands’ alternate covers of the same ur-song. (I know, it sounds like I’m bizarrely claiming that somehow NOTHING LASTS–which came first and is the *cited source* for DIE HARD doesn’t have primacy. I am, in fact, claiming just that. Like STAR WARS vs. WHATEVER SOURCE YOU FAVOR, this story hits a Deep Place in the American psyche).

But DIE HARD and NOTHING LASTS are twins separated at birth and raised in different homes and in different time periods. DIE HARD–and this is why the DH version of the story has legs that NOTHING LASTS doesn’t–is fundamentally about the Redemptive Power of Violence (both enacting and enduring violence) in the New Year Birth Season of what, in all honesty, is sort of the craziest God you could make up. It makes the ur-story seem like some Norse myth lit only by fire in the darkest depths of the dying time. NOTHING LASTS is no less violent, no less grueling for protagonist or thrilling for the reader, but it is deeply cynical (in the way only America of the ’70s could be) and fundamentally nihilistic. It’s not about the Redemptive Power of Violence because it exists in a universe where there can be no redemption–which is also why, in contrast to DH, it doesn’t *read* as a Christmas story, despite having exactly the same timing and setting.

Xmas stories are inherently about redemption, as is Xmas, which for so many families seems to be the Hail Mary pass of the emotional calendar.

By itself, NOTHING LASTS is the sorta book you find abandoned in a beach rental, read over the course of a couple days while your kids get sunburned, then re-abandon in a motel lobby once you’ve finished the final page. But reading it against DIE HARD lets you see what’s really making DIE HARD work as an essential Xtian American text about how Violence–absorbing it and meting it out–is *the* Way to Solve Our Problems. Frankly, having them side by side answers a helluva lotta questions raised by the daily news.

Recommended, especially in this time of Giving and Receiving.

Sourcing Ticklebox and Spring Reverb Parts Outside the U.S.

It appears that RadioShack hasn’t only pulled it’s physical stores from Canada, but also won’t ship parts purchased at their website to Canada (owing to an interestingly tortuous licensing tiff).

Legal trivia aside, this is a total pain for Canadian readers of SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED, as several projects (specifically the Ticklebox and Spring Reverb effect) rely on an outmoded audio transformer that’s pretty idiosyncratic to the Shack.
Canadian maker Andrew Gray brought all this to my attention, and was kind enough to be a components guinea pig on behalf of his soldering-iron wielding fellow citizens. We’ve established that the RadioShack 1000:8 ohm audio output transformer can be replaced with the Xicon 42TM013-RC sold by Mouser.com as Mouser part #42TM013-RC. This transformer doesn’t have the handy color-coding that the RadioShack one does–and also will likely come with six leads (three on each coil), instead of five (three on one side and two on the other)–so you’ll wanna take a look at the datasheet or poke around with a multi-meter before you start soldering.
The SPDT relay I use for the Ticklebox is a little easier to source, several workable versions available through several vendors; Andrew has confirmed that the Omron G5LA-14-DC12 (Mouser part #653-G5LA-14-DC12) works great–and is about half the price of the RadioShack component I used (the audio transformer is about the same price as the RadioShack equivalent). Score one for the Maple Leaves!
Thanks for your help and patience, Andrew! Everyone else, back to soldering!

Dirt-Cheap Amplifier Aesthetics and Tweaks: Grills & Fabric, New & Used, Weird-Spec Speakers


One of my goals with the projects in Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred was to present designs that–both in terms of the functional guts and the finish aesthetics–could be adapted to suit both your own tastes and the supplies you could easily get. For example, the grill on the Dirt-Cheap Amp is an old computer power supply fan cover–which just happened to be the perfect size to secure my 8 ohm speaker (itself torn out of a broken Barbie boom box).  I’ve also had good luck pulling grills off of old/broken small appliances I’ve gotten for free as resale shop rejects or garage sale leftovers.  As far as new sources, check out your local hardware store, where there are many neat vent, drain, and recessed-lighting covers (the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC aisles are always profitable places to search for neat fittings, in my experience).

Upholstering Your Amp

Failing all else, you can cover the front of the amp in fabric (as is standard in the old school Fender guitar amps).  When doing a fabric cover, I like to start with a double-layer of nylon window-screen mesh, which protects the paper cone of the speaker from getting dinged.  Double up the mesh, then cut a square at least a few inches bigger than your speaker hole and staple it in place around the perimeter of the screen (you can, of course, cover the entire front of your speaker cabinet in screen, which will make your amp look a bit more pro.  I sort of like the look of the doubled mesh, but if it doesn’t work for you aesthetically, you can recover it with basically any single layer of fabric (going the Fender Tweed Amp road, for example).  In terms of finish, you can pull the fabric all the way around the lid and staple it from behind (thin fabric won’t usually cause you much grief in terms of getting the cigar box to close once you finish).  A few brass-headed furniture tacks added to the edging of the front of the fabric cover, or framing it out in thin strips of wood or brass, will give the amp really slick look.

Using Weird Speakers

Folks occasionally ask me if this design–which calls for an 8 ohm speaker–will work with lower impedance speakers.  I’ve tested this out, and had the amp work perfectly with 3 and 4 ohm speakers I’ve scrounged out of old boom boxes.  I’ve also had decent results with speakers as high as 16 ohms.  So, if you’re salvaging parts, feel free to grab those 3, 4, and 6 ohm speakers as well as the 8s.  If you find your non-standard speaker distorting, you might wanna monkey around with the pin 1 to pin 8 jumper: some amps built around “non-8” speakers work better with pin 1 and pin 8 connect with plain old wire (as in the base design shown in the book), others work better with that connection omitted altogether, and some need the gain-boost that comes with connecting pins 1 and 8 using an electrolytic capacitor (as described in the “Tweaking the Amp” section of that project).

DIY Music Freebies

UPDATE: You can now get a free “Jam Pack” of musical projects from my first two books!

Troubleshooting your Ticklebox

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where it was common for adolescent boys to rig up ways to electrocute each other using the guts of old camera flashes or BBQ lighters. (Don’t ask; before I wrote SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED, I though this was a totally normal thing everyone did growing up. Having written the book and done lots of events and talked to lots of folks since, I’ve learned that this was a totally weird pass-time that, like Pączki Day and Devil’s Night Arson, was almost entirely limited to the Detroit Metro Area.) The Ticklebox (Project #7 in SNIP, BURN) is one such homebrew shocker.
click image to embiggen the schemo



If you’re having trouble getting your Ticklebox to properly shockify your friends and family, work through this troubleshooting checklist:

  1. How’s your battery? If the tilt switch is working (you can check it with a multimeter, or by just rigging a AA battery and an LED through it and seeing if it turns on and off when tilted) but the relay isn’t clacking, check your battery. A good, fresh 9V is needed both to trigger the relay and to get a good shock out of the capacitor.
  2. Is the relay wired properly? It’s *super easy* to bung that up the first time, especially if you’re new to hobby electronics.
  3. Is it a bum relay? Radio Shack relays seem to have occasionally spotty quality assurance. My design calls for a 12V relay, which is higher than you need, but which regularly works fine when driven by a 9V. That said, I’ve seen folks complain that the Shack’s 7-9V relays wouldn’t click over until they’d exceeded 9.5V or more.
  4. This is more of a footnote than a troubleshooting tip, but here goes: For reasons I can’t fully fathom, I used a Radio Shack relay rated for 12VDC, instead of the proper 7-9VDC-rated relay. I’ve now started to wonder if using the 12VDC relay has a performance outcome: The tech reader for SNIP, BURN had trouble building his Ticklebox using a 9V-rated relay (it worked, but gave a weak jolt). At that time we chocked this up to the fact that he was using really junky enclosureless relays he’d gotten surplus god-knows-where, and there was a lot of grit on the contacts. When he rebuilt using a Radio Shack #275-248 relay (like the one in the book) it was a dandy shocker. Meanwhile, my demo shockbox (same design, using that wonky 12V relay) has been taking abuse at events and fairs for two years, and still shocks children as good as it did on day one.
  5. Are you “pulsing” the switch? This project sorta hinges on making a DC supply yield an AC-like current; folks get the best shocks from my demo boxes when they jiggle. The goal is to stutter the switch so it makes a series of “*clacks!*”.
  6. Are you a leathery old dude? I’ve found that some folks don’t shock well (this often correlates with age: Pretty much any little kid gets a shock, but some adults don’t, esp. old men). I’ve puzzled over this, and think it may have to do with skin resistivity (this is because the perceived jolt–which is based on the current applied to the skin–is a function of the speed with which the capacitor drains; faster drain means a bigger bite. Check out the *WARNING!* and footnote on page 300 for details). So, the question is: Have you tested this on a youthful volunteer yet? You might be less shockable (which might come in handy some day).
  7. Did you use the right capacitor? I generally keep the caps in my hobby projects at 16V or 35V. I’ve heard of folks having trouble with caps rated at 50V (although I haven’t personally had these problems). I can’t think of an occasion where going higher in V has made a project malfunction, but I *have* had issues using higher rated capacitors (i.e., 1000uF or more) in other shock-and-spark projects; these sorts of projects need the cap to drain quickly to give a jolt, and larger uF caps seem to drain slower.

BONUS: KipKay did a lil video on this project a while back:

CLARIFICATION: Kip has used a magnetic reed switch in place of the tilt switch, but hasn’t really made clear that in order for the reed switch to function like a tilt switch you need to add a magnet to the mix so that, when folks rattle the box, the switch closes-&-opens and they get zapped. An easy way to do this is to get a length of plastic soda straw and a small magnet. Trim the straw to about 3 inches long, drop the magnet inside, and seal up the ends so that the magnet can freely slide back and forth. Tape this assembly to the side of the reed switch; when you tip it back and forth, the magnet should slide past the switch, causing it to briefly engage. *Zzzzzap!*

Handy NTE Cross Reference Chart for Hobby Electronics

My NTE Cross Reference Chart
NTE makes replacement semiconductor components; for anything that Texas Instruments or National Semiconductor or anyone else has produced, NTE has a workalike. But, these workalikes’ names are usually *totally unrelated* to the canonical name for that IC. For example, the 555 timer IC popularized by Signetics in the 1970s–which pretty much everyone else calls a SOMETHING-SOMETHING-555 (for example, Fairchild Semiconductor calls these “NE555″s, and Exar calls them, you guess it, “XR-555″s)–NTE calls these “NTE955M”s. Similarly, the ubiquitous “LM386” op-amp used in my (and everyone else’s) Dirty-Cheap Amps ? NTE calls that a “NTE823” (obviously).
If you buy NTE components–which work great–make a point of noting the “normal” name for whatever you bought and keeping that with the IC. If you go around buying garage sale or eBay lots of electronic components (which is a *great* way to cheaply juice up your project supplies, with the added benefit of often including surprisingly cool, handy, or valuable parts), you’re going to end up with a bunch of cryptic NTE stuff sooner or later. A chart like this will help you sort those out–and likely uncover some great lil gems.
My NTE Cross Reference Chart

Kite Season is Here!

Fall is prime kite season in much (if not all) of the US: It’s frequently windy and those winds tend to be steady both in force and orientation (in contrast to the gusty spring breezes that shift all over the compass, knocking your kite down just as it begins to stabilize). Last spring a pal hit me up for some kite advice via Facebook, and agreed to let me clean up our conversation and post it here. (FYI: I sent her a copy of the Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred ebook after she asked about kites; it isn’t like I sent her trotting to B&N. I’m not that bad a guy.)

Anne Marie Ellison Miller: Hey, Dave–any thoughts on the merit and/or difficulty of home-making a kite? And remember, we Millers are kind of craftarded, so use small words and don’t assume ownership of a bone folder. (OK, I just wanted to say “bone folder”. Bone folder.) Ahem. Seriously, I’d value your ideas.

David Erik Nelson: You can make a kick-ass diamond kite using bamboo garden stakes (or any strong, thin dowel; bamboo stakes are cheap as hell and plenty strong), packing tape, FedEx mailers (there’s probably a mountain of them in your office mail room’s recycling), kite string, and some POLICE LINE tape (or cut up garbage bags, or whatever).

Flick to the “FedEx Kites” chapter (pg. 273), and the first design is the diamond kite in question. Pro Tips: Focus on being symmetrical and getting the sail taught (as long as it’s anchored around the edges, as described, it’ll be taught enough). Use a long tail for stability (a long kite tail will make up for a multitude of sins, in terms of asymmetry or sloppy sails). This is a design that drug-addled kids had no problem making work; it’s within your grasp.

FYI: Spring is crummy kite weather in most of the US, since winds are gusty and fitful (certainly in MI). Go to the beach for better, steadier wind. That said, I’ve had plenty of good times flying FedEx Diamonds in the spring in crappy breezes; it’s a very, very forgiving design.

Oh, and the barrel of a sharpie marker makes a fine bone folder for all occasions.

AMEM: I should’ve known that you’ve been all over this for ages! Thanks SO much!

DEN: I like to keep it real, time permitting.

AMEM: OK, professor, here’s a question for you: using wrapping paper as material instead of FedEx mailers: Yea or nay?

DEN: 1) That’s “Dr. Professor” 2) or preferably “The Fabulous Night Panther,” as per my earlier tweet, 3) like gift wrapping paper? The plain papery kind, or plasticy Mylar stuff? SHORT ANSWER: Go nuts; use whatever you’ve got, even newspaper or butcher paper. LONG ANSWER: Paper ends up being kind of a pain because a) it tears easily–the wind can give a kite some pretty good snaps, and there are a lot of rough landings on your first kite–and b) it gets weak when it’s wet, even from just light mist or dewy grass or hands damp from a cold beer bottle. The Chinese used silk, because it’s light, rip-stop, and can take some water. For these same reasons I favor the Tyvek mailing envelope. But, really, anything tight-woven and light that won’t tear easily is ok. So I’d take Mylar wrapping paper over paper wrapping paper. Beware of thicker papers (grocery sacks or butcher paper), which get heavy quickly. I’ve heard of folks having good experiences with garbage bags, but never tried it myself. I believe this is a context in which a dry cleaning bag might be considered a toy.

AMEM: Thank you, sir.

DEN: That’s “Dr. Sir,” please.

DEN: Or “Dr. Fabulous Night Panther.” That’s probably the best, in terms of covering your honorific bases.

DEN: . . . you still out there, Anne Marie?

DEN: Anne Marie?

DEN: <sigh>