Machine-brain dialogue through interesting research.

Posted March 21, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Computers, Technology

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I’ve always thought it would be incredible to extend our nervous systems outside of ourselves to manipulate technology and machinery with just a thought. After seeing The Matrix and reading Neuromancer it seemed to open all kinds of new possibilities and who hasn’t thought it would be incredible to augment your body with mechanical parts a la Ghost in the Shell? It’s all part of the post-human dream to surpass the flesh and choose the path of our evolution through our technology. The problem is that the brain is the most intensely complex machine in the universe which makes understanding and programming for it such a difficult job. Luckily, there are lots of innovative people working on this problem and are making some really incredible advances. This video shows one of these research groups that I think really are looking at the problem, not just as one of picking up signals, but also in sending signals back to the brain. If you think about it, when your brain tells your arm to move, it is receiving signals back from the arm that confirm that the action has been done. If a chip managed to tell the brain that it was doing the assigned task, we would have a much more intuitive and intimate (as strange as that sounds) relationship with the computers we were connected to. All this new and exciting progress is getting us closer to a world in which we will connect to our environment in totally new ways. The future is looking stranger and stranger as we redefine what it is to be human.

I absolutely don’t encourage you to try this at home unless you want to electrocute, burn, or harm yourself in some other novel way…

Posted March 21, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Technology

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….yet this is still pretty cool! I don’t endorse smoking or pyromania though if that’s your thing then have it but this was pretty creative.

Now, for something far less dangerous and a bit more retro, here’s a laser phaser! Beam me up Scotty!

Wednesday it comes to an end.

Posted March 21, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Mystery, Science-fiction, Writing

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On Wednesday, I will have finally completed my novel. I don’t mean that I will have reached the end of the novel, put the last word down, but that I will have crested the hill of my fourth revision or so. I am very excited since this means that the final step will take me over the threshold of the crafting stage to the sales stage. To be honest, I am quite nervous. I’m still working on it, cutting, rewriting, and trying to make sure every single plot point matches and makes sense. As far as I can tell, my work is coming to an end, though as the creator of the story I will never be able to look at it as complete. There will always be things that I will think could be better or be improved. It will never be perfect in my eyes, but if I don’t stop myself then I’ll never get to the next stage in which I try to send it into the world. So, once I add in the final revision on Wednesday, expect a celebratory post which will probably include fond reminiscences of writing this thing and final stats such as page count and word count. Until, then readers, keep writing and enjoy the process.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 3

Posted March 20, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Mystery, Science-fiction, Writing

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Wow. I apologize for the delay in posting. The past week has been all about catching up with things I should have been doing over spring break. Oh the life of a college student but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, with the end of my senior year looming, I find myself wishing my under graduate career would just go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and we all find ourselves having to move on to the next phase. But enough of my personal musings and let’s get down to some writing!

So, you’ve come up with an idea that you want to expand on. You think it’s grand and you want to turn your vision into something that people will talk about and other writers will turn to years down the line. There’s just one problem: you need to start somewhere. How? We’re talking about a major undertaking and you haven’t a single word on the page. What I did to start out was to put it together like a puzzle. You can do this in your head but the problem is you will forget things. This may be a good thing sometimes. A little chaos is necessary for creativity but if you have a great idea or have plans for a plot twist you just know will wow your readers and you forget it, you will be kicking yourself for a long time. So what can you do to get your ideas down without actually writing out the story?

There are two very useful programs available that can help you trace out the possible routes your story can go down. The first is a program called FreeMind. FreeMind uses a wire diagram setup that allows you to create nodes from which other nodes can be attached and branch off. Want to brain storm a complex series of double-crossings and deceit? Make a “parent node” with lots of little baby nodes that will represent the literal web you are creating with the exploits of your characters. The same can be done for plotting and it will definitely help you keep it all straight. It’s a versatile system with a fairly small learning curve though you will have to get used to it. The second program requires far less practice time.

yWriter, now in its fifth version, can be used after you’ve completed your graph of the plot. What it does is provide a small but useful suite of functions that allow you to create folders for character biographies, setting descriptions, and finally, a robust system that breaks your novel up into chapters, allowing you to concentrate on the dynamics of character, setting, conflict, props, and other important aspects that contribute to a chapter functioning.

I used both programs in the planning stage of writing a novel but neither of them can really write your novel. Instead, you’ve got to pull the ideas together into something coherent and these programs can help with the organizing procedure. So where do you start? At the beginning is what I’ve heard works best. How do you know what that is and what’s worse, how do embark on this adventure? When I started my novel, I felt like I was about to jump off a ledge. It was a strange, out of control feeling, like if I started, I wouldn’t be able to change course. Once you’re falling, the only thing that will stop you is the ground. But that’s not true. You are in control at all times which is why you should start by thinking, “Alright, I have an idea for my story. This is a test run of sorts, a first draft of a first draft. A pilot episode of a book.” Test out a first chapter or two.

The two big questions you must ask to test the beginning of your chapter are: “If I picked this up in the book store, would I continue reading?” and “If I start here, will I be able to get where I want to go?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then you must switch things up. “But I thought my work with those programs would have fixed this!” you might be saying. All I’m saying is that even after I did all that work, I still discovered that when I went to write the novel, the ideas proved less secure than I had thought which meant that I had to modify them. I no longer have the first draft but if you looked at that then at the current and, I think for now, final draft, of the first chapter, you would think you were reading totally different books. This is okay and you should never be afraid of changing your ideas if you discover they are going to limit you and prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. Still, where do you begin in your story?

For my novel, I begin in media res which means, “in the middle of things.” In many stories, you will have to do this if you wish to avoid four chapters of pure exposition. This will force you to consider how you will get your reader to follow along with the narrative since they will be dropped into a world that is going full tilt. The up-side to this is that there is no down-time. The action or at least the intrigue begins at page one with later chapters providing the much-needed, and necessary, moments to pause and build your characters. The in media res method will give you the opportunity to introduce your problem or conflict that will be the center that your characters will circle around and it may introduce one of your major characters as well. You could begin with a description of the scenery if you wish and if you think that it will be important to adding atmosphere or revealing some important detail of the world. However, do not wait too long to introduce some human element, even if you use the method of a false protagonist in which the first character we meet is not actually our protagonist and may even be the antagonist. The fun for the reader will be the surprise that comes from the switch to the protagonist or main character’s narrative. Whatever the case, do not make the reader wait too long to encounter a human they can identify with. People want and need to have a person to ground them, to make a new and unfamiliar world you are introducing them to a little more recognizable and easy to follow. Whatever you do, don’t start off pummeling your readers with back story of the world or character. Readers don’t want a history lesson or a case study. They want a story about characters living and operating in the world you are creating then and there. So now we know that, where and when can we begin?

Start your book where your conflict starts. This is the most efficient method I know. What is the first encounter or first action that draws your character into the main plot of your story? That is where your story begins. In an action oriented book, what is it that the protagonist does or has done to her/him that brings the character into the main web of the story? Is it a plot to steal valuable secret from a science lab? Maybe your character is a con man who manages to con the people behind the theft into letting him in on the robbery and he steals the info for himself. In this story, you might start right at the heist detailing the run then surprise your audience with the character running off with the info. Why not start when he joins the group? The group stealing from the research team hired the con man, yes, but the actions of the thieves only start to affect him when they go after him. All the rest is exposition you can fill in as the story progresses.

That’s about all I can say for actually beginning your novel. Hopefully this was helpful in making that first big leap into the story. For the next time, I’ll see what pops into my head. Possibly I’ll talk about how to introduce background information and maybe I’ll talk about writing style though that might have to be a separate subject all its own. Until then, good luck starting your novel!

The best part of waking up is coffee in your car… What has science done?

Posted March 11, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Technology

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I love it when science gives us something to smile about. It’s not all just dystopian futures and killer robots but sometimes it’s cars powered by espresso. The Volkswagen Scirocco is powered by coffee grounds that go through a fairly complex processing system that derives energy from them to power the car. While I don’t suspect that you should look forward to a coffee bean powered car, I still think it’s pretty great to see the ingenuity it took to make this slurping speedster. Another example of how machines and humans are becoming more and more alike: we both need that pick me up first thing in the morning.

The new Tron Legacy trailer. I need a neon suit!

Posted March 10, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Computers, movies, Science-fiction, Technology

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I love Tron. Its color scheme, its imaginative portrayal of the life inside a computer, and its gladiator games! Now, we finally get a new trailer that shows more than the VFX test shown at 2009 ComiCon. All I have to say is… well, I’d have to pick my jaw up off the floor to actually verbalize and even then I don’t know if I could put my racing thoughts into words. Tron is back and in a big way though I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed with the costuming. The original code costume design glowed brilliantly but these have gone for a sleeker, black motorcycle gear with running streaks of neon reminiscent of circuitry. The new light bikes open up a fifty gallon drum of ass whoopage and dumps it all over us. What I worry about is the story and whether Disney will muck up all the works. What I am not worried about is the music. When it kicks in you will feel the force of a dozen teravolts of cool slam your eardrums. Though what else could you expect when Daft Punk is doing to music for the movie? Well, I’ll keep my hopes up and follow this film as it progresses and I’ll have plenty of time to do that since the film comes out in December.

It's so darn bright!

The digital world has digital cows?
It’s certainly stricking.

Torn in a million pieces. The middle ground in writing can be difficult to find.

Posted March 10, 2010 by wiredthroughwords
Categories: Writing

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Well, I’m finally back. I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. and went to the Smithsonian.  Pretty much all of it. This is why I haven’t been posting. I really can’t stress enough how great it is to go to one museum after the other and how many great ideas you can uncover just by looking at all the knowledge and experience stored there. But that’s not quite the point of this post.

The Buddha advocated finding the middle path in all things. Going to either extreme of something will only lead to problems and I’m finding that to be just as true when it comes to writing. One thing I’ve been finding is that I am still looking for a style. I’ve so far been to the two extremes of writing and am displeased with the results of both.

My first major writing project was actually more of an experiment or a practice exercise. After finishing an anime series I really enjoyed, I decided to expand upon the universe of the story line. This is called fan fiction and I have to say, if you want to get a feel for writing with the opportunity for near instant public feedback and no pressure, do a little. Pick something you like and write till your heart’s content then post it in any of the myriad fan fiction sites on the net. Looking back at the story I wrote, and I will not publish here since I will essentially be embarrassing myself, the word that pops into my head is “effusive.” Everything is too much. There is too much description, too much time spent inside the characters’ heads, too much of everything. It was an immature voice that pretty much taught me how to keep a cohesive narrative going and how to generate suspense. As a learning experience, and as an opportunity to entertain fellow fans of the series, I have no regrets which is something anyone who has an interest in writing must do: look at everything you write as a learning experience and to forgive yourself for transgressions committed in your novice state. If you get caught up on what you’ve done wrong, you’ll never advance.

My most recent novel is a vast improvement over the verbose and tortuous prose of my fan fic effort. Descriptions don’t trail on and the flamboyant use of similes and metaphors has been curbed. However, I’ve run into another problem and that is I don’t feel the characters sometimes. I do not know who they are because, in trying to eliminate excess, I’ve created a paucity of expression, I’ve muted the observations and thoughts of my characters. This is something that, as I continue to revise my novel, I am dealing with, giving free reign to my characters’ thoughts so that they will get to speak and tell us how they see the world. I find it incredible reading over the sections I’ve m modified in this way, getting that feeling of vibrancy, the feeling that this isn’t a character but a person who’s made us privy to his thoughts. This brings me round to the question of balance.

Part of writing is giving rise to a structured chaos. Human thoughts and feelings are not linear and easily traceable however, if we are to create a story, there must be some level of cause and effect, an economy of words and conservativeness of expression or else our imagination will pour out over the page and make the work unreadable to everyone but ourselves. Writing is a bit like a drug in that it just transports you. If you let it, it can put you in an altered state where ideas and words just flood your mind and end up on the page, but just because they seem to come naturally doesn’t mean that, in their unstructured form, they are necessarily at their best. However, if you don’t let the words move like water, then you build a dam in your mind and have to synthesize the words in an artificial manner.

I’m convinced that there is a border that you can walk though that cuts through both territories. It’s just that it can be very difficult to find the sweet spot where there is enough detail to create a convincingly realized world and enough restraint to prevent the story from being bogged down. Again, this is all part of the process of discovering what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, as this novel turns the corner of its third (fourth maybe? I’ve lost count to be honest) revision, and I get a clean copy then a read through by multiple people, I will be able to determine what to keep, what to add more of, and what to jettison.