Month: January 2019

Mental Weight and Misdirected Energy

When I wrote about Marie Kondo and her method I thought I would be able to wait. I thought then that I could fit the decluttering in around other projects.

But I was wrong. I am having enormous trouble focussing on my writing work because the mental weight of the tidying work is blocking me from thinking about it.

There are practical considerations about this block. When I have time I am so distracted by the febrile energy of the clutter that I cannot enter the right mind set to write. There is a card table that I took into my office as a temporary work space but it’s been in there most of the year now; it’s taking up half the space on its own.

But even when I am away from my usual workspace I cannot separate myself from the drag of the need for tidying.

And so, with that, I am going to officially Not Write for the next week or so — maybe the rest of January — to allow me the mental space to approach the tidying wholeheartedly.

If I am not going to write I would rather make that a deliberate choice. What I am doing now is close to hell.

I won’t be finished in a week, but I believe I will have cleared enough space (physically and mentally) to work again.

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2018 Awards Eligibility Post

To expand on this a little bit — anything that’s been published in 2018 is eligible to be nominated. That’s all I’m saying here.

But, with that said…

The two stories are:

  • Better, published in “Captain’s Log” (Boundary Shock Quarterly #1). A prisoner wonders at her choices. 8300 words.
  • Feelings, published in “Robots, Androids, Cyborgs, Oh My!” (Boundary Shock Quarterly #4). An android realises who she has been working for. 8200 words.

The word counts for both of these just push them out of the short story Hugo category (which has a 7.5k ceiling) and into Novelet.

I am proud of both of these stories for different reasons. Better is a story that I had thought of a long time ago but struggled to come up with a viable structure for. Feelings came much more easily but has a more difficult subject, and I am proud both of how the story is told and of how I handled the content. I think Feelings is the better story, for what that’s worth.

Anyway, I present these for your consideration.

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The Name of the Beast

I don’t hate social media.

Staying in touch with friends is nice, and low effort sites like Facebook are quite good for that.

me stepping away from Facebook

me stepping away from Facebook

Or at least they used to be.

I started using Facebook to play games — word games, specifically, but long distance board games in general. I might not even have made an account at the time if Scrabble wasn’t mired in intercontinental rights issues.

And it was fun: I kept my Legally Distinct Word Game skills fresh, and I stayed in touch with people I liked.

That continued as I reestablished contact with schoolmates and folks from other parts of my life over the years: I got to say hello to people I liked but without the considerable effort of a phone call or letter — frequent glancing contact rather than infrequent (or, more likely, absent) deep contact. This really is the genius of social networks.

And as a social network I have no issue at all with Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+ *, or any of them. You are interacting with people, you are being notified about things that people you know are doing or saying.

Honestly, I don’t even mind advertising, not really. I don’t enjoy it, and autoplay video ads with sound can die in a fire**, but I understand the need for it. Hyperefficient server farms don’t run for free.

Where I start to have trouble is with algorithmic feeds, and with forced engagement.

A Brief Digression About Time Management

I’ve tried lots of systems to manage my time and the things that I want to fill it with. The structure I am using now, Three Things, is more robust than anything else I’ve used.

Previous efforts have floundered either because they were too complex (ie there was too much overhead to maintain) or too overwhelming (ie they made explicit the existential dread that I experience when I think about how much there is for me to do). The best of these failed systems were paper-based but in trying to capture my world I ended up flooding my inbox, which triggered the existential dread.

But the worst system for me was the Palm Pilot, because not only did it make terrifyingly manifest how many things I had to do, but it automatically carried incomplete tasks forward.

That automation meant that I did not need to dig into my lists to make them: the huge lists were created for me. It also meant that I didn’t remember to look at the list. And a todo list you’re not looking at is a waste of everybody’s time.

Automation and Attention

I love automation of work. If I can write a short program to perform a task then I can repeat that work in an error-free way indefinitely.

Automation which shortcuts attention seems profoundly flawed, however. It’s too easy to lose connection with the work you’re doing or the life you’re trying to lead. That’s the problem I have with an algorithmic feed — what you see is not decided by simple rules that you can navigate (eg newest first) but by unscrutinisable knowledge systems whose rules no one understands.

Even the word “algorithm” is a misnomer here, because an algorithm is a repeatable, explicable set of steps to perform a task. The neural networks trained to show us what will keep us on the site for longest are not explicable, and they are only repeatable inasmuch as the same training inputs can be fed to them.

Algorithmic feeds are an answer to a question that users of the site were not asking, and they are too easily manipulated and subverted. I’ve heard people complain that friends thought they were dead because they hadn’t posted on Facebook in so long, when they had been posting every day but those posts weren’t being shown in the friend’s feed.

For users it is better to keep the rules simple, and have searches and filters to let people find the content they want.

Make It So

Facebook’s users are not its customers. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers and the consumers of user data.

The job of Facebook is to keep you on the site as long as possible to show you ads and gather information about you. You might have just gone in to check on your reading group page, but Facebook will show you things in your feed that will distract you from that task. If you like reading, maybe you will want to see ads for reading glasses. Or maybe you’re in your seventies: perhaps your hearing is failing? Perhaps you’re susceptible to right wing media?

That post from your old schoolfriend yesterday — you liked it, but you didn’t comment. You commented on that media story about the whales causing global warming, though. Maybe we’ll show you more of that instead of your schoolfriend’s post from today; you spent more time with the whale story, after all.

And so many of the posts you see aren’t lovely stories from your friends, or jokes, or things they’ve actually said: they’re bad memes, or reposted nonsense about how it’s the chemtrails really, or miserably derivative surveys.

I like the people I am friends with, but I want to interact with them as friends not as media repeaters.

Unsocial Media

Calling Facebook just a social network now is wrong; even the term social media is a little behind. Facebook is a digital media platform with a social component.

In other words it’s not the concept that’s a problem, it’s the automation. Having a site to send messages amongst your social group is fine — laudable, even — but having an algorithm choosing who your friends are (ie whose posts you see) is not.

[*] what a missed opportunity Google+ was!

[**] those intrusive video ads are the explicit reason I installed an ad blocker.

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Clutter Conflict

Marie Kondo is the originator of the Konmari method, a tidying and decluttering system which has many adherents. She is also the host of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix, where she and her team go to the houses of people with poorly organised stuff and helps them see their floors again.

She also makes some people lose their minds on Twitter over her edicts about getting rid of books.

My Cluttered Life

I am not now, nor have I ever been, any kind of minimalist. I accrete hobbies and collections like a caddis fly larva making its shell: I like my stuff. My stuff is my memory.

But my stuff drives me crazy because there’s piles of it everywhere and I can’t always find what I need. It drives my wife crazy because it’s in her way and presses down on her psyche.

My stuff is both a protection and a weight; an anchor and a barrier.

A Respectful Process

I have yet to read Marie Kondo’s book, but her Netflix show is notable to me for the level of respect it shows to its participants. The people on the show are ready to clear stuff out or to move on with their lives in some important way, and their problem is that they do not know how to work through all of their possessions.

They are overwhelmed and Konmari is a set of tools they can use to approach the task.

But Marie Kondo herself does not order or hector; she is flexible in applying the method. When someone is not ready to work on a class of items because they are stuck on another then she will relent. There is no overt blaming or shaming for having a pile of clothes that actually reaches the ceiling, nor a wall of baseball card boxes that obscures the sun.

Some Areas of Concern

The most effective criticism of Konmari that I’ve seen is that it is a system born of privilege: those who can afford to apply it are those who can afford to buy the thing that was discarded when they need it later.

I agree entirely with this criticism. I hang onto things because they might be useful later all the time, and sometimes they are useful later. But there is also an implicit assumption about any hoarding, that there is space to live in amongst the stored necessities* — if you have a smaller home then Konmari might be helpful in learning to make better use of that space.

And then there are the books.

Most of the harshest criticisms I have seen are about Konmari’s requirement that you only keep things that spark joy, including books, but that books are better in volume: to borrow Napoleon’s phrase, quantity has a quality of its own.

My reaction to that is: maybe don’t do that then.

I see Konmari as a set of tools, and you don’t have to use all of those tools all of the time. I have a table saw in my workshop. It terrifies me whenever I use it, but sometimes it is the right tool for the job. Most of the time it is another assembly table, though, because not every job needs it.

The same applies with particular areas of your possessions which you do not want to be rigorous with: you choose not to apply the tools. I mean, for me, books and comics and games fall more into the “sentimental items” category anyway, and maybe that’s the key here — books are more than just things; they are cultural and personal memory.

Personally, I like to know what I have so that sorting through the books has survey value**, but if the search is part of your process then who am I to judge.

Where I Am

I am not in a place where I am ready to go full Konmari on my life, but there are elements of it where I need to winnow.

There are also aspects of the tools that I like a lot, such as the vertical folding of T shirts to make them visible and more effectively use drawer space (or luggage space). So at some point I will be going through my clothes to dispose of stale and no longer wanted items.

But books and games and comics… That is both a daunting and deeply unsettling prospect. I will need to be sure of my goals going in.

[*] this is also a fundamental cruelty of being poor: you only get good prices on things bought in bulk, but that requires both that you have the money to spend on large quantities and that you have a place to store what you don’t need immediately.

[**] I do not currently know all that I have.

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Continuing Improvement

I went for a run the other day.

That’s not so unusual, of course. I run several times a week, because despite still being a cyclist who runs I do rather enjoy running.

When I got back I found that I had run a personal best for the route — indeed, I had clocked my fastest mile (downhill, I should say) which is at least a good thing to show my body how to go that speed.

That isn’t so unusual either, as it happens, but it’s one of four personal bests I have run this week.

Cycling vs Running

I started running because I wasn’t cycling, but even when I started riding again I found that running was a more time-efficient way to get the intensity of exercise that I look for.

But whenever I get back on a bike I always remember that while I like running, I love cycling.

Like A Record Baby, Right Round Round Round

As part of our continuing health journey, we’ve joined a local gym. Well, more precisely, my wife joined the gym and I go to one class a week.

It’s a spin class. While I’m not getting out on the bike at this time of year, the spin class gives me almost every part of cycling* that I love best. It’s an hour of intense riding where I don’t have to work to stay upright and it wears me out in the best way.

Spinning is also reminding me what turning my legs over quickly is really like, hence all my recent personal bests on my running routes.

The Bests

Over the last week I have run:

  • a hilly four miler from our house in sub-nine minute miles, roughly ten seconds faster per mile.
  • a flat five down by the river in 8:24 miles. For context, I ran a 4K two years ago on waterfront there in 8:22. This is also 40s a miles faster than the previous best on this route.
  • a hilly four from the day job in 8:19 miles, including a new downhill record mile, twenty seconds faster per mile on average.
  • a hilly trail seven miler from our house in sub-ten minute miles, which is about a minute and a half faster per mile than my previous best.

It’s a good week for health goals.

[*] the thing that’s missing is bombing down a forty mile an hour hill.

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January Things, 2019

2018 felt like a long year, and yet was it long enough for me to make progress on my goals? Well, let’s find out.

Three Things for December

When I set my December things I didn’t account for how exhausted I would be at the end of the year. Basically, I checked out for the last third of the month because I just needed a break from all of it.

With that caveat, let’s look at the things I said I would do and how much got done.

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — my goal was to keep working on it, which I achieved up to a point, and I have 10,000 more words on it than I had at the end of November. I floundered on plot, though, so I have a necessary January goal to replan the story. Let’s call this another lesson in needing an outline before starting a draft.
  2. Song fourth draft — feedback was expected from the developmental editor. Feedback received, but not fully processed. The feedback is certainly valuable, I just haven’t grokked the implications or made the decisions I need to.
  3. blog — did barely any blogging in December. At least I got my health goals update written.
  4. office clean-up — some work, but not as substantial as I needed.

So, yeah. I’ll call that 2/4 overall, but I spent a lot of good time with my family which I needed, so it was a successful month even without the full panoply of completed creative goals.

Three Things for 2018

Obviously the December outcome isn’t going to move the needle on my 2018 goals much, but here is where things stand at the end of the year.

  1. finish A Turquoise Song — my decision to engage a developmental editor meant I could not finish this book in 2018, but I have been working on it consistently over the whole year so I count this as a success even if it is incomplete.
  2. submit my work — a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    No change from November — my 2018 Boundary Shock Quarterly stories are done, and I did not query Song.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook — effectively abandoned. I made progress on some of the prerequisites (sorting out recording software, learning a bit about post-processing) but I struggled both with a mangled voice from an extended cold and an impossibly cluttered recording environment.I also realise that I am going to have to work very carefully around the other people in the house. My kids are not especially loud, but teenagers are not inherently quiet beings.

Score for the year, therefore, is 2/3, with the only true failure being the audiobook production.

Three Things for 2019

2019 feels like a watershed year already. Many things are likely to come to a conclusion, if not fruition.

Let’s get specific.

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make the book good. Target is to have this done by the middle of the year.
    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.
    3. query — get the book out there. Minimum query count is three.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such.
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — I’m going to apply for an intensive workshop. More on that once it’s in hand.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind. This would be audio-only initially, although I am still searching for a good format.
    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do.

Nothing here about the Livia audiobook. That’s not to say I won’t do work on it, but it will be a side project instead.

It’s going to be a good year, I think.

Three Things for January

December hangovers, 2019 enthusiasms.

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — finish this draft. I will need to do some plotting first, but the end of the story is not that far away.
  2. Song fourth draft — process feedback received, develop revision plan.
  3. blog — restore regular blogging service.
  4. workshop application — applications will be open soon, so get ready.

Here’s to a substantial 2019!

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