Monday, January 06, 2014

Creativity tools and some cool miscellany

I've been using Scoopit to compile accumulations of my more popular articles, essays (and some outright rants!) under topic headings, where people might skim and pick whatever interests them.
Collected-articles-brin-3dSee this master catalogue of categories - a handy guide to a wide range of compilations of Brin articles by general topic area: Collected Articles of David Brin.

My latest specific compilation is all about HISTORY… does it run in cycles? Are there patterns? Is nostalgia (e.g. for the 1950s or for the Neolithic) justified? How do Republicans and Democrats wage war? What was the "Miracle of 1947"?  Why was the flick "300" filled with outright historical lies? And is Class War inevitable?  Above all, can we learn enough from the past to alter and improve the future?
As Joe Miller said: "Those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them."
See also: A scoopit collection of articles and speculations about Taxes, Economics and Markets... 
== Snippets of/on or about Creativity! ==
Creativity and genius are commonly seen as attributes of an individual, but new research indicates the role played by the surrounding group may be just as important. 

Steve-jobs-dogmaThis fascinating article -- Social group may be key to fostering creativity -- mentions Steve Jobs' now-famous 2005 address to Stanford graduates in which he advised his audience: 'Don't be trapped by dogma – that is, living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice'.

See also: 
--The Real Neuroscience of Creativity, in Scientific American
--Creativity is really just persistence, by Drake Baer
--Are some people born creative? in the Guardian
--topics further explored in David Eagleman's book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

An interview with James Barrat on his book, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.
1-minute video shows the projected completion of Gaudí's Barcelona cathedral-extravaganza the Sagrada Família, imagining what it will look like when it's finished in 2026.
Yeah postmen! See this rival to Watts Tower: Postman's self-built palace, created from stones collected along route for 33 years.
== Tools that hinder… and help creativity ==
microsoft-word-dieIn Why Microsoft WORD Must Die, my colleague Charles Stross channels my own hatred for Microsoft WORD, the  default word processing program which we are all forced to use, via by tricks of intentional proprietary format lockdown. Whose formalisms infest every competitor system because of habit-inertia. Clearly an instrument of medieval torture, designed specifically in order to impede an author's productivity -- using WORD is like having an evil imp on your shoulder, occasionally driving a spike into your temporal lobes.  How I miss Word Perfect for Mac 1997, which was near ideal, helped me to be creative, and when something unpleasant happened I could simply click Show Codes, find the nasty hidden formatting error and eliminate it! Refusing to let us do that simple thing proves what the goal is, for the giggling, hand-rubbing makers of WORD.  Sadism.
(Dig it… I do not hate all things Microsoft!  I use other products. But Charlie Stross is dead right about WORD.)
While on the subject of a writer's tools… what I left out was my use of Quickeys ... probably the most useful program of mine beyond a word processor and browser  People have heard about "macros," but I know so few folks who actually use them as fantastic productivity aids. My big, expanded keyboard has every function key re-assigned and the command/control/shift and Alt versions too!  And some double combos.  In addition, you can do the same thing to the numeric keypad, since those numbers have different ASCII than the ones along the QWERTY top row.  Everything I do a lot, from copy or paste to select-all to typing my blog URL or gmail address to appending a short bio to an email I am sending… all of them pop in at one stab of a key… and believe me it adds up!
What I never understood is why Windows and MacOS and Linux don't simply offer this as a service.  Heck I don't use any of the advanced services offered by Quickeys and still it is my best pal.
Now Quickeys has a cheap/useful competitor. aText accelerates your typing by replacing abbreviations with frequently used phrases you define.  Someone try both and report back here!
== Miscellany! ==
Scary… if true?  Launch code for US nukes was '00000000' for 20 years. Eeep.  I suppose you needed a new generation of flag officers, trained in professionalism, for the meaning of "safeguard procedures" to sink home.
Amazing footage of the Army's new mobile laser system shooting down drones and 60mm mortar shells.
Read a fascinating appraisal of the unexpected causes and surprising outcomes of Somali piracy, by Jean-Michel Valantin.
This is a great guide to a dozen grammatical quandaries that can mess up even experienced author-pundit-sages! (Well, a couple of them.)
Okay, Google deserves cred for this piece of lovely tear-jerking schmaltz that probably did good in the world while spreading Google's message and winning it some biz.
A growing number of patients are finding their health care options governed by the church's guidelines as Catholic hospitals, long major players in the health care market, have been on a merger streak, acquiring everything from local hospital systems to medical practices, nursing homes, and health insurance plans.
Doppelgangers!  See this photo series of unrelated "identical" faces.   Within ten years, the internet will automatically find your doppelgangers.  Like Andre Agassi and me!
Crazy Russian Hacker survival-prepped dudes show you some unusual survival tricks! Oh. Great hacks for college life!
== Art & Music: more coolstuff ==
history-rock-musicAn incomplete but very on-target audio-visual guide graphic to 100 years of rock music. Stuningly appropriate illustrative musical riffs!
Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century sketches indicate something between a harpsichord and a cello, where spinning wheels of horsehair run along the strings. He named it the "viola organista." Da Vinci never did build the instrument. Others tried, with varied results. Now, after four years, Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has managed to bring the curious instrument to life. 
This artist mom is having way too much fun using her baby as a prop. It looks likely to be utterly charming, harmless and delightful. But you gotta wonder what the kid knows… or will someday make of this!
Forced perspective...coool optical illusion car commercial.
And finally...CRACKED does it again, listing 5 Amazing Pieces of Good News Nobody Is Reporting. Well, most of YOU already knew all this.  Still, this site is a great way to start the new year by shoving it in front of your favorite cynics.


Tom Chandler said...

I've long raged against the machine that is MS Word. Yeah, it's awful software, but more to the point, I'm tired of being forced to deal with its deliberately opaque file format by the equivalent of word processing sheep.

Happily, with the advent of better file conversion in LibreOffice, you no longer have to buy MS Word to edit files from clients (I've worked as a freelance copywriter for 27+ years).

Score one for the good guys -- at least until MS "upgrades" to yet another proprietary file format that takes years to break down.

Today I write all my words in text editors (this was written in Emacs, though I typically use Sublime Text) using Markdown. Conversion to any other format -- docx, odt, rtf, html, etc. -- is easily handled in Pandoc, and I will never, ever suffer from file compatibility issues (not now, or 20 years from now).

Yes, Microsoft Word Must Die. Or at least those who mandate its use.

Writers deserve better.

Alex Tolley said...

when something unpleasant happened I could simply click Show Codes, find the nasty hidden formatting error and eliminate it! Refusing to let us do that simple thing proves what the goal is, for the giggling, hand-rubbing makers of WORD.

You can see the formatting codes in Word (at least on my copy of MS Word for Mac 2011, v14. I did have to look up how to do this as it wasn't obvious from my occasional use.

Having said that, Word does suck. What sucks even more was how MS managed to force everyone to slowly upgrade using file formats and MS Office's ubiquity by the late 1990's. The good news is that MS is losing its relevance. My guess is that the only really good MS product left is Excel. I've never found a better, spreadsheet than this.

David Brin said...

As far as I can tell, "show formatting codes" in WOrd deigns graciously to allow you to see paragraph marks and a few other items. You still cannot dig in and find why you are trapped in bullet-point hell and cannot get out, or Word insists that it knows better than you how to number your list, or a myriad other hells.

Carl M. said...

The key to exiting bullet point hell is to select the style you use for your next paragraph. I always use a template that has a Body Text style as the default, reserving Normal as a base class for styles instead of a style to be used directly.

What is truly evil in Word is how the later versions make it hard to get to your old template files. Rrrgh! I may master Libre Office yet.

Word has the ability to expand abbreviations. I think it's called auto text or some such. (I don't use it. I try to turn off all the auto correction while I type in drafts and then come back later to use the spelling and grammar checker.)

LarryHart said...

Autocorrect on any application is a mixed blessing. I can see how it would be a benefit to fast typists, but I always find it annoying. It makes for some hilarious texts from my 12-year-old, especially when she's trying to type German words.

When did web-based applications of all kinds start interpreting "hover for more than a milisecond" as an intended click? That's worse than annoying--it can be downright dangerous, what with multiple pop-up ads and such.

Jonathan S. said...

I use OpenOffice, but then I'm not a professional writer, and haven't had the issues with formatting that Dr. Brin has had. I just find Word far too restrictive and "helpful". (I don't like it when I'm going through a store and some bored clerk insists on "helping" me whether I want it or not, either.)

Alex Tolley said...

Autocorrect is even more annoying than "clippy" used to be.

I use the simplest text editors and then format it in Word if necessary.

IIRC, Charlie's rant had some very informed comments about why Word worked the way it did and also some very good advice about how to use it correctly and to avoid the formatting problems. IOW, if you get "formatting hell" that is really "operator error". For all but professionals who need a one stop editor and layout manager, Word is far too complex, even arcane, in it's operation.

MS can't seem to help itself by breaking what worked. For example, the new "menu bar" is so awful it has made some apps almost unusable for me.

Thomas said...

The response from the military was that '00000000' was actually the code to disable the missiles in case of an attack on the launch site. That certainly makes more sense since in that scenario you may only have a few seconds to get it right before the enemy or some terrorists get their hands on the missiles.

David Smelser said...

In word, put the cursor where you want to reveal the formatting, then press SHIFT+F1. A side bar will show all the details of the formatting.

You can also put the reveal formatting on the quick access toolbar:
1. Select the 'pull down' next to the "Quick Access Tool Bar"
(This bar is located on the upper left corner adjacent to the "OFFICE" button in
your document)
2. From the pull down menu select "More Commands"
(this takes you to "Word Options" Screen
3. From the menu on the left, Select "Customize"
4. At the top of the right side of the same screen you will see a drop down box,
In the box it reads, "Popular Commands". You want to change this so select
the drop down menu button.
5. From the drop down menu select "All Commands"
6. Scroll down until you find "Reveal Formating"
7. You can dubble click or select "ADD"
Once you close out of the menu, Select OK at the bottom, the icon (Capital letter A with a magnifying glass) will appear in your Quick Access Tool Bar.

Keep in mind that many formatting details are stored in the paragraph mark. So when copying/pasting text it makes a difference if you copy the paragraph mark (or not).

To strip all formatting, highlight text and then press Ctrl+spacebar.

David Brin said...

Alas, Ctrl+spacebar only strips off font size related formatting and not the other crap. But thanks I think I will use this:

Paul451 said...

Not a Mac users, so I haven't used Quickeys or aText. But I have recently downloaded AutoHotKey for Windows, although I haven't had a chance to really play with it. (And I've got the Customisable Shortcuts addon for Firefox because every damn key combination is already assigned to something, meaning that every accidental mis-key fires up something unintended.)

Re: Word.
I've heard professional writers rave over Scribe. And a lot of sci.nerds will use LaTeX for writing papers/textbooks/etc. I've grabbed the LyX integrated editor for Windows, but haven't written enough since then to actually learn the LaTeX markup. (The Mac equivalent might be TeXShop.) But apparently "real men use text editors" then convert to PDF output through TeX, then use a separate PDF viewer to preview. But for someone pining for Word Perfect's formatting codes, a good LaTeX editor sounds ideal. WYSIWYM (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Mean) instead of WYSIWYG.

Alex Tolley said...

The Real Neuroscience of Creativity

Shorter version: Different parts of the brain are needed for creativity.
Which parts may depend on the creative task.

Creativity is really just persistence

Shorter version: Whatever you do to be creative, just focus on doing it every day.

Neuroscience has become a very sexy field over the last decade. Unfortunately, IMO, it hasn't illuminated understanding very much. I'm hoping the next decade will move us significantly forward as new techniques allow us to really understand mechanisms.

locumranch said...

I use Zimbra to collect & correlate all my e-correspondence. Macros are HUGE time-savers which allow for infinite reproduction, but they tend to lead to standardization & 'boilerplate' production, turning the individual medical record into so much fiction. Macro-based medical reports have become much less trustworthy, giving the producer the choice between dictating a tediously accurate hour-long report or an inaccurate 2-second 'normal' report.

To understand macros, imagine a world where all the jokes have been told, allowing comedians to get laughs by saying 'A-7'. Now, let's do the same with environmental science, finance, public discourse & legal precedent: CC, LIBOR, LOL and Bosh v. Nonsense.

Reductio ad Absurdum: The end to both intelligent discourse & creativity.


Alex Tolley said...

Steve Jobs: 'Don't be trapped by dogma – that is, living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice'.

So said the man who was famous for his "reality distortion field". The implied context - Steve Jobs was very successful and wealthy, IMPLIES THAT following this advice will make you successful.

The USA is one of the most anti-intellectual of the developed nations. It is easy to translate "education, knowledge, expertise = dogma (and wrong at that). Your own opinion is worth the same (if not more) as expert opinion". Every crackpot listening to his inner crazy says "And they said Galileo was wrong too".

And they don't have to be crackpots. I've lost count of the number of [sociopath] executives who, following their inner voice, destroy companies. Some of them were very public failures.
Freeman Dyson wrote that when deciding where to armor WWI aircraft, don't armor where the holes were in the returning aircraft, bur rather where the holes weren't. We should apply this reasoning to successful business people too.

sociotard said...

It wasn't Freeman Dyson

Thank you for the anecdote, though. I hadn't read that before. So, to apply that to execs, we should look at the aspects of executives that experts did not criticize and in fact approved of, and that will tell us what really let them succeed. Did I interpret that right?

Alex Tolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Tolley said...

@sociotard Thanks for the link. I'm fairly certain that Dyson wrote about this in one of his books. Maybe I thought he meant he did the work, while in reality he was reporting another's.

If you look at executive success, it is hard not to see luck as playing a major part. (c.f. Nicholas Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness"). Indeed books on success often emphasize increasing chances of good outcomes by increasing opportunities. So studying what CEOs didn't claim to do may be more useful than what they did. Let's look at restaurants as a microcosm. You can read about celebrity chefs and what they are doing to make their restaurants great, but you rarely read what resulted in failures (unless you want to do research). I'm not a restauranteur or chef, but as a customer I can note what tends to make me avoid a restaurant after a few meals. The list is much shorter than the reasons chefs cite for their success.

David Brin said...

Alex great anecdote.

rseed42 said...


I am actually surprised that LaTeX is not more popular, especially with authors. It is pretty much standard for scientific publishing. It requires some effort to start with, but if you need a couple of templates only it is a breeze. Emacs + LaTeX (auctex) ftw :)

Tony said...

Quickeys certainly rocks. I think they've been around since the MacPlus!

On Mac OS, I've been using Typinator for a long time. It's quite good.

I just discovered that Mac OS has it's own shortcuts in the Keyboard System Prefs. It's hidden under "Text", not Shortcuts!

Alfred Differ said...

There is a domain where failures are written about with enough detail to be useful. Application developers do occasionally write 'anti-design' books describing what NOT to do. I've got a Java-related one sitting on my shelf right now (its getting old) that spends a lot of space going over the dumb things one can do that makes the application look good at the java code level but turns into miserable object code due to the way he compilers set things up for virtual machines. I've seen similar content regarding procedure libraries in various languages with the classic being how strings are concatenated in C.

I suspect that part of why the anti-design books aren't more numerous is that a person with good information on that level has a competitive edge. I could write a book about all sorts of ways NOT to start an aerospace company/project, but I'm more inclined to hoard the details and try again because I don't think enough people would buy the book to matter.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred Differ
I also think there is a buyoing psychology issue with such books. Who would buy a book about "why diets fail" rather than "X diet will lose Y pounds in Z weeks - without really trying!". People want to emulate [preferably simple] success stories, such as the innumerable offers on the internet about how to make money doing X on Facebook etc. Each promises a simple method with anecdotal evidence of great success. It would be a lot harder if you were told, "don't make these mistakes to sabotage any success you may have". :)

David Brin said...