A beginning that goes nowhere

The streets are caked with mud. They used to be covered in dust, but then the rains came and turned it all to mud. It was a relief from the dry heat of summer that had only recently turned oppressively humid. The humidity was worse than the dryness as damp clothes clung to the skin, not unlike the mud that now covered the streets. The rain cleared everything. Oppressive humidity that suffocated people now antagonised the streets. All personal grievances had finally turned public. The rain purified the air for the people but muddied the streets. Was everything purifying bound to soil the purity of something else? Was purity ultimately a zero-sum game? Such thoughts came to me as I sat looking out the window. Then I realised that the dryness, the humidity, and the relief from humidity meant nothing to me. It was all academic. None of it actually bothered me. I peered at life from behind a window.

Emotional shutdown

An emotional shutdown is not an all-defence game based on glib responses and a stubborn refusal to talk about things. It is an outright refusal to engage.

A refusal to think about what the things people say or do mean because the inferences drawn might be unbearable.

A person in the state of emotional shutdown can be likened to a voluntary shut-in. One who does not venture out of the house due to unfounded or legitimate fears.

shut-in (def. as used throughout): a person in the state of emotional shutdown.

Glib responses require understanding where the other person in the dialogue is coming from. As thinking about intentions and goals is suppressed or even rejected by the shut-in, it is impossible to have any understanding required for deception.

The shut-in is not afraid of talking about things. That person is afraid of thinking about things, brooding over them, or going over them mentally. It is a defence mechanism that can be likened to the strategy of burning bridges to avoid unpleasant travellers and enemy troops.

Thus, the shut-in does not refuse to talk about things but talks without understanding what the other person is trying to get at. It is talk without any common ground. Ultimately, the person enquiring is unable to comprehend what the shut-in is trying to say. That person then will either disengage or sympathise but will not be able to understand. As far as the shut-in is concerned, such a conversation is a victory. No connections formed; mission accomplished.

Sometimes when others find themselves rebuffed in such a manner, they assume malice. But the shut-in cannot be malicious because they do not intend to cause any distress.

Naturally, this system breaks down from time to time. Memories seep through the defences and the shut-in broods over them in unbearable agony. Sometimes bits of conversation hit home and force a connection which consequently causes distress. Ultimately, the person in question is left without connections and has to live in fear. It is a lose-lose situation.

What is ‘creative’ about creative writing?

Creative: (adjective) relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.

This definition implies that creativity cannot exist without unique ideas originating from the mind via the imagination.

Creative writing: writing, typically fiction or poetry, which displays imagination or invention (often contrasted with academic or journalistic writing).

Again there is an insistence on contrast with fields that relate to objectivity and do not allow the imagination to have free reign. The implication is that creative writing has to, in some manner, concern itself with imagination. Narrative non-fiction appears to contradict this definition, but the presence of a narrative invites imagination.

One can object that all written word is inherently subjective, so the elimination of imagination is impossible. The difference, however, lies in the significance of the imagination in different forms. In narrative non-fiction, the facts serve as constraints for the imagination, but imagination itself remains a key player. This is not true in the case of journalism or academic writing.

Invention or originality creates another crisis for the existence of creative writing. If creativity entails the creation of something new, then it threatens the very existence of the central idea behind writing. Since writing is a means of communication, writing something totally original would also, by extension, be writing something for an audience of one. Writing for a reader would require the writer to have common ground with the reader, so the writer will have to sacrifice creative purity for the privilege of being understood.

The paradox of creative writing is that a written work has to be equally understandable and obscure to be of any value. But this element of obscurity need not be limited to obscure words originating from the writer’s personal dictionary. Writing is the articulation of ideas, so originality can be found in the ideas expressed or how they are articulated.

The originality of ideas expressed can be considered as the standard commonly used to gauge the originality of a written work. The usage of this standard appears to muddle the line between academic writing and creative writing. However, academic writing almost exclusively concerns itself with the articulation of new ideas but is not considered creative writing. The strict logical requirements of academic writing can explain this distinction between the two. So, the imaginative element of creativity is essential for any writing to be called creative.

Style is the other even more elusive characteristic of writing used to judge the creativity of written work. Style concerns itself with structure. Even rhetoric, at its root, is how arguments are structured. Structural innovations affect how the information is presented. It plays on the creative relationship between the writer and the reader where the reader is equally responsible for the creation of meaning from a text. The writer uses structure to guide the reader’s line of thinking down a particular path. A different structural spin on a familiar idea can excite original interpretations in the reader, thus lending the idea a novel meaning.

The English language, in particular, depends on structure for meaning: suffixes and prefixes have strict structural limitations and affect the meaning of a word, and phrasal structure determines the meaning of a sentence. This idea can be extended to the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. This widens the field a writer has for originality. Any innovation in any structural element can be considered creative because such innovation will transfigure the ideas contained within the structure into something original.

The creative value of a written work also depends on the reader. A reader unfamiliar with an idea will regard the idea to be original, however, another reader may trace the same idea back to an existing document. The same is true for structural innovations.

This variability makes it hard to assign a particular definition to creative writing. It means the reader is complicit in defining the creative value of a written work. Might the creative part then be what happens when the reader reads? As in, a piece of writing is creative if it provokes the imagination of the reader to create new ideas.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) introduces new complications. NLP is a branch of artificial intelligence that concerns itself with linguistics. This technology is used by blogging bots which can produce outlines for blog posts or complete blog posts. The writing produced is not good but is serviceable for some use cases. A simple next-character prediction algorithm can generate facsimiles of Shakespeare indistinguishable in structure.

The content of these imitations ranges from the surreal to random gibberish, but the structure is there. GPT-3, however, is a language-prediction model that has shown the capacity to generate content that is not gibberish. Coherent AI content-generation software is just one or two leaps away.

If the structure of a particular written work is important, and simple algorithms can generate outlines or create facsimiles of any writer’s work, then what about the writer who indulges in structural imitation with the aid of a computer? Can such computationally generated writing be considered creative? Its creation does not involve any use of the imagination but has the power to excite the reader’s imagination.

AI thus presents itself as an existential problem for writers and creative writing. This can be a good thing as writers are forced to use more of their distinctly human advantage. Surrealism and greater use of intuition? Perhaps a return to the all-knowing narrator? The death of creative writing as a trade? Only time will tell.

Overwhelm, curators, and the collaborative mind

Did you know that Instagram has links in story; WhatsApp added disappearing messages; Telegram has new weird scrambling messages; scientists successfully transplanted a pig’s heart into a human being; Kattar beat Giga 50-45 UD; Ireland beat West Indies 2-1 in a three match ODI series; Manchester United blew a 2-0 lead vs Aston Villa; Real Madrid won the Supercopa de Espana and all this happened last week. Notice that I did not mention anything about politics, technology, or the major pandemic which has caused some serious PR trouble for Djokovic and the government of Australia. These things are trivial at best but enough to overwhelm the mind.

The age of information is thus turning into the age of overwhelm. Gone are the days of the well-informed citizen who used to be on top of matters and formed informed opinions instead of some dogmatic cant recited by the disseminators of information. Due to the sheer amount of information, discounting its increasing complexity, it is impossible to process all of it. Everyone is already overwhelmed by either things to keep tabs on or people to contact and the small window of time afforded to a citizen to be well-informed is just big enough to fit a smorgasbord of headlines.

As a result, getting news from social media is becoming the new normal. This opens up a whole new set of possibilities for trolls –- who are strictly defined as people who try to mislead masses using clever misinformation for a hoot and not the hate-mongering ideologues the term is now used to refer to because of lazy journalism –- and ideologues. Trolls create chaos and mischief. Ideologues promise to make the world seem oh so simple and understandable and not overwhelming at all.

Powerful, as measured by social reach, ideologues then spawn a whole subspecies of ideologies because the matter at hand was never so simple as to be reduced to a single line of thought in the first place. This is a contributing factor in the curious phenomenon of the internet being a breeding ground for niche subcultures. The formation of subcultures leads to more alienation, more dogmatism, and further fragmentation of thought into simple rationalisations.

Fragmentation of ideologies often has disastrous consequences. Some branches of ideologies take a moderate idea to its logical extreme, which is a phenomenon observed in religions around the world. And ideologues can have a religious fervour to them, their actions, and the certainty in their speech is mesmerizing for people struggling to make any sense of the world. These are the larger questions, at least a subset of the larger questions, with implications on the larger society and not the individual, but individuals do not exist in a vacuum and are affected by what exists around them.

The amount of information present calls for curators: Google curates millions of websites according to your specific query, YouTube’s feed, Instagram’s explore page, and so on and so forth. They were always there: newspaper editors, radio/TV news correspondents, book publishers, etc. But the internet promised decentralization and freedom of information which, when you really look into it, is just an illusion. Even community websites like Wikipedia have curators, moderators, editors, basically, people who have authority over the information you can see. So curators may exist as long as information does, they can be human or AI-based algorithms, but they’re there and their presence is morally, mostly, neither good nor bad as an idea. What matters is how ethical the individual curators are.

All this means is that we are, at any point in time, part of a large community of curators whom we trust. Our mental makeup is then a collaborative effort which means we are essentially the CEOs of a hypothetical company that produces the product that is our mental model used to produce opinions and judgements. It is then crucial to not fool ourselves about our sources of information and to choose wildly.

The Book of (mostly good) Questions

The Book of Questions is an interesting read. It presents itself as a compendium of questions to contemplate (mentioned in the introduction) sugar-coated as a book of conversation starters. Any conversations started using the questions listed in the book, however, won’t make for pleasant conversation. This is a good thing. The book is essentially a set of prompts. These prompts appear innocuous but are crafted to stimulate the mind and do so with great results.

As a sampler from the book, here’s a question, a supposed conversation starter which is a trojan-horse for greater questions one would generally like to avoid:

Would you rather lose the use of all motorized vehicles all telecom devices and computers or one of your hands?

This question can be answered in two contexts: (i) I lose all my privileges but no one else does, or (ii) Everyone loses all their privileges. Since the question revolves around personal agency, I would say the former would be closer to the original intent of the author asking the question.

In order to answer this question we need to see what roles motorized vehicles, telecom devices, computers, and hands play in our day-to-day lives, then we have to assess the pros and cons of losing them in different contexts. The loss of a hand will have more lasting consequences both emotionally and physically. Losing ease-of-access privileges might directly relate to life expectancy.

Then there is the question of friendship and its role in such a case, because if you lose the privileges but no one else does, it should be possible to cooperate, which is also possible with the loss of a hand. This is complicated by our essentially social minds that will revolt against being left out which can transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to less likelihood of finding people who would cooperate. And this brings us to the fact that human lives are interdependent and at any point in time there are thousands of variables affecting all areas of our lives. It is easy to knock a human life off kilter with so many interdependent variables involved which then depend on how they stand with regard to the larger social group.

The larger context of individuals behaving as a lesser degree of cyborg is important. We are dependent on technology and we co-operate and co-ordinate with it to solve problems. Even though devices are not directly implanted to our physical bodies, we are already behaving like technologically enhanced humans. Our interactions with technology are natural: unlocking a smartphone requires a negligible amount of conscious thought and losing a phone feels like losing a limb. The era of the cyborg is already upon us.

All of which means that losing access to technology and losing access to a hand are two concepts that are not as dissimilar as they superficially appear to be. This further complicates things for us the chooser as we’re pitted in a debate about man vs nature. Is it better to lose the acquired limbs of entrenched technology or if losing a limb would be, in some ways, better? It is not an easy question.

So the superficially easy, and somewhat politically incorrect, question which seems innocuous touches so many aspects of human life that you can’t tackle it without going into the most fundamental of all debates: nature versus civilisation.

The author’s introduction says that the questions are not to be answered trivially with a simple yes or no response and that is a good rule-of-thumb for this book. It is unsettling to work through the questions one by one. And this itself raises a good question: how do we know what we know is true? The definition of truth is often the domain of religion and philosophy which again leaves you with a question: are all truths fundamentally religious?

Asking these questions, or those of its ilk, means that the book meets spec. It does what it says i.e. hones one’s ability to question everything.

New things for the new year.

Some things bouncing around in my head.

Get sunlight in the morning, even on the cloudy wintry days. Getting sunlight exposure in the morning starts the circadian rhythm. Most problems with sleep originate from how we start our day. Minimum two minutes, thirty is optimal, five is most likely. Can reduce anxiety. A little walk is even better.

Use blink rate as a lever to control attention. Attention depends on how we blink. A faster blink rate equals less attention and vice versa. So it might be helpful to use it as a lever to control attention.

Try influencing psychology using physiology. A problem of the mind cannot be solved by the mind. Use physiology. Take a walk. Use your peripheral vision to have a relaxed gaze in times of rest. Counter the hunched posture with some exercise/stretches. It can help a lot.

Take any style guide and learn how to write. Writing is a fundamental skill. The remote world requires a lot of emailing.

Try programming in rust. It’s a fun language. Stretch yourself. Learning new languages is always good fun.

The lever of reality in fiction

Mundane detail is the lifeblood of an absurd, fantastical story. When absurdism or magical realism works, we experience the magic/absurdity as out of the ordinary but plausible. This happens because the framework of reality used is well described.

Mundane detail is one great way of describing a framework of reality. People who have read Murakami’s works find realism juxtaposed against fantasy. He isn’t the first writer to do so, but his attention to chores and mundane activities grounds the plot allowing the fantasy to flourish.

Reality in fiction is fake. All fiction is essentially fantasy as it arises from the writer’s mind and cannot be an objective representation of a situation even in the best of cases. Realism and reality then become a tool to be used instead of being the end all be all goal of fiction. This raises another question: what is reality in fiction?

Reality in fiction can be considered as the level of sensual detail that is consistent with how the average human being perceives the world.

In another sense, we can say that the level of detail congruent with the everyday experiences or expectations of the reader is reality in fiction. So increasing the level of detail is itself a fantasy and could be called hyperrealism.

Consider a character casually glancing at a wall: noticing that a room’s wall is blue is real, but if the colour of the wall changes by the second it is fantastical, and if the character can see a crack in the upper right corner of the wall that is barely visible at a glance then it is hyperrealism where the detail is factual, but the observation of it is not consistent with the reader’s experience. Fantasy worlds can be made real, or the real world made fantastical by leveraging detail and the sensory perception of detail.

A struggle

Every one of us has to struggle against their self centered nature. We believe that the world revolves around us because we can only see with our own eyes. Intellectually it makes sense and is obvious, but to follow this thought with appropriate behavior is a constant struggle. To do so is to go against what we see. To do so takes effort and a certain amount of vigilance. It might be impossible to reprogram ourselves completely when the physical reality of our lives works against us but we can all try our best.

Out of the hermitage

Socialisation after a long hiatus from interacting with the world is a unique experience. It does put fear into perspective. Just the idea of a conversation is terrifying. On the other hand, you do get a rush from it. A conversation feels like doing a scary physical activity with negative consequences.

The hardest thing to overcome is your own imagination. It tries to construct worst-case scenarios that aren’t even possible. To be able to imagine all that and still proceed to leave the hermitage gives one a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment for what most of the population achieves without thinking twice.

It is a crippling state of mind, but the knowledge of it being so does not help. Only lining up the seemingly petty accomplishments reduces the nerves somewhat.

You tend to feel like a performer who needs to tackle stage fright. I don’t have stage fright, but conversations with people, especially if I want something in a practical situation at some service operated by people, are terrifying.

White Birds

When the fields are ploughed, white birds come looking for worms. They appear out of nowhere, and they sit in the fields pecking at the loose soil. Other birds circle above them or wait in a tree for their turn. This only happens when the fields are ploughed. There is a time and place for everything.

I have spent almost two years in a room with walls painted blue. It was the time for a brief hermitage. Days were spent reading, thinking, sitting still, doing nothing. It was the time for sitting still.

Now it feels like this time is coming to an end. Solitude has lost its ability to nourish and comfort. Now it is just depressing. The time to go back into the world is approaching. I need to prepare myself.