Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Scientific American

Quote of the Day

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My greatest concern was what to call [the uncertainty function]. I thought of calling it “information,” but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it “uncertainty.” When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, “You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

Claude Shannon, to Scientific American

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Reddit Wedding

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The front page of Reddit

Early last Sunday, after giving my daughter a bottle, putting on the kettle for coffee, and glancing over the front page of the New York Times, I moved on to the next stop in my morning routine: I went to Reddit. Like many of us, I’ve started to think of Reddit as a convenient curator of whatever happens to be taking place online that day, and after customizing the landing page to my tastes—unsubscribing from the meme factories, keeping the discussions of news and politics well out of view—it has gradually turned into the site where I spend most of my time. (It’s also started to leave a mark on my home life: I have a bad habit of starting conversations with my wife with “There was a funny thread on Reddit today…) That morning, I was looking over the top posts when I noticed a link to an article about the author George R.R. Martin and his use of the antiquated word processor WordStar to write all of his fiction, including A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones. At first, I was amused, because I’d once thought about submitting that very tidbit myself. A second later, I realized why the post looked so familiar. It was linked to this blog.

At that point, my first thought, and I’m not kidding, was, “Hey, I wonder if I’ll get a spike in traffic.” And I did. In fact, if you’re curious about what it means to end up on the front page of Reddit, as of this writing, that post—which represented about an hour’s work from almost a year ago—has racked up close to 300,000 hits, more than doubling the lifetime page views for this entire blog. At its peak, it was the third most highly ranked post on Reddit that morning, a position it held very briefly: within a few hours, it had dropped off the front page entirely, although not before inspiring well over 1,500 comments. Most of the discussion revolved around WordStar, the merits of different word processing platforms, and about eighty variations on the joke of “Oh, so that’s why it’s taking Martin so long to finish.” The source of the piece was mentioned maybe once or twice, and several commenters seemed to think that this was Martin’s blog. And the net impact on this site itself, after the initial flurry of interest, was minimal. A few days later, traffic has fallen to its usual modest numbers, and only a handful of new arrivals seem to have stuck around. (If you’re one of them, I thank you.) And it’s likely that none of this site’s regular readers noticed that anything out of the ordinary was happening at all.

My blog stats

In short, because of one random link, this blog received an influx of visitors equivalent to the population of Cincinnati, and not a trace remains—I might as well have dreamed it. But then again, this isn’t surprising, given how most people, including me, tend to browse content these days. When I see an interesting link on Reddit, I’ll click on it, skim the text, then head back to the post for the comments. (For a lot of articles, particularly on science, I’ll read the comments first to make sure the headline wasn’t misleading.) I’ll rarely, if ever, pause to see what else the destination site has to offer; it’s just too easy to go back to Reddit or Digg or Twitter to find the next interesting article from somewhere else. In other words, I’m just one of the many guilty parties in what has been dubbed the death of the homepage. The New York Times landing page has lost eighty million visitors over the last two years, and it isn’t hard to see why. We’re still reading the Times, but we’re following links from elsewhere, which not only changes the way we read news, but the news we’re likely to read: less hard reporting, more quizzes, infographics, entertainment and self-help items, as well as the occasional diverting item from a site like this.

And it’s a reality that writers and publishers, including homegrown operations like mine, need to confront. The migration of content away from homepages and into social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing; comments on Reddit, for instance, are almost invariably more capably ranked and moderated, more active, and more interesting than the wasteland of comments on even major news sites. (Personally, I’d be fine if most newspapers dropped commenting altogether, as Scientific American and the Chicago Sun-Times recently did, and left the discussion to take place wherever the story gets picked up.) But it also means that we need to start thinking of readers less as a proprietary asset retained over time than as something we have to win all over again with every post, while getting used to the fact that none of it will last. Or almost none of it. A few days after my post appeared on Reddit, George R.R. Martin was interviewed by Conan O’Brien, who asked him about his use of WordStar—leading to another burst of coverage, even though Martin’s preferences in word processing have long been a matter of record. And while I can’t say for sure, between you and me, I’m almost positive that it wouldn’t have come up if someone on Conan’s staff hadn’t seen my post. It isn’t much. But it’s nice.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2014 at 9:52 am

Right brain, wrong brain

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The left and right hemispheres of the brain

On this blog, I’ll often mention the left and right hemispheres of the brain to illustrate some larger point. Just yesterday, for instance, I invoked Colin Wilson’s theory that imaginative engagement, for both the reader and the writer, depends on bringing both hemispheres into sync, either by slowing down the left hemisphere or speeding up the right. I’ve referred to myself several times as a left-brained writer, and I’ve talked about ways of fooling the right brain into participating in the process, whether it’s in research, daydreaming, or the act of writing itself. I’ve even spoken briefly about the startling theory of Julian Jaynes, argued in great detail in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that consciousness as we know it arose within the era of recorded history, and that before this, men and women were simply obeying orders, heard as if spoken by an outside god or spirit, that wandered from the right brain into the left.

That said, it’s important to recognize that as our knowledge of the brain’s workings has advanced, the theory of the left and right hemispheres has been largely replaced by a more sophisticated breakdown of the areas in which creativity and other activities take place. The blog at Scientific American recently posted a takedown of this theory, pointing out that creativity draws on both sides:

Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task…Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

Different tasks will activate different areas—Broca’s and Wernicke’s area for language, the visuospatial network for, well, basically what it sounds like—and other networks play various roles depending on the stage of the creative process: the attentional control network for focused activity, the imagination network for fantasy and empathy, with the attentional flexibility network allocating resources to the two as necessary.

Mind map for my article in The Daily Beast

On some level, you could argue that it doesn’t really matter where these functions take place, and that the left brain/right brain dichotomy retains its usefulness as a metaphor—which is true, and why I’ll probably continue to use it. But the neuroscience of creativity is still worth studying, if only because it serves as a reminder of how multifaceted the creative process really is. The rational left brain, or at least the functions we’d like to associate with it, is intimately involved with any extended artistic activity: writing a novel sometimes resembles bookkeeping as much as poetry, and even the most intuitive artist won’t bring a project to completion if he can’t keep his daydreams organized. (It’s preferable, in some ways, to reach even further back into the history of ideas and think of the artist’s two halves as Apollonian and Dionysian. Greek civilization produced the Discobolus of Myron, but it was also a culture in which supplicants cut the throats of sheep into trenches the ground to communicate with the chthonic gods—which, as poets like Anne Carson know, is basically a version of the drama being played out in every artist’s head.)

The brain, then, is a sort of team of rivals, all of which play a role at the appropriate time. David Mamet speaks of the Apollonian side of the playwright, which creates an outline to pass along to the Dionysian side, which writes the dialogue, and this underlying truth remains regardless of the terms we apply to it. It’s simplistic to even draw the line at the brain: as I’ve said before, the head has a body, and much of what an artist does is inseparable from the muscle memory embodied in the hands and the qualities of the five senses. Finding a way to coordinate all these pieces in a predictable way is the central problem of an artist’s life, and nearly everything we do—from the cultivation of good habits to the occasional abuse of caffeine and similar substances—comes down to controlling the parts of mind that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Even if we give up control, it’s in a controlled way, with more rational parts of the brain ready to step in if the others get out of hand. And every writer finds his or her own solutions. We’ve all been given the same set of tools; the hard part is learning to use them, no matter what names we call them by.

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