Friday, January 25, 2019

Creating creativity

Where does creativity come from?

If it were possible to bottle it or press it into pills or entube it as a topical ointment, a person could quickly become richer than that Gates couple.

It’s often associated with mythical mists or muses, or angelic whispers in one’s ear, or superlative IQ, or an Ivy League education, or some divine gift twisted into a lucky person’s DNA.  I don’t think it’s any of those things.

Creativity, I believe, draws on a sort of savings account.  And the more a person has managed to squirrel away in that account, the more creative she or he can be.

But the account is not in a vault.  It resides in the convolutions of the mind.

A person who has studied—really studied—a molten sunset, or the way twilight burnishes a loved one’s skin, or the perfect play of muscles in a galloping horse, or a roiling summer thunderhead, or the changing veils of droplets in a waterfall, or a glassy backlit ocean wave, or an overheard happy or contentious conversation, and who has stored such knowledge away in that brain bank, has a wealth of material to apply to creative constructions of all kinds, from art to sculpture to crafts to writing.  Only through careful scrutiny can an artist or photographer begin to capture the subtle play of light and shadow and myriad combinations of hues that will have the power to deeply touch others of our species.  Only through listening to others and studying their behaviors can a writer hope to reproduce the panoply of human emotions faithfully, and thus command the widest possible audience.

A high, sad percentage of humanity idles along only peripherally aware of surroundings, assimilating only a fraction of the beauty, mystery, and majesty of life and nature that abounds all around us on our planet. 

Those relative few who do experience life to its fullest through habitual in-depth observation of everything around them are the richest by far.  And the most creative.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”—Confucius

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”—Yogi Berra


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The New Killer Addiction

   It’s epidemic.  All over the planet.  And there doesn’t appear to be a cure.

  People, especially young people, are increasingly no longer involved in the real world around them but are almost constantly engrossed in the shallow artificiality that is flipping past their emotionless zombie gazes on their smartphones and tablets.  Take a short break from your own cell and look around in any public park, at the beach, on school campuses, in airline terminals, on buses and in airplanes.  Nearly everyone is immersed in Phoneworld.  You see couples on the street far more engaged with their phones than with each other.  People ostensibly go out for a group dinner, then rudely ignore each other so they can receive messages and feverishly thumb texts off into the ether.  Tourists standing before nature’s splendors take endless phone shots and selfies rather than indulge in old-fashioned experiencing and enjoying.

   The addiction all too often has gruesome and deadly consequences.  Driving while texting and talking on cellphones is killing 5,000 people a year and injuring thousands more across our nation alone.  Even distracted walking with resultant injuries is becoming a threat, with people bumping into each other on busy sidewalks or stepping out into traffic.

   A recent Baylor University study of college students, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, found that women spend an average of ten hours daily on their cellphones, while men spend an average of eight hours.  Subtract sleep time and that doesn’t leave many hours for reality.  Sixty percent of all students queried admitted they may have Screen Addiction. 

   Nobody seems to know what to do about it. 

  There are increasing pressures that deepen the addiction through thousands upon thousands of apps.  A Hilton app lets you use your phone as a room key.  Restaurants and supermarkets and stores are encouraging you to use your phone as an ordering and checkout tool, allowing them to operate with fewer employees.  Theme parks have navigational and ride-wait-time apps that speed customer flow.  There are gadgets that tether your phone to you so you seldom even have to put it down or into a pocket or purse. 

   And all the while robotic web crawlers, lurking invisibly and silently behind our billions of screens, are at work for vast data centers like Facebook and Google and Amazon, tirelessly watching and listening and gathering and storing away data on every addict, from our educational and employment and medical and political and social histories to our dining and entertainment preferences to our brands of underwear.

   Is this an early sign of artificial intelligence (AI) creeping into our lives, eventually to seek more control over us than it obviously already has?  Robots are not only building our vehicles but are also taking over driving them.  Computers are piloting and landing planes and controlling our habitats and talking cordially with us and even generating news reports. 

   We lost one of our great minds recently.  Before he left us, Stephen Hawking warned humankind about the insidious encroachment of AI.  So far, there’s no evidence I can see that anyone has listened to him.

   We’re all too mesmerized by—and intimately occupied with—our wonderful cellphones.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Three tips for writing well

1.  Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Though slender, it’s the finest book I’ve ever seen on using the language accurately and effectively.  The book will give you most of the basic mechanics you’ll need as a solid foundation to succeed.  If you’re already producing publishable work, go back and re-read this book anyway.

2.  Read 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias.  It’s one of the better books I’ve come across about structuring fiction (and even good non-fiction).  On Writing by Stephen King is another worthwhile book.

3.  Shun adverbs (those words ending in ly) and don’t use too many adjectives.  An adverb is a lazy “tell” word, and you should always be showing the story to the reader.  Show a character to be excited, for example (instead of saying “she exclaimed excitedly”), maybe by her nervous mannerisms or by her flushed complexion.  On a related note I never use the lazy exclamation point, and many top writers don’t, either.  It’s nothing more than a punctuational adverb.  If your words are not powerful enough in themselves to convey your meaning, an exclamation point isn’t going to save the situation.


Are you sitting still?

   You may think you are, but you’re not.  You never can be.

   As the earth turns, a person standing on the surface at the equator is zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour toward the east.  (Do the math: a point at the equator has 24 hours to get all the way around to the same place, so 25,000 miles, which is the circumference of the earth, divided by 24 hours = 1,100 mph)  Depending where you are on earth you could be moving at up to this speed.  This is the biggest reason why we launch rockets toward the east; they’re getting a nice free boost in that direction just sitting there on the launch pad.  (Naomi and I are headed for FL today, by the way, to witness a 3 December launch.)

   And the earth takes 365 days to complete one orbit around the sun, which is 94 million miles away from us.  (Do the math: our orbit circumference is 2 x pi x 94 million = 590,619,418.9 miles, divided by 365 days = 1,618,135 miles that the earth speeds along its orbit per day, or 67,422.3 mph on average.

   And the entire solar system, the sun and all its family of planets and moons, is racing around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at 514,000 mph. (A speed at which you would circle the earth at the equator in just 2 minutes, 54 seconds.)

   And the entire Milky Way Galaxy, with its approximately 400 billion suns (including ours) all arrayed in a beautiful glittering spiral pattern, is flashing through space at an incredible 1.3 million mph.

   So the next time you tell your child to sit still, dammit, be advised that she or he simply cannot. Not by a long shot.

   And neither can you.


Taking miracles for granted

     Miracles are all around us every day, yet we take them only as our due.

     Consider glass.  What would our lives be like without this miraculous stuff?  It’s everywhere and it’s essential to the quality of our lives.  It’s made by melting simple sand, one of the most abundant materials on our planet, yet it’s incredibly durable, it can withstand extreme temperatures while remaining dimensionally stable, and, fantastically, we can see through it as though it were not even there. 

     Nobody seems to know how long glass has been around, but there’s a 5,000-year-old example in a British museum.  The Indians didn’t have glass in their abodes when the Pilgrims arrived in America wearing too many clothes, but Virginia settlers built a glass factory in the early 1600s and started putting rippled windows in their buildings.  Many of those windows still survive and serve.

     Without glass our homes would be dark boxes.  It lets in natural light and gives us expansive views while serving as a barrier to the elements.  Without glass, vehicles as we know them would never have been built, Edison would never have been able to invent the light bulb, and we would not have developed clear mirrors that let us see ourselves as others do.  Because of its miraculous optical qualities—its ability to bend light—glass can be fashioned into prisms that spread light into its colorful spectrum, and it can be made into lenses that help near- or far-sighted people see with great resolution.  It gives us cameras that allow us to faithfully capture still and moving images.  It can be crafted into precision mirrors and lenses that bring distant objects close through binoculars, and that even let us peer far out across deep time into the vastness of the Universe through telescopes.

     Glass is only one among many daily miracles that greatly enrich our lives, but I think it deserves special recognition.

     I propose a National Glass Day on which we should all raise a glass in toast to this magical material.