Musing about Kurt Vonnegut and writing software

Kurt Vonnegut, who died earlier this year, was that rare breed, a sane and articulate maverick. I’ve read most of his stuff, and enjoyed everything I’ve read. His last book, A Man Without A Country, was a wonderful read.

4.13 Kurt Vonnegut

Some years before he died, as part of a collection of hitherto unpublished short stories called Bagombo Snuff Box, he wrote this:

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

When I read that, I could not help but think that we need a simple equivalent for software. Something along the lines of:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the user at least one function or facility he or she can root for.
3. Every function should satisfy some user need, however basic.
4. Every screen should do one of two things: reveal new functions or extend an existing function.
5. ………..

You get my drift. Don’t be put off by my paltry attempt, but I was thinking of setting up a wiki with the text and inviting readers to submit their entries and to vote for the best, just for the crack. What do you think? Let me know if I should.

My thanks to Steve Brodner of for the drawing, I really think he captures something of Vonnegut’s attitude in it.

Stuff I’m reading, instalment 1752; A slightly long and rambling view

Let me start with an aside. Why 1752? I just love that year. Changing calendars, changing the start of the year, some parts of the world dropping the period 3rd to 13th September, riots as a result. How I’d love to be able to time-travel there and back.

It must have been a truly confusing time. Just look at this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry for Old Style and New Style dates:

Occasionally using different calendars has caused confusion between contemporaries. For example one of the contributory factors for Napoleon‘s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz was the confusion between the Russians, who were using the Julian calendar, and the Austrians, who were using the Gregorian calendar, over the date that their forces should combine.[14]

I wonder what today’s equivalent would be. A merger or takeover that fails because of Outlook synchronisation problems between key people on both sides, caused by their operating in different timezones?

Anyway, to the point of this post. Some of you have expressed interest in knowing what I’m reading at a given time, so here goes:

Some Like It Hot Buttered: Jeffrey Cohen: I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I read his Aaron Tucker mysteries. Fabulous read. Jeffrey does something very rare, he has a narrative style that makes you forget you’re reading fiction. It just flows. I enjoyed him so much I landed up reading his nonfiction on Asperger’s, and now I’m trying to get involved with helping people with Asperger’s. There’s something about that whole space that makes me want to learn more about it, and to do something to help people with that condition (edited text, see comments). And some serendipity. I found the Aaron Tucker mysteries around the same time that I’d finished reading Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, and soon after I landed up having dinner with Steve Shirley, who has such an interest in autism that’s she’s set up a foundation pretty much focused on it. So now I have to do something about it.

Back to the book. A great read, light and fast and humorous and unputdownable. Like any other fan of Rex Stout or P.G. Wodehouse or Donald E. Westlake, I’ve learnt to put the brakes on while I’m reading a new Jeffrey Cohen. Savouring each page.
Musicophilia: Oliver Sacks: I tend to read anything and everything that Oliver Sacks writes. I have no idea why. He just happens to touch subjects I find myself drawn to, ever since I read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Awakenings. And I really enjoyed Uncle Tungsten. An aside. When you go to his site, you are confronted with one of the most bizarre sets of options you will find anywhere. As you scan down the left-hand column, what you see is this: Anthropologist. Awakenings. Island. Leg. Hat. Migraine. Musicophilia. Oaxaca. Seeing Voices. Uncle Tungsten. Sacks does some very strange things.

I’m fascinated by the book, subtitled Tales of Music and the Brain. In the introduction, Sacks reminds people of Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, where the aliens “as a species, lack music”. He reminds us of what Steven Pinker says about music “What benefit could there be to diverting time and energy to making plinking noises? …. As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless …. It could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged”. Apparently there has been “a running debate for more than two hundred years as to whether [music and language] evolved in tandem or independently”. Sacks’ stories are designed to help rank amateurs like me understand something about the connection between music and humans.

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant: Daniel Tammet: Wikipedia describes Tammet as a high-functioning autistic savant. The book is a Road book of sorts, but with a difference: the journey Tammet takes is all inside his head. Still only part way through the book, I marvel at how well he is able to observe himself dispassionately and objectively, and how well he articulates what he observes. Another fascinating read.

Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean: Michael Erard: Shefaly pointed me at this book via a comment made some time ago on this blog. (I tend to follow up each and every comment, but it takes time. Stephen Smoliar’s comments alone keep me pretty busy!) I’d kept a wary eye on the book ever since I’d read the Kirkus Review on it (which was that rare thing, a starred review) and Shefaly’s comment tipped me over. Here’s what Richard Lederer says on the back cover:

Some people are bird-watchers and learn a great deal about the birds they watch. Michael Erard watches word-botchers and, in the process, enriches our experience of what language is about and what makes us human. After reading Um …. you’ll never hear the thud and blunder of everyday speech in the same way.”

I also like part of the Sigmund Freud quote in the frontispiece: “….So do not let us underestimate small indications; by their help we may succeed in getting on the track of something bigger.”

Vinnie’s Head: Marc Lecard: This is not a book for everyone. You have to be comfortable in that weird space where Tim Dorsey meets Christopher Moore meets Jeff Lindsay, slightly adrift of, and much darker than, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry and Donald E Westlake. I’m delighted to have found Johhnie LoDuco, I look forward to more from Lecard. Riotous.

How Much Should A Person Consume: Ramachandra Guha: I’ve read quite a lot of what Guha has written, and enjoy his stuff. I used to play bridge in Calcutta with a Ram Guha who fits his description (same age, similar education). I’ve tended to wonder if it’s the same guy. [Ram, if you used to come to my house in Moira St to play bridge with Mondip and Kini and me, then you’re the same guy. Maybe Devangshu will remember.] Excellent stuff, makes you think.

Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs: Ken Jennings: Never heard of the book, never heard of the author. I’ve read many books about trivia and about trivia freaks, I’ve done my own hard time as a trivia freak, and nobody captures the madness of a quiz addict as well as Ken does. Great stuff. A must-read for anyone who spends serious time in quiz leagues and teams.

A coda. It’s amazing just how many of the people I’ve referred to now have a blog. Things are sure changing.

Musing about Digital McCarthyism and Digital Nonviolence

While researching aspects of the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, I was reminded of the works of Richard B Gregg. While I had come across Gregg while reading Economics, I hadn’t appreciated quite how influential he’d been on King, or for that matter just how dedicated he’d been in seeking to understand Gandhi. If you don’t know about Gregg, do take a look at his Wikipedia entry.

I’m currently reading a 1938 Gregg pamphlet titled What is The Matter With Money? It’s a reprint from the Modern Review for May and June 1938. In it, Gregg spends a lot of time looking at trust, and some of the things he says jell with me.
I quote from Gregg:

…A money economy makes security depend on individual selfish acquisitiveness instead of on trust. Trust grows when men serve first and foremost the community and the common purpose. There has sometimes been an element of service and community purpose in the making of private fortunes, but it has not often been predominant. Money splits up community security and plays upon men’s fears, — fears of the future and of each other’s motives, fears that compel them to compete with one another to a harmful degree.

Gregg concludes the paragraph with an interesting assertion:

Money has worked on us so long that it is now hampering the further development of science, art and technology.

At reboot last year I spoke about the things that had to die before we can regain some of the things we’ve lost, in keeping with the conference theme of renaissance and rebirth. [Hey Thomas, what’s happening with reboot this year?]
Gregg’s words have served to remind me that concepts like identity and trust are fundamental parts of community and not individuality; culture too is a community concept, be it about arts or sciences or even forms of expression; community itself is a construct of relationships at multiple levels. Maybe the reason why much of what is now termed IPR (and its cater-cousin DRM) is abhorrent to me is that these things focus on the individual and not the community.

I am all for making sure that creativity is rewarded, in fact I believe that any form of real value generation should be rewarded; but not at the price of stifling the growth of culture and of community. This, I believe, is at the heart of what Larry Lessig speaks of, what Rishab Aiyer Ghosh speaks of, what Jerry Garcia believed in, what opensource communities believe in, what democratised innovation is about.

Culture and community before cash.

I recently bought a book by Gregg called The Power Of Nonviolence. When describing the book, the bookseller noted that it [the particular copy I was buying] was signed by Gregg; unusually, the recipient’s name had been erased and carefully at that; the bookseller surmised that it may have had to do with fears about McCarthyism.

You know something? At the rate we’re going, the battles about IPR and DRM are going to get uglier, to a point where we’re going to see something none of us wants. Digital McCarthyism. What we’re seeing in the software and music and film spaces already begins to feel like that.

We need to find a better way to work it out. And it makes me wonder. What’s the digital equivalent of Gandhian Nonviolence?

Deja Vu: Ten books I’ve re-read this past year

And I feel
like I’ve been here before
like I’ve been here before
And you know it makes me wonder
What’s going on

David Crosby, Deja Vu: Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves

[BTW I have not seen a “neutrality disputed” tag on a topic like this before in Wikipedia. Looks like I will have to do something about it]. Enough meandering. Here is the list:

If any of you do decide to meet Serge A Storms, Tim Dorsey’s creation, I would recommend doing so when seated comfortably and far from anything that could injure you. Serge is truly insane. And a delight. Thank you Tim.