Nate Dickson Thinks...

Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

I'm an introvert. like, a serious introvert. One of my employees asked recently if he could get a subsidy from our organization to pay for him to work in a rented office space instead of working from home. All I could think was, “WHY????”. For me working from home is the dream, it's a thing I never imagined would happen. I can't imagine paying good money to have to work in an office; I would pay a portion of my paycheck every month to avoid going back to an office.

But today is Saturday and I had to run some errands. It's late spring and I decided to grab some fast food and go sit in a park for a while. I live in a “bedroom community”, a city that used to be all farms, and is now a home for people who live here but work in the “metropolis” nearby. A suburb. The park has been here since my town was still far away from the “big city”.

It belongs to all of us who live here, it's open, it's free. It's trees and grass and shaded picnic tables and a playground and even a skate park off in one corner. And I happily went and sat down under a tree, not that far from a family having a big family picnic, at least three generations of them. On the other side of me was a group of people, all apparently the same age, keeping a lazy eye on their kids who were on the playground, but mostly laughing and enjoying one another's company.

And, for a brief moment, I understood my employee's desire to be around other people during the day.

But It's Different

Here's the thing though. In a city park, there's basically one rule:

Don't ruin the experience for other people.

They codify it into a bunch of rules like “clean up after your pet” and “don't leave your trash on the ground”, but it's all the same rule. Let's all enjoy the park in a way that lets us all enjoy the park. If you want to sleep on a blanket under a tree, go for it! If you want to run laps, that's fine, just don't step on the person sleeping under a tree. If you want to play fetch with your dog, great! Just don't let your dog bite the sleeper or leave a mess for the jogger. As long as we're all having basic respect for one another we're all fine. There is no expectation that you will eventually pay for the experience (I guess we pay property tax but if you came from a neighboring city nobody is going to chase you out. The park is open and free.), there is no expectation that you will do your job or have useful meetings. A public space like a park is one of the greatest things we've invented as a species.

A faux-office where you pay for the opportunity to work for some random employer, and don't even have the camaraderie of your fellow employees is something else entirely. At least for me. Perhaps you can form friendships there, we are good, as a species, at forming friendships. I've made a number of lasting friendships on the job, people with whom I am still friends, long after we have moved on to other “employment opportunities”. But it feels inauthentic (to me) to pay by the hour for a place where you are all alone together.

But my experience isn't the only one. I have a lot of kids. It might even qualify as a handful. If I want to be around other people when I'm working from home all I need to do is open the door and there they are, my family. My employee who wants a rented office doesn't have that, and says he feels very alone when he's working from home. So I can't directly compare our experiences. Also he's not an extreme introvert like I am. Perhaps being able to work from a place where there is bustle and life happening is something he misses and can't recreate in his house right now.

TL;DR

All of this is to say the following: 1. Public spaces are good and necessary. 2. People need other people. 3. People don't all have the same experience 4. I will see what I can do to help pay for my employee to work in a rented office instead of his house.

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It's spring in my part of the world, which means itchy eyes and sinuses. Working from home means I'm not in an office with industrial strength air purification, so I have to make it work on a personal level and budget. Here's what I've found that works:

  • Vacuum frequently. At least twice a week
  • Keep the window closed, obviously.
  • Wash every fabric thing in the room and change pillow cases on my nap pillow frequently. (what? Naps are good for productivity!)
  • Use an air purifier
  • Keep the door closed

And...it helps.

Just in case this helps anyone else.

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I've been thinking about the overstimulation of our reward centers. Not in those words exactly, but considering how we behave these days, as a species.

It's very easy to be entertained or distracted at all times. In older days, a term for a person who was addicted to substances was “Dissipated,” and I think it's very accurate. When we allow our attention to be taken at all times like this, we allow ourselves, our energy to be spread too thin, to be quite literally dissipated across all our interests. When water is dissipated, it has less ability to exert force. A focused stream can cut metal, a slowly seeping puddle takes much longer to effect any change.

And some of it comes of people just doing their jobs. TV shows are meant to be interesting, the fact that we are in a society where we have normalized “binge watching” isn't exactly their fault. They have gotten better at making shows and we have accepted them. We share part of the blame.

So back to boredom. I don't really understand neurobiology, so this is all in generalities. Our brains adapt to what we give them. If we live at a certain level of stimulation at all times, it becomes the new baseline. One example:

I spent two years in the Philippines. When I got there it felt to me like all their food was unconscionably bland. After a few months I acclimated to the flavor palette and found quite a number of dishes I liked. Then one day, roughly six months after I arrived, my family sent me a package with some American candy in it.

That level of sugar hit me like a buzzsaw. I felt like I was bouncing off the walls. Even more fun (if possibly slightly unethical) was giving American super-sugar candy to Filipino kids.

The point is not that sugar is bad, the point is that we accept a baseline of what we experience. The more we raise that “normal” level, the less willing or able we are to accept any lower level. If we experience a certain level of caffeine we can experience withdrawal-like symptoms if we reduce it. If we experience a certain level of entertainment...might we not behave the same way? It would be a change, and it's possible our own neurochemistry would respond in a negative way to that change.

So what I want to do is see if I can re-integrate two things:

  1. Actual boredom
  2. What I call “slow-reward” activities

And I want to talk about the second one first.

“Slow Reward” Activities

There are many names for this concept, Delayed gratification, work before reward, reap what you sow, etc. It's not a new concept of course. There are so few of those. But The way I'm trying to internalize it at the moment is the concept that there are some activities that have quick, nearly instant rewards. TV shows and video games are designed to dole out a certain amount of gratification nearly constantly.

But the reward is neurochemical only. Finishing a game does not grant you any benefits outside of that game. It might have had a good story or good writing that will stick with you and modify how you think, and that's great! But the sense of accomplishment is an illusion. (Unless you're making money as a streamer or in eSports...)

There are other activities that take longer to “pay out” but present us with actual rewards. They're often called “work”. Creating, writing, building relationships, studying, planting and growing food, building a career, these are all slow reward activities. They take time to come to fruition. There's a lot of boring part before the good part. Sometimes they fail on us entirely, and all that effort is wasted. The quick reward activities are safer.

But when they do pay out, these slow reward activities pay out in real-world benefits to our lives. A writer who finally finishes the effort needed to get a book published now has something they have put out into the world, and might even get some royalties from it. But they also gained an actual skill that can increase their ability to create another book, and have built their talent that many steps further.

Actual Boredom

That can't be a good thing, right? Being bored is a negative feeling, a sense of emptiness and aimlessness can't be productive, can it?

I'm not so sure. I think we dismiss it too quickly. Boredom is a state where our mind isn't actively engaged on any specific task or topic. Where we are at loose ends, but not at rest per se. This seems like a difficult place to be.

And yet... a number of child-rearing books suggest that boredom is actually quite healthy for children. Boredom allows them to enter a fugue state in which parts of their brain that are normally ignored are allowed to start making connections.

So maybe it's good for adults as well? Maybe we channel our mental energy too tightly too much of the time? What if we all spent a little time deliberately doing nothing? What if we just gave our thoughts a space in which they are allowed to appear, and we don't immediately act on them, we simply acknowledge their presence and move on?

Ah ha, we have found a “sanctioned” word for boredom in adults: meditation. Granted it's not exactly the same thing, but it's darn close.

Whatever you choose to call it, wouldn't we benefit from building some time into our schedule that allows us to listen to ourselves, to find out what those neglected parts of our mind are working on?

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According to the Official Site it's currently Bandcamp Friday, meaning Bandcamp is giving all their proceeds directly to the artists instead of to their new Epic Games overlords. So hey, as long as they keep doing that I'm going to keep buying music I probably don't need but definitely enjoy on the first Friday of the month. Some highlights:

Tunic Soundtrack, by Lifeformed

I love Lifeformed, I have for years. So even before I knew about the game TUNIC I knew I wanted this soundtrack. Today's a perfect day to pick it up! As with Lifeformed's other work, this is full of lushly layered sounds, both delicate and intricate, with deeply satisfying bass notes interspersed with crystalline synths.

St. Christopher by Peter Capaldi

Yes, the 12th Doctor Who made an album! This should surprise exactly zero Whovians, as Peter Capaldi's doctor was the first and only one to get to play a guitar version of the opening theme song over the opening credits. His album St. Christopher is, as the title of the first song suggests, beautiful and weird. This is the music of a genuine punk rocker who has grown up and been married for a few decades and fulfilled his life dream of playing The Doctor and now wants to make a solo album.

NO, I'm not getting paid by anyone to endorse these, nor do I get any clickthrough revenue. I just like Bandcamp and these artists and albums and thought I would share.

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I was thinking about sound the other day. Sound is fascinating and our sense of hearing doubly so. If you reduce sound to its most elemental level, it's nothing but a series of higher- or lower-pressure waves that stimulate a specific nerve in our auditory canal. But given those very basic impulses, we can discern many different sources of sound. The sound of me typing on my keyboard differs not only from the sound of my son playing the piano, but also from the sound of typing on a slightly different keyboard.

And for some reason this has always annoyed me. If you look at a visual representation of an audio file, you'll see the overall outline of the waveform, and it seems impossible that such a primitive shape could contain music with voices and instruments and beauty.

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Quick follow up on Nate's Novel Finishing Month:

I'm (re-) writing Pacifica on Campfire Writing. I've been looking for a good way to collaborate on projects like this, and they're getting increasingly common. Campfire has a few rough edges to be sure, but I like it overall.

Anyway, if you want to follow along with what's going on with Pacifica in its re-write phase, you can check it out on Campfire's “Explore” site, which very handily lets me keep certain pieces of information back in case of spoilers.

Check it out here: Pacifica on Campfire

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I've been doing NaNoWriMo for years now. As in 14 of them. I enjoy it; but perhaps it's time to move on. The problem is unsurprising: I've started a whole bunch of novels, but I haven't finished any of them. So I've got a whole lot of books or ideas sitting out there in an incomplete state, waiting for me to come back to them. I kind of hate that. There's a sense of psychic baggage inherent in carrying these started projects around.

Not all of them; some were just for fun, and I have no real need to go back to them. That's okay too. But there are a few that still tug at me, still seem to “want” me to finish them.

So I'm declaring February March “NaNoFinMo”, which works well for me, because it's Nate's Novel Finishing Month.

The goal is simple: I'm going to take one of my books, and actually write the rest of it. I have no idea how many words that is going to be. I am going to actually write the part that I've been struggling with, draft after draft, so that my poor characters can have some closure.

After that... we'll see. I might publish the dang thing, even if it's just self published on Amazon or somewhere. Although I'll probably find a service that also seeds it to the Kobo store, since I'm more of a Kobo fan these days.

The Buried Lede

But none of that is really the important part. The important part is: which book?

I've decided on Pacifica. I've been writing and re-writing Pacifica for years now, and I think I'm close enough that I can dedicate a month to ironing out wrinkles and finally tackling that soft spot in the plot around the end of the second act.

I'm thinking of a way to share it as I work on it, Stay tuned as I noodle over that part of the equation.

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This is an article that I'm writing for me, but I'm using the second person “you” to make myself feel better. Just so you know. If you find this useful as well, great!

Okay, listen up. You need to actually get things out there. You need to really finish things. So here's what you're going to do:

Go to an online retailer of the thing you are trying to make. In my case, that's books. So go to some online bookstore. Don't bother with the best sellers, not right now. Right now go down the list a few pages, to the people who are all clearly self-publishing.

Find someone whose book you just can. not. Stand. Revel in how much you hate this book, in how much better you are at writing than this person. Then remind yourself of the following fact:

As of right now, this minute, that person is winning. Their book is up for sale, and people have purchased it. Yours is still in your head or in some rough draft form, and people have not. You are “losing” to that person because they have accomplished your dream, and you haven't yet. You know you are better than them. You know you “deserve” to have your book out in the world where people can see it more than they do, you know your book is better than theirs.

Okay, this is an ugly side of yourself, and you'll never reveal it to anyone else. It's understandable that you're a little ashamed of yourself for thinking this way about a fellow practitioner of your craft. But now it's time to take that shame, that anger, and that (self-)righteous indignation that they are “winning” and you are “losing” and turn it into motivation. Yes, your book still has that one chapter that isn't quite right, and that one section that could use some fine tuning. But look at their book! Their book is all weak parts! And they are selling it! People are reading it and posting positive comments about it! Don't worry about taking on the giants of your craft yet, that will come with time. For now set your sights on getting your book higher up the sales charts than that book. By getting it on the sales charts in the first place.

And when your book starts selling, when you finally get onto the list, quietly buy a copy or two of that book, as silent recompense for using that author as the scapegoat you needed to goad you into action. Put all those negative emotions behind you, they are unworthy of you. You've taken this step. Now you can take the next.

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My first day of high school I walked into Latin class. I had chosen Latin for my mandatory foreign language because I'm a stereotypical Gen-X guy: I didn't want to be in a popular class. I (rightly) guessed that there wouldn't be all that many people in Latin, they'd mostly choose “mainstream” foreign language credits like Spanish or French.

The teacher got up and said, “You're never going to need to speak Latin.”

Which...I mean, we all knew that.

“Not because Latin is dead, but because it's only used by a very few people in its original form. But what you are learning here is the why behind so many other languages. Learning Latin will make you a better speaker of English. And if you decide to learn French, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Italian, you'll have an easier time with those languages as well.”

I spent three years studying Latin. My third year there were only two of us in the course, so we met at the same time as the Latin II students. I'm eternally grateful that our teacher had us teach them from time to time.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when I was a sole developer at a bookstore. The management team discovered that they suddenly had a software developer, and one of my first projects out of the gate saved the organization tens of thousands of dollars in manual computation time. So they more or less let me do my own thing, leaving me as the goose that laid golden eggs. I used that freedom to teach myself...well, lots of things. Since nobody else knew what I should be doing, I wrote apps in every language I wanted to learn. I wrote Ruby on Rails apps. I wrote an app or two in Adobe AIR (it seemed like a good idea at the time, okay?) I wrote a bunch of PHP and thus paved the way for a number of future jobs.

And I stumbled across SmallTalk.

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When I was young my father rented the '80's David Lynch version of Dune, you know, the one with Sting. I fell asleep a couple of times during the movie, and every time I woke up I would say something like, “is this movie still going?

I'd already read the novel, and enjoyed it. I even read the second one and...it was okay.

And somehow that version of the movie didn't ruin the book for me, nor did the sequels. Dune is an excellent novel. There are themes from that book that have stuck with me, that have shaped the way I think.

So I wasn't happy to hear they were making a new adaptation. I'm a little tired of the entire '80's being strip mined for nostalgia sequels.

So I was really resistant when one of my friends—who had never read Dune—told me it was a really good movie. How could it be?

Well, she was right.

Ironically the new movie is longer than the old one, and is only half of the story. But I found that I agreed with their adaptation. I loved the actors they chose for the roles. I re-read the book after watching the movie, looking for what they changed. And to be sure, the new movie changes a lot from the book. But overall, I find that I agree with their changes. They were in the service of making a good movie and didn't really ruin the thread or feel.

So yes. Turns out that you can make a good Dune movie. I'm excited for the second half as well.

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