The Nature of Writing

My dad got me a typewriter for Christmas as a gag gift. It’s a Smith Corona Electra 120 vintage approx. 1970; it comes in a suitcase because it is “portable”, although it still feels like a couple of bricks taped together.

The same kind of typewriter.

The same kind of typewriter.


Using it has given me some interesting insights into the nature of writing. I’ve always known that writing by hand, with a pen on paper, is fundamentally different from typing into a computer. I always thought that this difference boiled down to the fact that writing by hand lets you control every aspect of the paper, as if you are crafting your work of literature by hand. You become an artisan, as well as a writer. Typing on a computer takes away the visceral aspect. Your work becomes the stark logical words, purely abstract. The printer is the artisan, you are the writer. Separating those two roles removes a critical piece of the puzzle.

Now I realize that this line of thinking is false. Typewriters lie in this strange ether between pens and word processors. Yet using a typewriter is more like writing by hand than typing on a computer. Why is this? Now I think that it has to do with the singular focus on your work. Computers let you jump away for just a second when you get stuck; Twitter is always there. Yet when your sole focus is on your writing, you have to work through breaks in your train of thought. Trying to remember what you were going to say, I think, causes an internal rumination in which your thoughts are pared down and improved.

Of course, typewriters also have some unique benefits and downfalls. The most prominent is the complete immutability of your words. Yes, you can go over and white-out mistakes. But even with a pen on paper, it is possible to cross out a section and squeeze in a replacement overhead. Unless you write double-spaced, this is impossible on a typewriter. I’ve found, however, that this inability to revise lets me enter a stream-of-consciousness mode. Because I don’t need to review the words I just wrote, I can spell out all of my thoughts without getting caught up in phrasing.

The only problem with leaving self-editing for later is that I get lazy. Then you end up with something like this blog.

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Programming Paradigms

Computer science is a relatively young field, and it has rapidly evolved ever since its inception. This becomes increasingly evident when you look at computer science being taught versus computer science being used. This is extremely apparent in the misnomer: computer science. CS is more technical art than science.

For a long time, computers had finite computational resources and memory. Today, our average consumer-grade computer is comparable to a super computer from 1985. Thusly, the twenty first century requires programming paradigms far different from those taught in the twentieth century. It no longer pays off to optimize the number of calculations or amount of memory your program uses, unless you are specifically performing mathematically intensive operations. This blog voices that sentiment much better than I can.

So programming now is about implementing an idea. Its easy to rise above the technical nitty gritty details and focus on the concept at hand. Then programming becomes a form of poetry, in which you express your ideas in a structured and rhythmic way. Programming, at a consumer level, is no longer about getting a machine to do what you want; its about empowering people.

Just like a poet spends many hours revising their verses and getting the words to say exactly what is meant, a programmer spends hours rearranging and improving code to fulfill their idea effectively. And like poetry, there are many genres and styles of programming. Unfortunately, programming is also like poetry in the way that many students get turned off to it by the experiences they have with it in school.

Programming should be taught with the main objective in mind: we are here to accomplish a mission. Writing mechanics are practiced and improved, but without an idea behind a poem or story, it is pointless. Algorithms are important, and so is project design and planning. But these are merely implements with which to express the programmer’s idea.

This is why the most successful software is easy to use, is powerful, or grants people an ability they didn’t have before. When you use a program, it doesn’t matter whether all the variables are global, whether the project was built top-down or bottom-up. The functional differences of some of the most disputed methods are miniscule. Optimization is a trivial concern when compared with the user interface. Is the parse speed of one file format more important than the support of a larger number of formats?

Kids want to be programmers because of coding heroes like Notch, the creator of Minecraft. But Minecraft isn’t well-designed. In fact, the program is a piece of crap that can barely run on a laptop from 5 years ago despite its simplicity. But the idea is gold, and that is what people notice. This is why Minecraft and Bioshock, and not COD, inspire people to be game developers.

However, functional programming is the CS taught in schools. Schools need to teach the art of computer science, not only the science. Imagine if writing was only taught, even up through college, in the scope of writing paragraphs. Essays and papers would just be a string of non sequiturs (kind of like this blog). Fiction would have no comprehensible story, only a series of finely crafted paragraphs. Only those who figured out the basic structures of plot, perhaps by reading books by others who had done the same, would learn to write meaningful stories.

In the future, everyone will be a programmer to some degree. At some point data will become so complex that to even manipulate information people will need to be able to interface with data processors through some sort of technical language in order to describe what they want. To survive in a digital world you either need software to help you interface with it, or learn the language of the realm.

Yet children are being driven off in droves because computers are being approached in education from completely the wrong angle. Computers are tool we use to accomplish tasks; the use of computers should not be taught just because “people need to be able to use computers in order to survive in the modern world”, but because children will be able to implement their ideas and carry out tasks much easier if they do have an expanded skillset on the computer. Computer skills should be taught in the form of “how would you go about doing X? Ok, what if I told you there was a much easier way?”

Plot has been Achieved

For a while I’ve been developing a set of characters who will certainly be the protagonists in the short story I’m writing. There are five protagonists, forming the crew of a small customized freighter called the Meridia. They work as private contractors, independently solving “problems”, or complex operations and tasks which require both skill and delicacy. Each crew member has a number of specializations, allowing them to collectively pilot their spaceship with only a fraction of the usual crew size. Every one of them is adept in combat and knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects. But they are hardly a veteran team, and having only recently met, they don’t have their team dynamics quite ironed out. Individually, however, they have years of experience in their respective fields and were notorious in the various parts of the galaxy where they worked alone.

But the characters haven’t had a clear purpose until now. I finally came up with a good idea for an overarching plot for my short story. It involves rebels, black hole generators, and perhaps aliens. I mocked up a military intelligence report, so I’ll let it speak for itself.
A report by ONGI on a joint operation between ONGI and OSCO.
Download as PDF

OSCO (Office of Specialized Covert Operations) will end up contracting the crew of the Meridia to infiltrate the rebel operations and discover the source of the tachyon tech. In the process, the crew uncovers a plot way beyond their league, yet it is up to them to stop the impending galactic war. Of course, the crew has had previous run-ins with these particular rebels. While transporting a piece of a key (cryptographic keys are one of the most precious physical cargoes), they have an unlucky encounter with a raiding party. They are forced to make a semi-blind jump with the Meridia, and end up stranded at a backwater spaceport. They manage to repair their ship before the rebels find them (tracking a jump is difficult and imprecise, meaning you have to go through the laborious process of sweeping a great number of systems in order to find the quarry) and barely make it out alive.

On another note, the English language is crazy. Making up words is really fun, especially if you have a certain amount of education in Latin. The great thing is that people are able to understand any word you make up if you do it right. While I mostly mean scientific words, I also mean Jabberwocky/Ulysses style words too. For example, in that short summary I used two new words: terrasapient and extraspecial. I needed to use terrasapient because extraterrestrial is meaningless when you are a spacefaring race. Terrasapient refers to something sapient originating on Earth (humans). Extraspecial is similar, except that it means something is external to the usual system of classifying something by species. It basically means any alien lifeform.

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