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Breaking the Pattern of Thought August 19, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, Edward de Bono, how to, Lateral Thinking, Other, vocabulary, writing.

I’ve been re-reading Edward de Bono’s wonderful (if clumsily written) Lateral Thinking recently, while searching for new-but-manageable programming projects that I can do between semesters (so that I can keep learning programming skills). Naturally, de Bono gave me an idea (never fails).

Lateral Thinking‘s first couple of chapters argue, convincingly, that peoples’ thoughts run along established patterns that can make creativity difficult. The remainder of the book presents de Bono’s grab-bag of thinking tools, helpful methods for breaking out of these patterns when necessary (when the vertically-reasoned ideas are not working).

One technique, “Random Stimulation,” helps in a brainstorming process. It works like this:

Randomly select a word from a dictionary and just run with it, trying to connect it to the problem you are working on, for three minutes, following whatever chain of silly connections you follow. Hopefully, out of that massive, ill-considered spray of concepts, something emerges that will help solve the problem.

Here’s de Bono’s example:

The numbers 473-13 were given by a table of random numbers and using the Penguin English Dictionary the word located was: ‘noose’. The problem under consideration was ‘the housing shortage’. Over a timed three minute period the following ideas were generated:

noose – tightening noose – execution – what are the difficulties in executing a housing programme – what is the bottleneck, is it capital, labour or land?

noose tightens – things are going to get worse with the present rate of population increase.

noose – rope – suspension construction system – tentlike houses but made of permanent materials – easily packed and erected – or on a large scale with several houses suspended from one framework – much lighter materials possible if walls did not have to support themselves and the roof.

noose – loop – adjustable loop – what about adjustable round houses which could be expanded as required – just uncoil the walls – no point in having houses too large to begin with because of heating problems, extra attention to walls and ceilings, furniture, etc. – but facility for step-wise expansion as need arises.

noose – snare – capture – capture a share of the labour market – capture – people captured by home ownership due to difficulty selling and complications – lack of mobility – houses as exchangeable units – classified into types – direct exchange of one type for similar type – or put one type into the pool and take out a similar type elsewhere. . . .

From this example may be seen the way the random word is used. Often the random word is used to generate further words which themselves link up with the problem being considered. . . . The word is used in order to get things going–not to prove anything. [174-5]

O.K., so it doesn’t always work. At least I am not convinced that the “housing problem” was adequately addressed through this method. I have used de Bono’s “Random Stimulation” method, however, with excellent results.

So, I developed an online resource that loads a randomly generated word, with its definition. Just click the linked picture below.

So now you don’t have to generate random numbers and hunt for a big dictionary. Indeed, I kept the webpage very small, as well as javaScript-free, so that it can be accessed by web-enabled phones.

True Story of Work in the Wild West – Part I March 27, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Other, writing.
1 comment so far

I’m posting this because it has been sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing for almost a year. Names have been changed, naturally.

Damage Control

The furniture store-owner’s son walked me to a tall stack of chests of drawers, unfinished pine, sticky with sap. Like the trees they came from, they smelled cleaner than they were. He said “do you think you can take the top one down?”

I tried not to be distracted by his goofy grin. It could have been caused by an accident, I thought. He had several large scars on his cheeks that maybe tightened the skin above the corners of his mouth. They say that if you smile, your mood will follow in the wake of that facial expression. Must be nice to be perpetually amused.

I didn’t think about the chest’s drawers until I got it half-way down to the ground. They slid out a bit, and I almost dropped it as its weight shifted. I had to wrestle it down quickly. I wanted to hit him but I faked a smile instead. He mistook my dumb luck and haste for strength, I think. The rest of the interview centered on what hours I could work.

I probably got the job because I was a college kid, like him. He went to the same school, before he dropped out to run the warehouse. Poor grades and a couple of drunk driving arrests had brought ultimata from parents re-convinced of the pointlessness of higher education.

The memories of college he still had were fond, and as the only member of his family to attend, he thought himself the family brain, although they probably employed him to keep an eye on him, to manage the family reputation.

He decided that I was stronger than his father thought, that he could report that I had passed the test-Daddy had been wrong about another college kid. When would Dad learn?

I was ready to start that weekend, but he wasn’t, having accidentally doused his pants leg with ant poison and not thought carefully enough about possible consequences. A customer found him quivering, frothing at the mouth, on the warehouse floor, and he had to spend Saturday and Sunday in the shower, drinking water to dilute the nerve toxins.

“Zippy,” what all the salespeople called him, was late Monday morning, understandably, I guess. So I had to wait at the store until he came in to open the warehouse. It seemed reckless, to me, given the owner’s temper, to call his son “Zippy.” But somebody explained that morning, in a hushed voice “his mom and dad think we call him that because he races around, doing a dozen things at once. I call him “Zippy” cause he’s a F—ing idiot.”

He was an idiot, in some ways, but he didn’t slash through the top of a box with a razor knife, scratching through several layers of lacquer and about an eighth of an inch of wood. That was me, a morning of that first week. He didn’t turn a corner too quickly with a lop-sided headboard, trying to grab it as it crashed against the floor. That was me again, broken pieces clunking inside the box while I hid it behind some others, later that same week. We all make mistakes. The key is not to let them eat up the profits.

Dave, the other new guy, looked ill when we got to the warehouse, sitting outside, back against the wall. But he was just pale and thin.

In just a week he had learned not to exert himself unnecessarily. He didn’t even look up as we got out of Zippy’s truck. A big eighteen-wheeler was at the dock already, driver already out and walking towards us. I went in to take a look around. Dave stayed up front to deal with Zippy and the driver.

Soon, Dave found me in the back. “Hey,” I said to him.

“Ninety-six iceboxes coming, let me show you where Zippy wants ’em.”

I followed him. Standing up, he was tall, but not as tall as me, freckles, dark brown hair and eyes under a fitted high-school baseball cap. We walked almost all the way up to the loading door. Not too far to carry the iceboxes. But the empty spot was only four feet wide.


He nodded, face an unreadable blank.

For some reason, about half the profit the company made that summer was in oak iceboxes with brass handles. They looked like antique iceboxes, the kind they used to store food in, but these were used as end tables or television stands mostly, two feet tall a foot and one-half wide, maybe a foot deep, slightly top-heavy because their tops were solid wood, and front-heavy because of the door. This shipment came in cardboard boxes.

I was a few days newer than Dave, so I told him I’d try to talk Zippy into expanding the space, or putting them somewhere else, but Zippy didn’t take well to logic, like the rest of the family.

For instance, the warehouse was laid out in alphabetical order, by manufacturer’s name, with glaring exceptions that annoyed his peevish mother. Since stock fluctuated constantly, the spaces had to be adjusted repeatedly, and the furniture had to be repaired repeatedly, before being sold.

I found him and told him the iceboxes wouldn’t fit.

“‘Slike, no problem,” he said, nodding and looking into my eyes the way he always did when he knew he didn’t know what he was talking about, when he made up his stories. It was as if he thought that he would find your soul in there if he looked hard enough. Maybe he thought he could see your brain, or his own, or his reflection, or a horsey, I don’t know. It wasn’t a hard, intimidating sort of stare; it was searching, childlike. I looked away and he got up and came to help us, to prove himself right.

There was room for only two rows, eight-feet deep, which started getting pretty high. Soon Zippy decided to build steps in one of the rows. I grabbed a box, handed it to Dave. He handed it up to Zippy, who kept building up.

When we got to a height of seven boxes, the whole mess started wobbling, of course. So Zippy grabbed a couple of wooden planks from somewhere and put them on top of row seven, thinking it would stabilize things. Maybe it did for a while.

Then half-way through level eight I handed a box to Dave, who wasn’t looking at me anymore at all, he kept his eyes on Zippy and the shaking stack of boxes as he reached down to me. He saw it let go before I did, crouched and dove for a leather sofa. I dropped a box and backed away as the top four levels came crashing down.

Dave got the worst of it, I think, unless you count the iceboxes, which would now fit much more easily, now that they were smashed. He hit the sofa, but at least one of the boxes caught him in the small of the back, leaving a huge welt near his kidneys and knocking his breath out. He was too angry to talk anyway.

Zippy fell right into the avalanche, which might have been the safest place, although he was battered, bloody and bruised. Probably lingering traces of any poison deadened the pain-he kept his silly smile. None hit me, but I felt pretty bad for Dave, who had amazing self control. Perhaps he blamed himself.

I was almost surprised to see Dave the next day. But the injuries seemed to give him a new sense of confidence. He was sitting up straighter and seemed glad to see me. I was planning on spending my next day off looking for work, but that was still two days away.

“One hundred-twenty barstools on the truck outside. Zip wants them on the rack.”

The rack had been built a couple of months before we were hired, but was only half-full of furniture, because it was fifteen feet high, with three shelves, and there was no mechanical lift.

“What the . . .?”

“Zip says he’ll be on the rack. He wants us to throw them up to him, he said.”

For the rest of the day we took turns hurling boxes of barstools at the boss, just like he asked, except maybe harder. Sometimes they fell back down after hitting him. And sometimes we’d even try to slow their descent, just for the look of the thing.

I’ve never been able to quite duplicate the simple joy that physical labor gave me that day, hurling heavy, lopsided boxes at him, while safe on the ground. Even so, sometimes I’d just hand the boxes to Dave. It meant even more to him.

King of Horror December 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in bookmooch, Books, fiction, Other, Paperbackswap, writing.

This fall I find myself re-reading some of Stephen King’s books, many of which I first read when they were first issued in paperback. I’m doing this partly because I like the genre, partly because I see Mr. King as a really good writer, from whom I have a lot to learn, and partly because I have one of those unique minds that can forget all but a few basic plot elements from a novel I read only a couple of years back. This special skill allows me to enjoy a book just as much upon second, third, or fourth readings. It can save money during those times when you are mainly reading for entertainment or escape.

I’ve long since lost or loaned or sold the novels that I am re-reading, of course, assuming I ever owned them, so I turn to Bookmooch or Paperbackswap for a fresh copy. I usually opt for hardbound books, when I can get them, knowing that I am likely to keep them, and that since I live now in a house with dry and ample basement space, and am likely to be here some time, there is a place to store them. Plus, I just like them.

This week I am reading The Dead Zone, which I was surprised to discover I had never before read. I saw the movie, of course. Anything with Christopher Walken in it is a must-see. But all of my memories are from the movie–I’m almost certain. Most shocking of all, though, was this picture of the author on the inside of the jacket.


Would they have sold more copies if his picture was on the front cover? Or would they have scared off potential readers? You decide.

National Novel Writing Month – the Exciting Conclusion November 29, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, writing.

Well, that’s it. I’m done–not done with the novel I’m writing, unfortunately, but done with the first 50,000 words. I’m only about halfway through my tentative outline, but I will happily put this thing aside for a while.

What did I learn about myself this year?

I learned that I am capable of sucking it up and writing, even when I am not making a lot of sense, even when I am writing stuff that I don’t think people will find very entertaining (and keep your comments about that being analogous to this blog to yourselves, please), even when I know that I will probably delete pages and pages of what I have written when I begin the editing process.

Yes, I am a writer. I learned that last November. This year I learned a skill that can be more important than writing. I learned that I can just type. I can disconnect my brain and just clatter away at the keyboard, coming away with 50,000 words.

I am a typist, which is like being a writer, I guess, but without the perks.

What will next year’s NaNoWriMo bring?

Good luck to all of you who are still hammering away at this thing.

NaNoWriMo Day 23 November 23, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, writing.
1 comment so far

Caught up today, after being behind my count for much of the last week. The lack of posting on this site means exactly what you would think it means: I am having a little trouble with the novel this year.

I am trying to go easy on my self. My wife says that this one is much harder to write because it takes place in the real world, where the plot devices that drove last year’s nano-novel, a comic-horror story, would look silly and contrived. It’s true, of course. Some days, though, a monster, a bit of magical realism, an explosion, would really help tack on more words.

Here’s a picture of my desk (click to enlarge).


It’s like pulling teeth every day. But somehow, they all grow back overnight.

NaNoWriMo Day XII November 12, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in National Novel Writing Month, writing.

Nice to get a holiday in the middle of November like this, one where you don’t have to go somewhere to feast and all that.  I managed to catch up to the appropriate number of words today, as you can see by the new NaNoWriMo counter installed as a sidebar widget there on the right. 

It’s a good motivational thing, I think, to have that progress meter right on your blog where everyone can see it.  I mean if they (everyone) visited your blog.

NaNoWriMo Day VIII November 8, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in NaNoWriMo, writing.
1 comment so far

NaNo is definitely harder this year.  It’s not just the fact that they don’t have those cool widgets for your blog that showed the progress you are making from day to day (even though having one again this year would make me feel a little better.)

One problem is that I finished the novel I wrote last year–I have already “won” this thing.  So this year my goal was to be a little different.  I wanted to write a good novel this year.  This conflicts directly with the goal of NaNo, of course.  The idea is to write 50,000 words, not the great American Novel.  But my goals are not that lofty.  I just wanted it to be better than last year’s novel, to be good, and so far, it is not good. 

So it is kind of a slog, frankly. 

Meeting the goal each day does not seem like such an accomplishment because I sucessfully completed my first novel last November.  And I’m also not putting the rest of my life on hold to do this thing, because fear of not completing it is not a motivation either.  It is especially not a motivation because I don’t expect the first draft to be very good, because I want the finished product to be really good.  I intend to revise it, so this is going to take away some of the pleasure of “finishing” it at the end of the month.  Although I will have written 50,000 words, the novel won’t be anywhere near finished.

Yuk, is what I’m saying. 

NaNoWriMo 2007 – Day 1 November 1, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in literature, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, Other, writing.

NaNoWriMo starts today, and I only got four hours of sleep last night (too tired to get up to turn the heater down, too warm and itchy to sleep, plus too much work crap to think about).  But this morning I find in my inbox a pep talk from Tom Robbins. 

Tom Robbins is one of those people who made me want to write, way back when.  I think I was a Junior in high school when I read Still Life With Woodpecker.  There was a time when I could quote the first chapter of the book, or the forward or whatever, verbatim.  Just having Tom urge me and the other 89,999 participants on inspired me.  Thanks, Tom–love your stuff. 

So, despite being tired and preoccupied, I’m doing this nano thing once again.

It’s going to be a little different this time, my approach. (do you like how wordy that sentence is, compared to how short it would be with active voice?)  Last year I posted the whole novel as I wrote it, finishing on the last day of November with the denouement.  So, completely linear.  If I hadn’t written it in a linear fashion like that, anyone reading it, day to day, would have been confused (more confused than necessary, I mean).  This year I’m trying to write a better novel, so I’m not going to be so linear.  I’m going to give myself the freedom to go back to chapter whatever and add some more, whenever I want, or start with chapter 15, if necessary. 

So I won’t be posting the whole thing.  Maybe some excerpts, if I think people might be interested.  Good luck to all the others bookmarked here who are participating, MoonTopples, strugglingwriter, Kaitlyn Gallagher, WritingGB, and the ones I forgot to list.  Let’s do this thing.

NaNoWriMo 2007 October 3, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Idaho, Lowell, Massachusetts Drivers, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, Other, writing.

Careful readers of this blog will note the new sidebar widget proclaiming my participation in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, which is held annually during the month of November.  These widgets just showed up on the NaNoWriMo website, so I grabbed one. Later it will be replaced with a progress meter, then a “winner” banner on December 1.

My job does not offer me the flexibility that it did last year, which is on balance probably a good thing.  But despite the lack of free time, I’m doing it again.  I plan on triumphantly completing my second novel, or at least 50,000 words of it, by the end of November. I may post excerpts of it, or even the whole thing, like I did last year.  I’m not yet sure.

I have been thinking about this particular novel for several months now, even going so far as to jot down the names of principal characters and a rough outline.  I hope that doing so is within NaNoWriMo guidelines, but I can’t help myself.  I am chomping at the bit. 

The setting of this one is Idaho, so it is obviously another comedy.  But it is not another Cthulhu-mythos-inspired comedy set in the fascinating world of university fundraising.  I’m sticking to the real world, or as close as I can come to the real world with a novel set in Idaho. 

Working Title: Being the Odds

K.F. Gallagher Writing Contest Deadline Today September 14, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in fiction, writing.

I meant to put up a post about this earlier this week, but got swamped with work and a ton of other things I seem to be in the middle of.  Sorry, Kaitlyn. 

I don’t think I’ll have time to participate in her cool contest, which is to start a story with the line “I am sister to the serious octopus.”  Click here for rules.  Participate.  Have fun.  I must write stupid stuff for somebody else today and prepare for a ridiculous-yet high-stakes meeting scheduled for this afternoon.  Good luck!