The cost of using Twitter

I never seriously used Twitter until about… I want to say late October, 2017. I can’t be bothered to check, but I think it was just before NaNoWriMo 2017. The earliest real interaction with another writer (Jon del Arroz) that I can remember was related to buddying up for the event. It took me awhile to get up to full steam on Twitter, so figure it was January 2018 before I was fully engaged on the platform. My time on Twitter lasted almost a year, and then I stopped using it halfway through December 2018. I haven’t logged into my main account since then.

The thing about Twitter is if I walk away from it, I don’t miss it. All I miss is being able to talk to certain people who I really only see on Twitter or Discord (which I don’t like to use). If those people were available elsewhere I would have no reason to be on the platform at all.

The interesting thing is my time on Twitter neatly coincided with a period of severe writing drought. I don’t just mean I stopped writing fiction. I mean I stopped writing anything. I couldn’t sit down and stay focused enough to write so much as a blog post for most of the year. And I think I know why.

Before I explain, I should say that the writing drought has only been a problem at home. When I spend time at the family cabin I can write just fine. In fact the only complete stories I produced this year, I wrote at the cabin over the summer. Because of that I’ve been assuming all along that the problem is the internet. I don’t have internet access at the cabin, and have to drive about five miles to get it on my cell phone. It seemed logical enough that as the only significant difference between being at home and being at the cabin is internet access, something about the internet was causing me to be too distracted to write. The surfeit of entertainment and avenues of exploration, perhaps. I hypothesized that my mind switched to a different mode of operation (what I dubbed “exploration mode”) with the internet at my fingertips, and it was just enough of a block to make it very difficult to write. I thought with the internet unavailable at the cabin, my mind reallocated its resources so that writing became easier*. I thought of that as “production mode”. The fact that it usually took a day or so to get into production mode once I got to my cabin seemed to support my hypothesis. It was like a detox period.

But how to solve the problem? I can’t move to the cabin and I can’t just turn the internet off at home. I need it for my work, for one thing—I constantly look things up when I’m programming—and I’m not the only person in this house who uses it. I experimented with limiting my internet access artificially, tried writing on a laptop that has a nonfunctional wireless card, blocked websites in my hosts file during work time, and so on. Nothing helped.

Then, starting a week before Christmas, I walked away from Twitter. Within days I could feel the urge to write welling up, and a week or so after quitting Twitter I wrote and published a 700 word blog post as easy as you like. And as you can see from the last few days, I’ve had little trouble keeping the writing going.

Now if I’m not writing it’s because I just don’t have anything to say, or because I’m focused on something else. It’s not because I can’t write.

So what happened? Why did I just snap out of a year-long writing drought?

I think Twitter has been serving as a metaphorical bleed-off valve for my creativity, and has also served to disrupt my focus through a combination of the dopamine hit of near-instant feedback from my friends and the continuous stream of new things to read. Bored for a minute? Check Twitter! Hell, I used to jump over to Twitter for a few seconds while waiting for webpages to load.

The focus issue speaks for itself, but I should explain the bleed-off aspect a bit. In general, I’m not struck by seeds of inspiration that send me into a frenzy, banging away at a project until it’s done. I’m not the type to write a book in a weekend after seeing something in the clouds on my way home from the beach or whatever. Rather, I tend to get an idea and sock it away for awhile, thinking about it off and on, letting my subconscious chew on it, until one day there’s enough built-up pressure behind that idea that I feel like I need to let it out. The buildup can take days or weeks to fully develop. Then I write the post or story and it’s done.

Twitter, though, gives me a place to throw my ideas out to the public as soon as I get them. As I’m limited to 280 characters, I don’t feel the desire to let the idea simmer for awhile until I can give it proper treatment in a blog post. And because I’m limited to 280 characters, it’s not unusual for me to take some time crafting an effective tweet, which gives my writing muscles a bit of a workout. Then, once the idea is out, I feel like the idea has already been presented. Even if I keep thinking about it I’m likely to just throw the new thoughts out in tweets as well instead of making a long form post. Thus, the buildup of creative pressure never happens, and the writing never happens.

I usually don’t talk about fiction ideas on Twitter (unless as part of a discussion), but I draw on the same well of creative energy to write my fiction as I do to write blog posts. It doesn’t really matter where the energy comes from, and it also doesn’t really matter what I spend it on. That’s why when I’m focused on writing fiction I never write for my blog until I’ve done my fiction writing for the day. And if I’m constantly bleeding off creative energy on Twitter to the point where I can’t even write blog posts, I’m definitely not writing fiction.

It’s fair to suggest it might just be a coincidence that I can suddenly write freely after leaving Twitter behind, and I suppose it could be. But I doubt it. I’ve never before gone through a period where I couldn’t even write blog posts and the timing is too neatly aligned. Back in February when the drought was really kicking in I put it down to meddling with my writing method—which doesn’t stand up to logic, because the change I blamed was exactly what let me successfully complete NaNoWriMo 2017 just months before. I knew early on that something was bleeding off my creative energy, but I couldn’t see the real problem.

As well, I suspect (but cannot prove) that Twitter was designed to be addictive. As I’m not willing to go back to using Twitter heavily just to see if my ability to write disappears again, and because I think the focus-damaging effect is bad enough to warrant caution, I’ll just say if I do go back on Twitter eventually it will be in a very limited fashion, possibly through a third party app with heavy filtering, and solely for business purposes.

To summarize, I’ve been sabotaging myself with what amounts to mental poison for almost a whole year. I only realized what I was doing when I took a long break from Twitter that didn’t involve going to my cabin, a break that was entirely whimsical on my part. And I tend to doubt I’m the only person Twitter negatively affects this way. I hope anyone who reads this takes a look at their own social media habit to see if it is dragging them down the way mine was.

I can only be thankful that I’m given to introspection or else I might never have made the connection between Twitter and my writing problem. But now that I see the danger, and see the fruits of avoiding the poison, I think I’ll be able to get my writing back on track.

* I don’t know why, exactly, but writing in general—and writing fiction especially—is a huge cognitive load for me. It’s the most mentally exhausting thing I do. I find programming substantially easier than writing, even when figuring out things I’ve never done before in code, and I can program for much longer periods of time than I can write. Like, I can string together 14 hour programming days no problem but I’m lucky if I can string together two 5 hour writing days in a row. I think I just try to keep too much in my head when I write. E.g. when I write a scene, especially an action scene where character locations and time to perform actions matter, I can see the whole thing in my head at once and step through it like it’s a simulation. That takes some processing power. The upside is my drafts are pretty clean; I rarely make the “Charlie lost his gun last chapter but magically has it again this chapter” kind of mistake.

If I was actually writing 4 hours a day every day I would be putting out over a million words a year, so I’m not too worried about my mental endurance problem. I’ll worry about that when I actually go a few months hitting my limit most days. As it is, my production bottleneck is discipline, not mental stamina.

Rebecca Ferguson > Jessica Chastain

Remember a few years back when they were making Mission Impossible 5 (Rogue Nation) and there were loads of rumors that Jessica Chastain was going to be in it? I watched Mission: Impossible – Fallout the other day and I was reminded again to be grateful we dodged that bullet. Rebecca Ferguson is just lovely.

Besides the fact that Chastain simply is not as good looking as the six-year-younger Ferguson (and never was), I don’t think she could have pulled off the role of Ilsa Faust* convincingly on either a physical or emotional level. She’s not athletic because she’s always been a theater nerd, whereas Ferguson was a dancer and has the body and easy grace of movement to show for it. As well, the actress playing Ilsa needs to sell a degree of vulnerability and desperation beneath her cool exterior, given the situation she’s in in both movies. Could Chastain do that? I doubt it. She is celebrated as an outspoken feminist after all, and I suspect we would’ve ended up with a cut-rate Black Widow impression at best if she’d landed the role.

Whatever the reason Chastain didn’t end up in the role, I’m thankful; I think she would have seriously damaged my enjoyment of the last two Mission: Impossible movies, which were otherwise pretty great (though quite different in tone and pacing). I haven’t been paying as much attention to Hollywood as I used to the last few years, but for awhile she was like the female version of Idris Elba: people wanted to jam her into every role under the sun whether she suited them or not.

* Cute name, given her backstory.

How did Indiana Jones survive on the submarine in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Simple. Pre-nuclear submarines only submerged when necessary; it wasn’t their standard mode of travel.

Remember, in 1936 World War II hadn’t yet started*, and the Nazis didn’t care about being stealthy. Quite the contrary; they threw their weight around in the movies. There would be no reason for the submarine to travel underwater in peacetime, and doing so would add nothing but a bunch of risk and time to an urgent mission.

  • They might have suffered a mechanical failure or hit an underwater obstacle, which would have resulted in the Ark ending up at the bottom of the Aegean when they couldn’t surface. Depending where that happened, that might have meant the permanent loss of the Ark. They couldn’t do mile-deep ocean salvage in the 1930s even if they knew the location of the lost vessel.
  • Traveling fully submerged meant losing a lot of speed, since U-boat hulls were not optimized for submerged travel. A Type VII U-boat could travel more than twice as fast on the surface as it could submerged.
  • Even traveling at snorkel depth so they could use their diesels—I’m pretty sure they didn’t do that in 1936, but I’m not a submarine history expert, and if we can ignore Indy’s RPG we can ignore this possible anachronism—they risked being hit by a surface ship that couldn’t see them! Ship collisions happen often enough when the ships are on the surface and can see each other, as we’ve seen with the adventures of the feminist US Navy lately.

It’s in character for Indiana Jones to do something risky like hop on a submarine without knowing its destination, but of the risks he takes in the movies, it’s a relatively minor one. They’re in the Aegean Sea, near a bunch of islands, in the shipping lanes as far as I can tell. Worst case he gets off and ends up on an island or another ship. And he would know that the submarine was not likely to submerge or to take a long trip. The most likely scenario was that the submarine would meet up with a faster ship, or make for land to hand the Ark off to an air crew. It would have taken weeks to trundle all the way from Crete to Germany in a U-boat.

The question people should be asking is how he avoided detection. Submarines didn’t just rely on a periscope for surface running, after all. They would have had a continuous watch in place topside, if only to make sure they didn’t run into any other ships. And that gun you can see on the right side of the picture above isn’t there for show.

Of course, an active watch would have given Indiana the opportunity to slip into the submarine and hide somehow. Hell, maybe he did slip into the ship by tossing a sailor overboard after taking his uniform and it wasn’t shown (unlikely since he’s back in his normal clothes in the submarine pen). Point is, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think Indy could survive the short journey to Geheimhaven on the submarine, and the question is asked from ignorance of 1930s submarine capabilities and operation.

* The Indiana Jones movies involving Nazis are set in 1936 (Raiders) and 1938 (Last Crusade) which actually does bring up some questions about why** the Nazis are portrayed as cartoonishly evil, called “the slime of the earth”, treated as this horrible threat, and so on. They hadn’t done anything yet. World War II didn’t start until late 1939 and the US wasn’t directly involved until Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which of course wasn’t perpetrated by the Germans! Kristallnacht was in November 1938 and Last Crusade is obviously set in the early autumn ’38 at the latest so you can’t even use the “save the jews” excuse. It’s totally illogical for the Nazis and Hitler to be so reviled by American Christians at the time the movies are set.

** I know why the movies were made that way. But it doesn’t make sense in-universe.

Story silliness – Ghost Ship (2002)

I watched the first half of Ghost Ship the other day. It was released in 2002 and is mostly known for the opening scene. I won’t spoil that for you if you haven’t seen it and like gory horror. But the premise is there’s an Italian ocean liner that went missing in the 1960s, which is spotted in present day by a pilot in the middle of the Bering Sea, far outside shipping lanes. The pilot tells an ocean salvage crew about it and wants a finder’s fee if they make a bunch of cash off it. They argue about his cut and he agrees to a lesser fee if he is allowed to go along with them. So they go find the ship and horror things happen, yada yada.

When they first get to the ship—which appears out of nowhere in the dark in front of them, such that they actually run into it at low speed because they can’t slow down in time to avoid the collision—there’s a conversation between the lead salvage guy (Murphy), one of his experienced crewmen, and the pilot. Murphy asks the pilot if he knows the story of the Mary Celeste. The pilot doesn’t know it, but the silly bit is the experienced salvage crewman who works for Murphy doesn’t know the story either.

What? This seasoned marine salvage crewman—who, let me reiterate, makes his freaking living finding and salvaging abandoned and sunk vessels—isn’t familiar with what is probably the most famous ghost ship in American history? That’s absolutely ridiculous, and his dumb little head shake at the question knocked me right out of the story. There’s not even a good reason for him not to know about it, because the pilot, who has been shown to be a landlubber through his seasickness during the trip, is right there as an excuse for Murphy to tell the story. For an American seaman, not knowing about the Mary Celeste is like not knowing about the Titanic.

That by itself would have been enough. But the writers immediately doubled down with another experienced salvage guy popping his head up to say the story was bullshit and laugh about it. I mean, come on.

The Mary Celeste was recovered with all hands missing in December 1872 and spent another 12 years at sea, changing hands frequently until it was intentionally wrecked in an insurance fraud scheme in January 1885. Its history is well known; it’s no Flying Dutchman, only ever spotted in the fog, a living foot never touching its deck.

Details matter. If you want to drop some exposition on the audience, at least set it up in a way that doesn’t require characters displaying unreasonable ignorance of their own areas of expertise.

Just quit while you’re ahead, please

In the last twenty years or so, it has become entirely obvious that most people who produced massive hits don’t understand what made their work successful. George Lucas is the quintessential example—need I detail why?—but there are plenty more. Ridley Scott’s repeated desecration of the Alien franchise is a more recent example.

What’s unclear to me is why so many of these men, already wealthy beyond imagination, able to do anything they want, keep personally shitting all over their own work. It’s one thing to sell it for a giant pile of money and let someone else fuck it up a la Mouse Wars. It’s another to go out of your way to prove to the world that whatever talent you had—if it wasn’t simple luck to begin with—is long gone.

I can only speculate, of course. Plausible explanations range from approval seeking to guilt to delusions of grandeur, but I think it all boils down to selfishness in the end. Lucas either wanted to prove he did, in fact, have the chops people credited him with in the 90s (spoiler: he doesn’t) or he wanted to piss off the fans of not just Star Wars, but Indiana Jones. Rowling has been approval-seeking for a decade with her retcons. Ridley Scott is… I don’t really know what he’s doing because I haven’t been paying much attention to him, but since he’s worth $400 million I doubt he’s ruining Alien just for the cash. For all I know he’s just bored.

Yeah, creators (generally) own their IPs and can do what they want with them. But it’s just such a dick move to come back decades later and take a huge, steaming dump all over the characters and stories so many people grew up loving. If you want something to play with, write something new*. Don’t smash apart what you already successfully created. Let people enjoy what you built, even if you don’t quite understand why it works or think they’re enjoying it wrong.

*It’s not like new ideas are hard to come by. I could probably spend the rest of my life writing the stories I’ve had ideas for in the last year alone. For every one story I even start, I have 10-20 ideas I’ll never have time for. And I’m hardly unique or especially gifted in the idea department. Every writer who doesn’t fall into the “wants to have written” category is this way.

CS:GO – ultimately, disappointing

I spent some time the last week or so playing multiplayer Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). I got into it with the intention of playing the Battle Royale mode with friends, but it turns out my potato desktop can’t handle the huge world size. The normal-size maps work just fine, though, so I dove into deathmatch in hopes of having my first good FPS multiplayer experience since 2009.

And at first, it was a blast. There didn’t seem to be any issue with lag compensation ruining the game the way it ruined the Modern Warfare 2 & 3 multiplayer for me, and there are plenty of people to play with. I found myself wishing there was a Goldeneye type mode because I thought they’d really nailed the FPS multiplayer experience. Of course I ran into a few blatant—and not-so-blatant—cheaters, but due to the way they split the map packs up (you can pick which of four map sets you want to play on) it’s easy to just move to a different set of maps and avoid them.

But after a few days I got used to the mechanics, and as I did, the shine wore off and the ugly cracks appeared. Put simply, the guns are the worst implementation of such I can ever remember seeing in an FPS. There are two fundamental problems:

  1. The guns behave as if they’re made of rubber, spraying bullets after the first one or two in a spread a sawed-off shotgun would be embarrassed to produce. The shittiest rattletrap wartime-production stamped submachine gun you can imagine is more precise IRL than any of the non-sniper rifle weapons in CS:GO.
  2. The point of aim and point of impact have no relationship after the first shot in almost all of the guns. What I mean is, the bullets start to hit wildly far from the point of aim, so you can’t even compensate for recoil visually by dragging the sights back onto the target during a burst. You know, the way guns actually work.

It also feels as if there’s some kind of hit cooldown in effect, where the game ignores any hit that happens within a certain window of time after the last registered hit. I say that because when I know my weapon takes 5 hits worst case to kill and I am required to fire 8-10 rounds to achieve the kill at close range (so I know I’m not missing due to the insane spread), it just doesn’t add up any other way. I don’t know if this is a real thing in the game code or some kind of network latency effect, but it feels like shit.

Finally, I also take issue with the balance of the guns because it’s just so poorly done—at close range, a UMP 45 (a 45 ACP submachine gun) is equal in strength to an M4, which is just hilariously stupid. The weapon stability balance also makes little sense: I mean, if you’re running around, your weapon spread is much tighter with a pistol than with a carbine. Anyone who thinks that is the case should try it sometime. Just try to hit a silhouette while you’re walking quickly with a pistol vs with any long gun and see how it goes. But those are minor problems compared with the first two.

That’s a lot of complaining, but it’s all deserved. I have no idea what the developers were thinking when they coded the weapons in this game. I was playing multiplayer FPS almost from the time it became an option in the 90s and games back then handled guns enormously better than CS:GO. Off the top of my head, Delta Force (1998) had excellent bullet drop, which made sniping a lot of fun. Quake 2 (1997) had recoil management in the submachine gun, where you had to drag the gun back down out of recoil to stay on target. Rainbow Six (1998) / Rogue Spear (1999) handled accuracy vs movement well and did an awesome job with armor and bullet penetration. And in 2007 we had Modern Warfare, which, for all people justifiably bitch about Call of Duty these days, remains one of the best central-server multiplayer FPS experiences I’ve ever had.

So why did CS:GO (2012) do such a terrible job with the most important mechanic in the game? I can’t say, but I do know I doubt I’ll bother picking it up again.

Back on ye olde WordPress…

I’m too busy with other things to make some necessary changes to my static site generator and I want to do some blogging. So, since I already have this all set up from an experiment back in February, here I am! Back on WordPress.

This is running on VestaCP, on a VPS with one Xeon core and—if I recall correctly—just 1 gig of RAM. It feels very snappy, though, much better than WordPress on a shared host server. Of course, it’s also a minimal installation. I just have a security plugin and a couple passive plugins running. I don’t need much more than that for a simple blog.

I’ll probably be using WordPress for a few months, anyway, since writing will remain my main focus until I can get at least two novels done.

That’s all for now.

The Parable of the Pottery Class

This is not an original story, but my rendition of a modern parable. I first read a simpler version of this tale years ago on a software development blog (possibly Coding Horror, but I’m not certain), and I have seen it several places since in various forms. I have modified the story slightly because most versions are written to emphasize the idea that “if you throw enough crap at the wall something will stick”, which is misleading.

The Parable of the Pottery Class

Once upon a time there was a beginner’s pottery class at a small college. The professor teaching the class soon ran into a problem with his students: few of them were completing their assignments within the allotted class time. Despite his prodding attempts to get them to use their time well, most of them simply didn’t know when their pot was done. They would waste whole class periods making endless adjustments to single pots, trying to coax those pots into more perfect shapes.

After the third week of mass dithering, the professor decided drastic action was required. He told the students he was splitting them into two groups as an experiment. The first group, the Quantity group, would be graded on how many complete pots they made. At the end of the class, if they’d made 200 pounds of pots they would get an A, 180 pounds would get a B, and so on.

The other group was the Quality group. They were only required to make *one* pot, but would be graded on the quality of that single pot.

And so the students went to work. The Quantity students spent their classes throwing pot after pot, while the Quality students spent their classes discussing the theory of pottery. What made a perfect pot? How big, and what profile? Handles or no handles? Over time the Quality students each settled on their own idea of pot perfection and threw their pots on the last working day of the class.

It was the professor’s custom to display select pots from each class for students of the next class, as inspiration for the new students. He chose the pots he would display the following semester on the last day of the class. Much to the students’ surprise, all of the pots he selected were made by the Quantity group. Nor could the Quality students argue, because they could see plainly that the chosen pots really were the best.

The professor explained that while paying attention to quality was important, ninety percent of achieving a quality result was *practice*. Thus the students who had made hundreds of pounds of pots had trained their hands, learned tricks and shortcuts, and had become very efficient and adept at producing a quality pot quickly. Even the most careful efforts of the unpracticed Quality group students did not match the casual efforts of the well-practiced Quantity group.

And so, hopefully, the students went home a little wiser than they’d begun.

The end.

I’ll riff on this idea more later. This post is also serving as a test post to see if SteemPress is working properly from my WordPress server. If it is, this should show up properly formatted at about 6 PM EST.