LEGO and Philosophy

My new book chapter in LEGO and Philosophy is out! It’s the latest book in the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.

This was a very fun one to work on. The LEGO and Philosophy book covers a number of thought-provoking topics — from LEGO and creativity, questions of gender and race in LEGO minifigures, Heidegger, metaphysics, and many others.

You can check out the book’s full table of contents on the Wiley website here.

In my chapter, “Building Blocks of Thought: LEGO and the Philosophy of Play” I discuss a number of ideas through LEGO, as well as some thoughts on LEGO itself.

LEGO, with its ethos of building and rebuilding, in many ways can be a helpful analogy for how philosophical thinking can lead us toward new connections between our thoughts and ideas. In that way, LEGO and philosophy invite us to question the nature of play — as well as what philosophy means to us in an everyday context. In the chapter I include a reminder that play and seriousness in philosophy needn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, it can be more helpful to think of philosophy as “serious play.”

In other LEGO news, after a long search, the University of Cambridge has finally found its LEGO Professor! (via BBC: “Lego professor: Cambridge University hires ‘professor of play‘). You can even follow Professor Ramchandani on Twitter for his updates.

And here’s a good article in Philosophy Now, about the approach of using popular culture and philosophy: “Pop Culture ‘and Philosophy’ Books” by John Shelton Lawrence.

Coffee Shop Noise, and Our Brains

180996_135904683249049_388728970_nI love writing and working at coffee shops. Writing and staring at a computer all day gets a little lonely — so there is something mildly reassuring about being in the middle of a hub of humanity at the local Starbucks. And maybe some science suggests we’re more creative for it, from The New York Times (“How the Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity“):

Coffitivity, was inspired by recent research showing that the whoosh of espresso machines and caffeinated chatter typical of most coffee shops creates just the right level of background noise to stimulate creativity. The Web site, which is free, plays an ambient coffee shop soundtrack that, according to researchers, helps people concentrate … 

Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.

A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.”

My preference is for the medium-busy coffee shop; blender noises are too jarring, but even worse are the baristas who sound like they have Carnival Barker listed somewhere on their resumes. Sometimes variety is good: “The benefits of moderate noise, however, apply only to creative tasks. Projects that require paying close attention to detail, like proofreading a paper or doing your taxes, Dr. Mehta said, are performed better in quiet environments.”

family guy writing in starbucksCoffitivity is a great alternative when total silence gets too deafening. They even have an app now ($1.99). My only quibble is that a little more variety in coffee shop type sounds would do wonders — even if it is only ambient noise, hearing the same sound patterns on a continuous loop over and over again can also be counterproductive.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study mentioned in the article has some interesting tidbits: “Switching the color of your computer’s background screen to blue enhances performance on creative tasks, for example, while making it red helps with detail-oriented tasks.” When you’re stuck on ideas, anything’s worth a try, I suppose.

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Lifehacker also has another coffee shop ambiance alternative: “Soundrown Plays Coffee Shop Noise, White Noise, Rain, and More to Help You Focus

On Writing: Standing vs. Sitting

hemingway-standing-desk

I love writing while standing up. Sitting at a desk all day might conjure up a romantic, monkish sort of image; but it’s unnatural to me. And apparently, standing is probably healthier for you than sitting all day, every day anyways.

Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the most famous proponent. Here’s an excerpt from the classic Paris Review interview

“It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window.

A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”

The whole interview is well worth the read by the way. Hemingway’s reflections on writing are timeless.

I think the bookcase is an inspired desk choice. And here’s a great photograph of Hemingway’s standing desk from kottke.org, who also notes: “Other famous users of standing desks included Winston Churchill, Lewis Carroll, Donald Rumsfeld, Charles Dickens, Otto von Bismarck, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf.

For the multitasking sorts, there’s also treadmill writing. (Example: GalleyCat, “Do You Write While Standing Up?“) Too distracting for my tastes, though.

“Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury

Lots has already been written about Ray Bradbury this week, looking back at one of modern science fiction’s most recognizable primogenitors. But I wonder if there isn’t much to be said that Ray Bradbury hasn’t already said himself? That’s what made me decide to revisit “Zen in the Art of Writing.”

What I loved about the short essay collection, then and now, is the sheer enthusiasm about a life of writing: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The I landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!”

The part I still like best is Bradbury’s thoughts on reading books (or “Feeding the Muse”). It’s pretty good advice for writers and non-writers alike: “In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”

It’s a somewhat funny admixture of autobiography, thoughts on America, poems, writing about writing — but the sincere and abiding respect for his subject matter and his reading audience are in some parts really touching. Give it a read. You might just like it.

Some other favorite topics —

On Writing.

“And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.”

On a Reading Diet.

“If we are going to diet our subconscious, how prepare the menu? Well, we might start our list like this: Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile.”

“The Feeding of the Muse then, which we have spent most of our time on here, seems to me to be the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against one’s present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naive ones to more informed ones, from nonintellectual to intellectual ones. Nothing is ever lost.”

On Science Fiction, and Truth.

“The children guessed, if they did not whisper it, that all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.”

“Omit Needless Words” — Thoughts on The Elements of Style

For no reason in particular, I was thinking about The Elements of Style the other day. I’m quite fond of my hardcover copy of The Illustrated Elements of Style.

The New York Times (“‘The Elements of Style’ Turns 50“) shares some of the history behind the archetypal book on writing style —

“William Strunk Jr. wrote and self-published the famous “Little Book” as a professor of English. White, his student at Cornell in 1919 and later an author and essayist, first revised the text four decades later after returning it to prominence with an essay in The New Yorker. … White revised the book again in 1972 and 1979. A fourth edition was published in 2000 with a foreword by White’s stepson, Roger Angell. Since 1959, the publisher says, 10 million copies have been sold.

Strunk began with 7 rules of usage (White would add 4) and 11 principles of composition. He followed them with examples of commonly misused words and expressions. In the end it remains a “little book.” (Rule 17. Omit needless words!)”

There’s something to be said about being well-versed in rules of composition and usage, even if ultimately the writer chooses to take creative departures from those proscribed rules. And after all, someone has to champion those rules, per comments from E.B. White:

“Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct and simple justice.”

And Maria Popova (Brainpickings.org: “A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great“) profiles a new book chronicling its history — Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It sounds like some good reading for the EoS obsessives of the world:

“From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.”

Why does The Elements of Style still matter to writers? Here’s a thoughtful passage from Stylized to think about —

“As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.”

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And here’s The Elements of Style in rap video form. It’s … different. Good job with the mustaches, though.

Atlantic Wire: 15 Excellent Tips for Writing a Book

Working on a book? Check out The Atlantic Wire: “15 Excellent Tips for Writing a Book.” It might be the next best thing to sitting with a group of writers in polite conversation about how to write.

For the practically-minded, check out two highly recommended software aids for helping with productive writing:

  • Scrivener — I’d never used this before, but I think I’m quickly becoming a fan. (Free to try, $45 to buy)
  • Self-Control — excellent for limiting internet-related distractions. Better than others I’ve tried.
Sure, we’ve all probably heard, read, told or been told some of these tips (“Planning. Planning. Planning” is always going to be good advice). But the truth of the matter is that sometimes, we still need to hear it anyways.
  • When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.” — Peter Conners (Growing Up Dead)
  • I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.” — Sylvia Boorstein (It’s Easier Than You Think)

iPhone Apps for Writers

When it comes down to jotting down writing notes and ideas, I prefer analog. I’m very fond of my Moleskine and pencil, and nothing is threatening to replace that anytime soon, or ever.

But sometimes, the iPhone does have its advantages over the analog method.

And thanks to all of that texting and emailing practice, I’ll admit the iPhone makes for a pretty handy alternate for pencil and paper. Sometimes.

I’d often resort to sending myself emails or using Google Docs mobile, or EverNote, or the Notes app. But none of those options are all that satisfying for one reason or another.

Writing apps don’t need to be anything fancy. In fact, simpler is better. It just needs to be easy to use, and work well. Some basic formatting would be nice. Syncing would be a must (“it’s in the cloud!!!”), so you can work wherever you go with minimal hassle. Plus, lots of other multi-purpose apps function perfectly well as writing apps in a pinch.

eBookNewser (“Best iPhone Apps for Writing“) has a nice list to get you started. Personally, I like WriteRoom best out of that bunch but that’s merely a matter of personal preference.

Another useful list, courtesy of Freelance Folder: “The Great Big (30+) List of iPhone Apps for Writers.”

My Writing Spot is worth taking a look at.

I still haven’t found the perfect writing app. Do you know one? Let me know, please!

Favorite iPad Apps for Writers

To follow up on our recent look at iPhone writing apps, I decided to spend some time putting together a list of favorite iPad writing apps. While it’s hard to argue that an iPad is a proper replacement for a laptop or computer, sometimes it does make a handy writing tool. And the right app makes all of the difference in the world.

Gizmodo (“Information Architects’ Writer, or Building the Perfect iPad App“) has some insight on the thought process that went into the iA Writer  writing app–

“the group outlines the many decisions they made in their quest to design the perfect writing environment for the iPad.

The key to good writing, they say, is focus, and the guiding principle of Writer was to minimize distractions. That means no autocorrection, no scroll bars, and no cut and paste. Just you and the text. A Focus Mode even blurs out everything but the three lines you’re currently working on, keeping your focus locked on the sentence you’re writing.”

Aside from the name (ugh), it’s one of the better writing apps out there: a simple and clean design that is actually really good for writing. If you’re looking for a good writing app to start with, it’s worth a visit to their website: www.iawriter.com.

Two features in particular which impressed me:

  • Focus Mode: “Focus mode does not only limit the field of view to one sentence at a time, it also makes sure that the eyes do not need to wander too much around the window while writing
  • Reading Time: “Page numbers work well for physical objects where they have a physical frameset that you can touch, but they are pretty much meaningless for digital text. We believe that reading time is a more useful measure
Different apps suit different kinds of writing. Here’s a list of some favorites —

 

Favorite $0.99 writing appClean Writer. Very simple word processor app, with some minimal customization options (font, background) and syncs to Dropbox. Might be too simple for some. But, dude, it’s $0.99

Favorite iPad app for book planning and writingManuscript ($6.99). I rather like this one. It’s marketed as an all-in-one solution: “Whether you are writing an entire novel, a short story, or even articles for submission to magazines, Manuscript for iPad takes care of the details and lets you focus on writing. This all-in-one writing app will take you from pitch to a publication ready document, in four easy steps” — and guides you through the process (Pitch, Synopsis, Chapter Outline). Also has a nifty Storyboarding feature with index cards.

 

Favorite iPad app for outlining and brainstorming: OmniOutliner ($19.99). It’s a lot of money for an app that does outlining. But, it does outlining really, really well. Check out their website for more features and see what you think.

 

 

Favorite iPad apps in lieu of a real notebook: Moleskine (free) is kind of fun, and looks neat.

But Notebooks for iPad ($8.99) is a much better, full-featured app. It has a ton of file format support: text, HTML, RTF, PDF, MS Office, iWork, photos, iPhone Notes, and Safari web pages. One of the more expensive options, but really a solid and very functional word processing app.

                         

 

Favorite iPad app for handwriting app: Penultimate ($1.99) is pretty one of the best, if not the best note-taking apps for the iPad. And fun to use, too.

Favorite app for poetic inspirationPortaPoet ($1.99). Much easier than keeping a rhyming dictionary on hand.

Favorite app for all-purpose sketching: Adobe Ideas ($5.99). For the visually-minded, this is an impressive amount of software to use as a digital sketchbook.

Favorite app for anything PDF-related: iAnnotate PDF ($9.99). I use this all the time. Has all of the annotating tools, document library management, and importing/exporting you could want.

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Here is an excellent list, courtesy of CopyBlogger, “8 iPad Apps for Brilliant Writing” — in particular, the very well-organized and manageable Chapters app and the journal-styled Chronicle app are well worth checking out.

Check out @iPadGirl: “iPad Apps For Writers,” with a very helpful comparison of various iPad writing apps.

Briefly Noted: The Guardian, How to Write Fiction

Check out The Guardian (“How to write fiction: Geoff Dyer on freedom“) for some nice Sunday reading.

I enjoy reading about how writers write about writing — whether what that is ends up striking a chord with me, or whether I find myself  in complete disagreement — there’s always bound to be something useful in it. Geoff Dyer shares some sage and even uplifting advice:

Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can’t do. The mass of things that lie beyond their abilities force them to concentrate on the things they can.”

Sometimes the notion of thinking about writing about anything and everything can be more crippling than the prospect of having nothing to write about. Limitations can be a blessing in disguise to focus on the things you can do well. Take, Kafka or Beethoven, for instance —

“Was ever a writer so consumed by the things he couldn’t do? Stitch together all the things Kafka couldn’t do and you have a draft of War and Peace. The corollary of this is that what he was left with was stuff no one else could do – or had ever done. Stepping over into music, wasn’t it partly Beethoven’s inability to conjure melodies as effortlessly as Mozart that encouraged the development of his transcendent rhythmic power? How reassuring to know that the same problems that afflict journeymen artists also operate at the level of genius.”

 I’m a firm believer that one’s reading diet is an essential part of the preparation that goes into the writing life. It’s refreshing to see an honest discussion that encourages reading broadly — high literature and “what’s happening on the lower slops” — because one never knows which words you read will end up leaving their mark on you.

“There’s a lesson here. One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look also at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs. We tend to think of ambition operating in terms of some ultimate destination – the Nobel Prize or bust! – but it also manifests itself incrementally, at the level of pettiness. To read a well-regarded writer and to find the conviction growing in yourself that he or she is second- or third-rate, that, in Bob Dylan’s words, “you can say it just as good”, is both encouraging and, if acted upon, a niggling form of ambition. (If it is not acted upon it becomes simply corrosive.)”

Ambition is great. And so is thinking and planing carefully about how to move from Step A to Step B. “I’m going to write a novel” is a goal, but not a plan. Slow and steady wins the race, doesn’t it?

“As with ambition so with practicalities. It’s a daunting prospect to sit down with the intention of writing a masterpiece. If it has any chance of being realised that ambition is best broken down into achievable increments, such as I will sit here for two hours, or 500 words or whatever. Keep these targets manageable and you will feel good about your progress, even if that progress is, inevitably, measured negatively.”

What makes writing great is also what makes it so wonderfully challenging:

“The satisfactions of writing are indistinguishable from its challenges and difficulties. It is constantly testing all your faculties and skills (of expression, concentration, memory, imagination and empathy) on the smallest scale (sentences, words, commas) and the largest (the overall design, structure and purpose of the book) simultaneously. It brings you absolutely and always up against your limitations. That’s why people keep at it – and why it’s far easier to give advice about writing than it is to do it.”

The ebook version of How to Write Fiction: a Guardian Masterclass (which includes the Dyer article and ten additional chapters), visit http://amzn.to/nV7b5W

Writers, Self-Publishing, and eBooks

The Atlantic offers a look at the question of ebook publishing, from the writer’s perspective (“Can E-Books Pay Off for Writers?“). Has it ever been easier for writers to self-publish? Obviously many people are, and some are doing it with great success (example: Wall Street Journal, “Self-Published Writer Sells a Million E-Books on Amazon“).

Granted, all ebooks are not published equally. But in terms of simply getting a book self-published through an Amazon-type of publishing service, it’s remarkably simple:

“The easy part is the process of e-publishing. It is practically free and can be done in a half-hour. Since books can be as long or short as one likes, one has great flexibility … Before you proceed, make sure you own the electronic rights to your book by reading your contract or calling your agent. You will also need to purchase an ISBN number for the title, which costs about $25 from Bowker.com. Finally, you will need a cover image. Now just go to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, register, and, following the very clear steps, publish your book at no charge.” 

Pretty simple. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has certainly lowered the barrier for entry, making it easier than ever for anyone and everyone to self-publish. SmashWords.com is another good — and free —  fairly painless self-publishing option.

One thought that does come to mind is the role of the bookstores (to use the term loosely) in terms of quality control for this new tide of self-published ebook content. If you’ve ever checked out the Kindle Singles section of Amazon, it really is something of a mixed bag. There are “Bestsellers” and “Top Rated” and even “Editor’s Picks”, but I still think navigating and trying to make decisions on the good and the bad is a messy ordeal. It would be interesting to see what Amazon, with its great success with other types of book recommendation, will do with self-published Kindle works. Or, perhaps they won’t … perhaps a free market approach is the idea?

As the Atlantic notes, self-publishing is a venture into the unknown, but certainly a low-cost experiment if there ever was one.

I couldn’t help but think of Stephen King’s great (though ultimately unsuccessful) e-publishing experiment, The Plant, back in 2000. Since it was based on the honor system, and additional installments were dependent upon the readers’ interest and willingness to keep paying, it really was a novel approach. Too bad it didn’t work out.* (Wired, 2000: “Stephen King’s ‘Plant’ Uprooted“)

* Especially too bad for the readers. If you happen to check the Stephen King website for The Plant, it seems that some people are still mad about having paid for an unfinished novel. Most recent comment reads: “wtf!! I have been waiting for years i paid wtf”