Thursday, 10 December 2015

Ada Lovelace' 200th anniversary

I have the impression that computer people have little awareness of, or interest in, their own history. So, time for a very short lesson.

Today, December 10, 2015, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, credited as the first computer programmer. Her claim to that title comes from an article she translated an article on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine from French to English, to which she added copious notes three times longer than the article itself. In it she described how the Engine could handle letters and symbols, not just numbers, and described a method for getting it to repeat instructions; the concept of looping is one of the things a lot of beginning programmers struggle to understand.

In note G, she analyzed several methods by which people could compute Bernoulli numbers, observed that one was particularly suited to calculation on the Analytical Engine, and proceeded to describe how to get it to do so. At this point Babbage thought the Engine was impossible to build with the technology of the time (he was wrong), so she would have had no hope of an actual implementation.  I am told that when people got around to actually building one in 1991 (using technology available to Babbage), they finally implemented Ada's description, and it worked perfectly, the first time. I doubt I've written more than a handful of programs in 45 years that worked perfectly, the first time.

I started programming in the fall of 1970 in Grade 13, and never heard of her until 1979, when the US Department of Defense named a complex and not-especially-successful programming language after her. I'd already been through an Honours Bachelor of Mathematics in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, and had been in a graduate Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon (one of the best in the world for the subject) for five years.  I wish someone had told me about Ada; she is an inspiring figure.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

I took part in National Novel Writing Month again this past November, and realized a couple of things that were new to me.

First, my writing process has always proceeded from a few scenes that came vividly to mind over several months, which I then had to try to stitch together into a story (I am not the only person who writes this way; I talked with a published novelist who does approximately the same thing).  This year I tried outlining, based on Dan Wells' 7-point structure, and it helped make the writing a easier. So now instead of being mostly a pantser, I've moved a little further in the direction of being an outliner. I expect I'll always have some mix of the two, but I think the eventual balance point is going to be further towards outlining than it is right now.

Second, it helps tremendously to have a community to help out in brainstorming.  I'm still in touch with some of the alumni of the Writing Excuses Retreat of 2015, and in three separate sessions they helped me flesh out my ideas and add some new ones. I was happy to be able to return the favour a few times.

Third, I've come to terms with my guilty feeling about writing a lot of junk weak prose during November, in between the good bits.  A lot of people from WXR15, including some of the instructors, emphasized that the first draft is for getting the story out of your head and recorded in an editable form. Making it good is what separate revision passes are for.

Fourth, winning NaNo six times (barely over 50,000 words each year), I still haven't finished a novel; I basically just stopped, exhausted, each time I got over the limit. This time I can see more clearly what the eventual shape of the story should be, and I've resolved to finish this one, even if I wind up trunking it when I'm done. I can't sustain 1667 words per day over the long term at this stage of my life, but I can probably manage to write a few hundred on many days, or edit a few pages.

I'll post again in January or February about whatever progress I've made.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Dan Wells on 7-point structure

The workshops at the Writing Excuses Retreat were all fascinating and educational, but there was one that truly came across like drinking from a firehose: Dan Wells’ talk on “Deconstructing Story Structure.” In it he talked about the Hollywood Formula, and the Seven-Point Story Structure. The former was harder to get my head around, so it may take a while for me to figure out what to say about it. This is a brief summary of the latter, including links to resources I found on the Web.

Thursday, 1 October 2015


The Writing Excuses retreat had four days on which we could get off the ship for a variety of different outings -- usually a choice of 2-3 per stop.  I skipped the cruise company's private peninsula in Haiti, and Grand Cayman, both of which were basically beach-and-diving-and-souvenirs locations. I did get off the ship at Falmouth, Jamaica, and Cozumel, Mexico:

Friday, 25 September 2015

Critiquing at the Writing Excuses Retreat

On Tuesday the Writing Excuses Retreat was in Labadee, Haiti, a private port owned by Royal Carribean. I’m not a beach or snorkeling fan, so I stayed on the ship to prepare for my critique session on Thursday.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

First Sessions at the Writing Excuses Retreat

The Writing Excuses retreat features several sessions where established writers talk about some specific aspect of writing. Sometimes they also have exercises for us to do, which is a significant step up in terms of learning from just listening.

Monday, 21 September 2015

We're on a boat!

This is the continuation of my previous post about my writing retreat/cruise – what happened the rest of Sunday Sep 20.

Flying to Florida

As I mentioned on Google+, I'm on a writing retreat organized by the folks at Writing Excuses, my favourite podcast about writing speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror). It's taking place on a Carribean cruise ship, the Independence of the Seas. This is a brief summary of how the trip has gone so far.

Warning: boring minutiae ahead, likely of interest only to friends and family. Executive summary: I had been hearing horror stories about how bad air travel had become in the 15+ years since my last flight, but nothing even remotely close happened to me. The trip had its minor issues, but nothing particularly unpleasant.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

National Air and Space Museum Annex

Yesterday (Aug 14) my sister-in-law and her husband took my wife and me to the National Air and Space Museum Annex near Dulles Airport outside Washington DC, which I'd never seen. It has some ordinary displays of stuff that is “lower priority” than the things at the main museum on the Mall, but also some very large exhibits that literally wouldn't fit. The annex was huge, and we only saw about 3/4 of it in the 5 or so hours we were there. The three big deals for me, in roughly this order, were the Discovery space shuttle, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the Enola Gay.