On thinking better

What does it mean to think better?  When I first began my career as a software developer at a company in upstate New York way back in 1973, my first greybeard mentor gave me some advice.  He told me to learn the things that never change because it will give me more time to spend on the new and interesting things when they come along.  That advice stuck with me.

When you think about how much things have changed in the last 50 years with advances in technology and medical research it’s easy to start feeling like what you learned when you were young is completely outdated.   But that isn’t necessarily so.

In my “Quiet Little Town” story, Fred is working on a secret research project  aimed at helping kids think better and make better decisions by placing them in a virtual world where they face difficult, but common life situations.

Today, many high-tech companies are spending hundred’s of millions of dollars on an idea known as the Internet of Things (IOT).  IOT is the modern world of interconnected humans and software-controlled devices intended, along with artificial intelligence, to make our lives easier in the future by helping us solve common everyday problems.

So, a natural question this leads to is:  Will these huge investments in technology and medical research help our future kids think better and ultimately achieve the goal of Fred’s secret project?

Well, as usual, I don’t want to give away what happens in my “Quiet Little Town” story, but let me share a true story that might give you a hint.

In his bestselling book, “Zero to One”, Peter Theil co-founder of PayPal, tells the story of one of Google’s supercomputers that received great reviews back in 2012 when it was able to recognize a cat with 75% accuracy when scanning millions of Youtube videos.  Peter tells us in his book that this technological advance sounds impressive until you step back and think about the fact that a four-year old can do it flawlessly 100% of the time.

The point is that today’s faster computers and artificial intelligence are great at finding patterns in large masses of data, but they can’t hold a candle to a human when it comes to drawing insights from patterns and the ability to think.

The most valuable lesson my old greybeard mentor taught me almost 50 years ago didn’t have anything to do with computer technology or artificial intelligence.  It was how to use my natural human ability to think about a problem in a logical way leading to an innovative solution given a challenging situation.

Perhaps, one of the best things we can teach our kids today is how to use their natural human ability to think critically in common everyday situations.

How to think critically when faced with today’s common everyday challenges is no different than it was 50 years ago, and probably will not be any different 50 years from now.  Thinking critically is how you think better, and it is one of those gifts you can take with you for a lifetime.

On the memories within our lives

Did you ever stop and think about the small incidents within your life that ended up affecting you in ways you never could have imagined at the time?

I am not referring to incidents you would expect to influence you, such as a discussion with a school guidance counselor, but rather something that happened “out of the blue” that you didn’t even think much about at the time.  But then–years later– you find yourself recalling the incident again and again realizing the impact it had on your life.

When I started writing my first fictional book, “A Quiet Little Town” my idea wasn’t to just make up a story, but rather to start with real incidents and real people who have influenced my life. From there I wanted to let my imagination go, but not in a pointless way.

I started the book over twenty years ago, but then set it aside when I got too busy with work.  This past year, as I have been “winding down” my business, I decided to pick the book up again and finish it.

When I re-read it I realized I had a number of these small incidents in the story that occurred in my own life, but I had no idea why I had included many of these incidents in the story.

Then I read a tip that Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author, gave in one of his masterclasses on writing. He said the mistake many authors make is spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to start the story, but not enough time thinking about how to end it.  He said that if you write the ending first, it will make writing the rest of the story easy.

His tip hit home with me. By forcing myself to write the ending, it also forced me to figure out exactly what I was trying to say in this book and which of those small incidents belonged in the book to support my message.

I don’t want to give away the story in this blog, but I will tell you that when I started the book my children were young and I was concerned how my own behavior might influence them because I know how much my own parents influenced me.   Children are going to remember things that might seem inconsequential to a grown-up.  Perhaps we all should  be a little more aware of the little things we do when around children (or grandchildren) because you never know when a seemingly small incident will affect them in ways you never could have imagined.

Is daydreaming really so bad for us?

When I was young, and I suspect it is still true for many kids today, I was frequently scolded for not paying attention in school. Often that happened when my mind wandered which it seemed to frequently do.   But is daydreaming really so bad for us?

In my fictional “Quiet Little Town” story the character named Patrick often falls into daydreaming. When he is young he crawls between the racks of clothes in the department store where his parents shop, losing himself in his own private make-believe world.  When he is older there are many scenes in the book where the boy falls into daydreaming to escape the stresses in his life.

The character Patrick in the story is very different from my own son who also happens to be named Patrick.   I created the character in the book from my imagination based on real incidents I observed happening to my son as he was growing up, as well as incidents that happened to myself as I was growing up.

The Patrick in the story is an imagined character that struggles with self-confidence especially when faced with stressful situations.  In the story, and in real life, daydreaming is a mechanism used to momentarily escape the stresses of daily living. Unfortunately, daydreaming is not viewed positively in many companies today.  But there are some exceptions.

Take, for example, Amazon.com.   In a recent interview Jeff Bezos, the CEO, said that he can’t take credit for the day-to-day success at Amazon because he spends most of his time daydreaming about what the company will look like years into the future.  To further support this positive perspective on daydreaming, according to research published in the Creativity Research Journal daydreaming has been associated with greater creativity in people.

So, this leads to a question:

Is there a way to determine when daydreaming is good for us and when it isn’t?

David B. Feldman, PHD, tells us in an article entitled “Why daydreaming is good for us” appearing in Psychology Today, that one key could be the amount of realism in the daydream.

Feldman says,

“Fantasy-based daydreams can lead to disappointment, emphasizing how we wish our lives would be, but aren’t. Realistic daydreams, on the other hand, show us what might actually be possible for our lives. They give us mental practice pursuing important goals before we have to invest any real time or effort.”

When I read this article it struck home with me.  My motivation for taking up science fiction writing wasn’t to create stories that are unrealistic.  But rather to create stories that are on the edge of being possible in the very near future.

In the story when Patrick’s father, Fred, tells his son,

“You can think of your life as a practice run. A chance to try life out before you go for real,” it isn’t just a fantasy. As the story unfolds it becomes evident this is the realization of Fred’s lifetime dream.

For me, writing science fiction is a natural extension of my own daydreaming that has been part of my life as long as I can remember.  It is not a way to escape, but a way to envision, and hopefully influence, the world we will all find ourselves living in tomorrow.

The problem with labels


Welcome to my new “Problem-Solving in a Cyber World” blog which I have created largely to keep my mind active as I enter what some might refer to as my retirement years (I refuse to refer to myself as being “retired”).  My intent in this blog over the coming weeks and months is to raise some interesting questions and pose some possible answers to challenges many of us face in today’s fast-paced data-driven interconnected internet-of-things world.

Challenges I hope to tackle in coming blogs include privacy, security, artificial intelligence, medical/ethical issues along with a number of simple ideas that have nothing at all to do with technology and remain invariant through all forms of change.

I am kicking off the blog coincident with the release of my first fictional book (I have also taken up fiction writing in my “retirement years”).  And in this blog I want to share a problem I faced (and how I am solving it) in communicating to potential readers just what the book is about.

So here is the problem.

A potential publisher of my book recently asked me what category is my book?  I had to admit I had trouble answering this question because when I wrote it I wasn’t thinking of any specific category.

My first thought was that it must be science fiction because some things happen in the book that are certainly beyond what is possible in today’s world.

Then I was asked who is the intended audience for my book? Adults, children, young adults?  Again, I struggled with this question.

I thought at first it must be young adults because most of the main characters are teenagers, but that answer didn’t feel right because there is also a 52 year old main character and I never intended to limit my readers to a single group when I was writing the book.

I asked a friend to read an early draft of the book, and as soon as I mentioned it was science fiction they replied,

“Oh, I don’t read science fiction.”

What struck me at this point was the problem with labels.

As soon as we slap a label on something, many people immediately turn off thinking they know what it is. This problem isn’t just with book categories and audiences. You can see it everywhere in the world we live in today. The far right, the far left, liberal, conservative, republican, democrat.

If you listen to much news today you probably think that the people in the United States are more deeply divided than ever before. But I have good friends who you could slap many of those labels on, yet I have found when you just ignore the label and spend a little time talking you find most people’s ideas aren’t so different from your own.

I had started to conclude that I had created a big problem by not thinking about my audience and the category of my book before writing it.  If you decide to write a book and you go the route of using a big publishing house you will need to answer these label questions because they are essential in how big publishers go about marketing their books to their “target audiences”.

But I have decided I don’t want to market my book to just a certain “target audience” because I didn’t write it for just a certain “target audience”.  I wrote a story. It is the story I wanted to tell. In future blogs I will tell you more about what motivated me to write this story and what it is about.

Why do I need to label my book and my audience?  As soon as we label something we shut down the minds of many people and we start building fences.  Why would I want to do that?  My book is just a story and I wrote it for people like you and me.


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