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Archive for January, 2012

MaxThink satisfies a need for thinking with a computer that I wrote about 30 years ago and reproduced in a post on September 12, 2009, Time Travel: Musing About MaxThink & More… I invite you to hop back and read the earlier post before continuing.

MaxThink (for DOS) opening screen

I’ve been using computers for about 30 years and in all that time, I’ve only found one program that comes close to the genius of Neil Larson and his old DOS version of MaxThink, the unique and wonderful idea processor, and that’s Brainstorm, a thinking and planning aid program that I used and liked for a few years on my Windows desktop machine. Brainstorm was close but not quite, lacking some of the key features that made MaxThink special.

I began migrating from Windows to Linux almost four years ago and made a complete break over a year ago. I do everything on my Linux Mint 9 Desktop now. Brainstorm runs under Wine but loses some of it’s best features and MaxThink for Windows won’t run at all under Wine (I tried the demo twice last week with no luck), so I’ve installed my old DOS copy of MaxThink94 using DosBox, a DOS emulator created to run old DOS games. MaxThink runs perfectly with DosBox and I couldn’t be happier.

My fingers never leave the keyboard when I’m cranking out ideas and reorganizing them with MaxThink. The keystrokes are intuitive and I was up to speed in a matter of a few days. Not having to use the silly mouse is a huge advantage when you are thinking and typing away.

At first glance, MaxThink is a powerful outliner, but the real power is under the hood. MaxThink came with a fat, printed manual that by some miracle, I still have. Neil’s book is more than a user manual for MaxThink. It’s a well written tutorial on ways of thinking: Evaluative thinking with the Prioritize command, synthesis thinking using Binsort and Randomize to combine information in new ways, curiosity or experimental thinking with the Lock command, systematic thinking using Get, Put and Gather, creative uses of the Sort command, and one of my favorites, segmented lists.

And yes, I end up with a well thought out, complete outline. I can’t print directly, but Neil provides a Write command that saves outlines to an ASCII file that opens in my favorite text editor where I can print the way I prefer anyway.

The journey is everything in creativity and MaxThink makes that journey more productive and pleasant. I created a two and a half page outline mirroring and assisting my writing as I go through lesson three in WritePro. MaxThink helps me to generate new ideas, to discover relationships among ideas, to organize my ideas and to preserve them so I’ll remember and build on the ideas.

The synergy is amazing. Begin a new writing project with an open mind and a blank screen in your editor. Write whatever comes to mind without judging or editing. When you go back for a look, pick out the good stuff, the best ideas and start a MaxThink outline to help organize those insights and discover new ones. Then back to the editor for revisions or a complete re-write. Back and forth between insight and editing until the project is complete. Love the creative journey which is never complete because when one project is finished another beckons.

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This trip into Ceres was back in early May of last year. It was a misty, overcast morning. I remember thinking that I wished I had a camera with color capability that day because of the saturated colors. I was carrying two cameras, both loaded with B&W film. I used my F3HP with 85mm lens for today’s image.

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The water level was low enough for me to get closer and I was determined to get at least one good reflection shot that day. I ended up with a few, this photo is one of the last ones that I’ll be posting from that trip. I had Zen simplicity in my mind that day.

I stopped in the Wenonah Borough Hall today and picked up the Wenonah Trail Guide. The guide has a nice map showing all the trails with access points. If I have time on Friday, I’ll stop for a quick scout of the area. I’m eager to explore new places. Stay tuned.

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Early impressions? After 17 1/2 years? Well, considering that I only used WritePro for a few weeks in 1994, then let the program lie fallow until last week, early impressions are accurate. So what is WritePro? In the words of the author, “WritePro is a hands-on interactive tutorial program for people who want to improve their creative writing skills quickly.” Sol Stein, a respected, master editor and author is the brain behind WritePro. But if you want to get a taste of Stein’s ideas about creative writing before springing for WritePro, I highly recommend his book: “Stein on Writing.” I’ve had this book for a few years and consult it often. It’s good.

WritePro distills Stein’s wisdom into a series of rules (or guidelines in the new edition). My full set of eight lessons contains 140 of these rules. The new, full version is now ten lessons. I completed the first two lessons back in 1994. When I discovered the printouts from these two lessons last week, I set out to recreate what I had done so I could continue the course where I left off.

Lesson one teaches how to create believable characters and how to produce dramatic conflict and begins with the first rule, “Somebody has to want something badly” then jumps immediately into rule #2, “That somebody should be your leading character.” WritePro gets you started by choosing that character for you, Beth Reilly, a 35 year old woman. A text entry box appears on the screen with “Beth Reilly wants” and a blinking cursor. Your job is to create the character. The best way to begin is to simply let your imagination go and begin writing. Don’t worry about being wrong because as you progress from screen to screen you will be given prompts and suggestions on how you might improve your character sketch.

The program saves the content of that first screen as your original so you can go ahead an make revisions as you go. At the end of the lesson, you will be given the opportunity to print both the original and your final draft. Once you finish with Beth, you will create the villain (or opposing character). Villains aren’t necessarily bad, but they are obstacles that create conflict.

When you’ve finished the first lesson, you should have two well rounded characters. You will use those characters, along with three others you’ll create in Lesson two to invent a ‘suspenseful plot’ and weave that plot into two scenes. Sol Stein will be with you the whole way, each new screen offering new rules and suggestions along with plenty of opportunities for re-writing and revising along the way. And remember, whatever you type into the initial box for a new character, scene summary or the scene itself will be saved as the original draft. When you reach the end of the lesson, you can print out character sketches, scene summaries and the scenes themselves and you will get both your original draft and the final version for comparison.

Discovering and reading the old printouts of the two scenes I wrote in 1994 inspired me to get back into the program. I liked what I had written and wanted to see what more WritePro could offer. In the spirit of sharing, I’ve uploaded a pdf copy of those two scenes. You will find the link in a new page I created. Just click on the Stories tab and scroll down to Beth_Reilly, then click on the link to download the pdf file. This will give you an idea of how much I learned in two weeks back in 1994 and another five days transcribing and editing. Keep in mind that the scenes are current, not final drafts and you’re likely to find some grammar and spelling errors.

I started in on Lesson three this week and I’m having fun. This lesson teaches how to write an opening scene that hooks a reader, whose point of view to use and more. I’ll tell you more in a later post.

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The Universe works in strange ways, or so it seems, unless you understand the law of attraction. Last week, I found something that I didn’t know I needed, something I had completely fogotten about, when I was looking for something else.

Last week’s Monday Musings featured several modified contour drawings I had done years ago in June of 1994. I was out of work at the time, having been laid off in the Spring. While looking for work, I was spending my spare time (I had lots of that) trying to be productive and creative.

I was searching for more contour drawings this past Tuesday when I found a dusty old three ring binder. When I opened it, I discovered printouts of some of the creative writing I was doing during that same summer. I found final character sketch drafts and final drafts of the first two scenes from a story that I had completely forgotten. The material was from the first two lessons (of eight) from WritePro, a creative writing program I bought at the beginning of August, 1994. When I saw that the final drafts were dated August 24, 1994, I understood why I abandoned the program. I started an exciting new job five days later as a project manager at Thomas Jefferson University.

All the electronic files are long gone, but I still have the original WritePro program complete with printed manuals. Since I’m serious about developing my skills as a creative writer, I decided that I wanted to finish this course. The version of WritePro that I have is an old DOS version and the OS on my desktop computer is Linux Mint. Now what?

DosBox to the rescue. DosBox is open source software that emulates an Intel X86 running MS-DOS. It was created to run old DOS games, but can also run other DOS programs like WritePro. After I installed DosBox, I fiddled with the screen resolution settings in the configuration file until I got it right. So I’ve got the 17 1/2 year old WritePro working on my desktop. Not only that, I recreated the first two lessons, making a few edits along the way and began lesson three Saturday night.

Well, I got one old MS-DOS program running, why not dig out my old copy of MaxThink 94, also an old DOS program? Got that bad boy running on Sunday morning. Would you believe I still have the excellent printed manual and an instructional cassette tape? I do. In fact I used Max to outline this post. I even figured out how to write an autoexec.bat file that gives me the choice of loading either program automatically.

It’s too soon to write an objective review of WritePro, but I will after I get deeper into the course. I loved MaxThink back in the day and once I reacquaint myself with Max, I’ll write an objective review or two. Both programs are alive and well. WritePro is available as an overpriced ($400) Java program available for Windows or Mac and MaxThink is Windows only, at a very reasonable $29.

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In one of my comments on last week’s enigmatic reflection image, I promised I would feature the next picture, a very different image, from that same roll of film.

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As you can see from the brilliant sunshine, it was a perfect morning for playing with light and shadows. I had been crouched down, close to the water, to isolate the reflections in last week’s image Ceres Park: Reflections in the Cedar Swamp. I stood up for this photo, but I don’t remember if I moved to a different location. I do remember positioning myself to avoid flare because of the intensity and direction of the sunlight.

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I took this picture a few frames earlier in a different section of the swamp where the sun was behind me and a bit to the side. The last time I visited Ceres, this part of the swamp was bone dry.

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This shot is the next frame. I turned the camera back to landscape to capture a different feel from the exact same spot. The portrait orientation emphasised the vertical of the trees. This shot celebrates the horizontal reflections (especially the light & shadows) in the water.

I did stop by the Eldridge hiking trail in Wenonah the other day but couldn’t find the trail entrance. Evidently I was at the wrong end of town. I must stop by the borough office to pick up a booklet that has maps showing the different access points. I want a new adventure and from the pics I’ve found on the Internet, I’ll have one just as soon as I figure out how to gain access. Stay tuned.

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Never ask your left-brain to draw because he doesn’t know how and he doesn’t care either. Try putting your hand out in front of you and drawing what you see.

Left-brain idea of a hand

If you let your left-brain take the job, he’ll (my left-brain is a he of course) draw a hand, not this hand, but a caricature of hand, like the nasty drawing above. Your left-brain will think it lovely because it satisfies his criteria for a hand. He’s good at classifying things but he certainly can’t draw.

Hand Holding a Pipe -- modified contour drawing

If you want to draw a hand, ask your right-brain (I call my right-brain my dragon) to draw what he sees, not a hand holding a pipe, just ask him to trace the outlines of everything he sees. Tell him to take his time and he will, as his eyes trace the details, your hand guides your pencil and an image of a particular hand holding a particular pipe emerges on the paper.

This will drive your left-brain nuts. He has no patience for what he considers unnecessary nonsense and will tell you on no uncertain terms to quit wasting time and get on with it. He’s rude and might jump up and down screaming “talk to the hand” in your virtual ear. Simply smile and ignore him, thinking to yourself that you are the one who is really talking to the hand. He’ll get bored, give up and leave you alone. It simply takes patience and a bit of practice.

Jade Plant -- modified contour drawing

Creativity finds itself in the particular, in the details. Here’s another modified contour drawing that my dragon and I made during the summer of 1994. I put a jade plant in front of us and asked him to draw what he saw.

Creative writing faces the same dilemma. Your left-brain loves to generalize and put everything into neat abstract categories; your right-brain loves the details. Your left-brain wants yes or no answers; your inner dragon loves to imagine the particular, the specific. Here’s an example from my short story “An Emerald Ring” where Elizabeth tells us how she feels about her Aunt Nellie.

Elizabeth could have said “Aunt Nellie was a grouchy old woman” and that’s certainly true but not terribly creative, something your left-brain might say. This is what I wrote instead:

“Grim faced old Aunt Nellie lay there in the coffin, lips so tight it’s a wonder her face didn’t break. Aunt Nellie’s lips barely moved when she talked and if she ever smiled, I never saw her do it. Maybe she smiled in secret, in front of her mirror just for practice.”

When you show your reader, you engage her imagination, letting her draw her own conclusions about Aunt Nellie and how Elizabeth feels about her.

How do you convince your left-brain inner critic to stay out of the way when writing? You give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts knowing that, like a film photographer, you will develop the images later when you edit and re-write, when you welcome the helping hand of your valuable inner critic. When you are writing creatively, your job is to capture the images without editing or censoring.

If you missed the first parts of the series and would like to read them, here are the links:

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story II

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story III

And here’s the link where you can download the full text of An Emerald Ring with my compliments.

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“Research is too important to keep it locked up.” (taxpayeraccess.org). Our health, the health of our environment, the drive for energy independence and more depend on scientific research. Government regulators justify their actions with scientific data. Science impacts our daily lives in more ways than most people imagine. Science neither thrives nor can it serve the public interest when much of this research is either withheld from public scrutiny or available only via expensive subscription.

Unfiltered public access to taxpayer funded science is vital because it creates the climate for a credible vigorous science with the checks and balances essential to the health of an open, democratic society.

Skepticism, from the Greek root “skepticos” means thoughtful and inquiring, and is the foundation of modern science. Scientific theories are tentative, subject to modification or even abandonment until proven through independent testing and replication. Scientists must have the means to communicate openly among themselves to validate and refine the results of their research.

Indeed, rapid and easy access to research data is the road to real world applications of scientific discoveries that give taxpayers a good return on their investment. Equally important, open scientific dialog puts the damper on dubious science and controversial theories that can be used to advance special interests at the expense of the public welfare.

Government has the power to require the release of federally funded research into the public domain as a condition of federal research grants. When Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) in May 2006, he said that “Our bill simply says to all researchers who seek government funding that we want the results of your work to be seen by the largest possible audience. It will ensure that U.S. taxpayers do not have to pay twice for the same research – once to conduct it, and a second time to read it.”

The National Institutes of Health took an important step in the spring of 2008 when they implemented a new policy with the mandate that electronic versions of all peer reviewed articles coming out of NIH funded research be made available in PubMed within 12 months of publication.

The actions of the NIH are a positive first step, but it’s not enough. Nearly half of the 57.5 billion dollars budgeted for non-defense R&D in fiscal 2008 remain locked up behind subscription only doors. And it’s not only the taxpaying public who are locked out. Skyrocketing subscription costs are forcing universities all over the country to cut back on their subscriptions, shutting scientists off from their lifeblood of peer reviewed research.

The FRPAA bill has been in limbo for over two years* after being referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security.

If the proposed legislation was put into the public limelight, brought up to date and passed, all federally funded research would be available for open access.

Government researchers make mistakes too. Controversial science and unproven research methodologies should never become the basis of far reaching, costly regulations without rigorous independent review by the scientific community.

When the Cato Institute published “The Case for Public Access to Federally Funded Research Data” in 2000, they were concerned that faulty science, conducted without independent verification, could become the basis and justification for ill-considered, costly regulations. “Without independent review of scientific data and methodological practices, policy mistakes are inevitable.”

Government regulators can and have caused substantial harm to taxpayers and the economy. They are able to justify their actions because their scientific mistakes often go unchecked and unchallenged. Indeed, the EPA’s handling of the effects of airborne asbestos is a classic case of flawed methodology used to justify mistaken regulations that have cost billions of dollars and hardship to millions with no clear benefit.

For 12 years, between 1978 and 1990, the EPA issued a series of regulations for removal of asbestos containing materials in schools. Suddenly, in 1990, the EPA reversed itself and said that asbestos should be managed in place instead of removing it. Why the reversal? The EPA has never explained but when Congress asked the EPA to measure airborne asbestos in public buildings in the late eighties, the EPA used proper measurement techniques and found no difference in airborne asbestos between the air in the government buildings and the outside air!

Independent review of agency sponsored scientific research by non-government scientists brings balance to the regulatory process and “has had a major positive effect on our knowledge about airborne asbestos, endocrine disrupters, the herbicide 2,4-D, the Dalkon Shield birth control device, and the diet drug fen-phen.” (Cato)

The Shelby Amendment, passed in the late nineties “guarantees, through the Freedom of Information Act, public access to grantee collected data that are used in support of rules or regulations.” But the OMB implementation excludes regulatory agency policies from public scrutiny and that should be fixed. (Cato)

We’re at a critical juncture. The Internet gives us the tools that can lead to a scientific renaissance. All we need is the will to take action. A savvy presidential candidate could bring the debate out into the open, give real meaning to their commitment to an open society and transparency in government and help restore the checks and balances so desperately needed to bring common sense and scientific scrutiny into the regulatory process.

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I received the Sunshine Week Citizen Journalism Award when I originally published this essay on Helium in July-August 2008 during the last presidential election cycle. There’s a new bill in Congress that would lock the door on research paid for with our tax dollars:

New Bill Would Put Taxpayer-Funded Science Behind Pay Walls I decided to re-publish my essay after reading this article, especially since we are well into another presidential election cycle. * I haven’t changed the original text so the time frame needs to be understood in the context of the summer of 2008.

Click on taxpayeraccess.org for additional links to related articles about this bill.

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