Category Archives: Writing

Improve Your Writing with the HemingwayApp

Source: HemingWayApp website, date indeterminate


How Visual Thinking Improves Writing

Source: KQED Mindshift, Nov 2013

writing without fear of consequences is key to developing a writer’s voice.

it’s important for students to have a space to express themselves without specific writing assignments or limitations. They write and draw what matters in their own lives and in the process develop their voice, humor, and point of view. They get to play with language and break out of cookie cutter forms of writing like the persuasive essay.


Human-Machine Symbiosis

Source:  Gizmod0, Oct 2014

the narrative of my book is that instead of pursuing the mirage of artificial intelligence, in which machines will think without us, what’s been particularly successful and will be in the future is making even more intimate connections between ourselves and our machines—having them much more embedded into our lives.

Q: Alan Turing is a fascinating figure. But in your discussion of AI you point to the limits of viewing computing as akin to human thinking. You’re more sympathetic to augmented intelligence, of using powerful machines as collaborators to human creativity. Why is that?

WI: When you look at the history of the past 50 years, the leaps have come from forging more intimate connections between humans and machines, rather than creating machines that don’t benefit from the connection of human creativity. So the concept that we’re about to reach a singularity where machines will be able to do things without us doesn’t seem to follow the data points we have of the past 50 years.

I do believe that economic inequality and a lack of economic opportunity for much of our society is the political, economic, and moral issue of our time.

I wouldn’t blame the app economy or the sharing economy for either causing this problem nor solving this problem. But I think if we dedicate ourselves as a society to making sure that digital tools are used to produce economic opportunity for everybody and a shared prosperity for everybody, that would be great for the whole economy and more importantly it would be the moral thing to do.

Q: What should we take away from the history of the digital age?

WI: America is still the most fertile ground for innovation because we have rebellious and curious people. We have an entrepreneurial spirit, a tolerance for risk and failure. However, there are some things we should pay attention to. One is making sure that everybody gets included in this revolution, including people born in less privileged zip codes and including women.

It’s very important that we use our technology to improve the educational opportunities for all, rather than focusing only on apps that, you know, crowdsource the ratings of restaurants.

That’s not something government can force. I think it’s what we all do as a society ever since the days of Benjamin Franklin. To use his words: “How can we do well by doing good?” I think the next phase of the digital revolution can be more inclusive. I hope.

Additional Resources:

Washington Post, Oct 2014

Isaacson instead eyes the future of collaborative creativity with a clarion call for “poetical science.” He champions the merger of art and technology at the heart of the most successful innovators, from Lovelace to Jobs. “The Innovators,” he writes, is a story of the progress of human-computer symbiosis, not artificial intelligence. Its next phase “will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with . . . media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts.” Indeed, the world’s universities (including my own) are fast at work building infrastructure to instill a “rebellious sense of wonder” in students lest they and the institutions that train them become historical “bystanders.”


What will bring about these poetical innovators? A diverse ecosystem is vital; timing matters; you need venture capital; and a functioning government; big ideas develop across generations; it helps if your mother is a mathematician; war is an engine of change; you never know whom you’ll meet on a train platform; childhood books shape us profoundly; and on and on. But digital geeks scouring their Kindles for insight in this latter-day “Lives” also will find that a basic secret endures — conviction that the best of all possible worlds is limited only by imagination.

 Simon and Schuster website, Oct 2014

I also became interested in how the quest for artificial intelligence—machines that think on their own—has consistently proved less fruitful than creating ways to forge a partnership or symbiosis between people and machines. In other words, the collaborative creativity that marked the digital age included collaboration between humans and machines.

The End of (Solo) Genius

Source: NYTimes, Jul 2014

The big change began with Enlightenment thinkers, who sought to give man a dignified, central place in the world. They made man’s thinking the center of their universe and created a profoundly asocial self.

Meanwhile, as the feudal and agrarian gave way to the capitalist and industrial, artists needed to be more than entertaining; they needed to be original, to profit from the sale of their work. In 1710, Britain enacted its first copyright law, establishing authors as the legal owners of their work and giving new cultural currency to the idea of authors as originators.

This is when we start to see the modern use of “genius.” In an essay published in 1711, Joseph Addison cited Shakespeare as a “remarkable instance” of “these great natural geniuses” — those lit up by an inner light and freed from dependence on previous models.

Freud developed psychoanalysis in a heated exchange with the physician Wilhelm Fliess, whom Freud called the “godfather” of “The Interpretation of Dreams”; King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy (“My dearest friend and cellmate,” King said). Picasso had an overt collaboration with Georges Braque — they made Cubism together — and a rivalry with Henri Matisse so influential that we can fairly call it an adversarial collaboration. Even Einstein, for all his solitude, worked out the theory of relativity in conversation with the engineer Michele Besso, whom he praised as “the best sounding board in Europe.”

… an impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience, which contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective.

The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

… given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we’re likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society. When even one more person is added, roles and power positions harden.

At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head. Indeed, thinking itself is a kind of download of dialogue between ourselves and others. And when we listen to creative people describe breakthrough moments that occur when they are alone, they often mention the sensation of having a conversation in their own minds.

What is the optimal balance between social immersion and creative solitude? Why does interpersonal conflict so often coincide with innovation? Looking at pairs allows us to grapple with these questions, which are as basic to the human experience as the push and pull of love itself. As a culture, we’ve long been preoccupied with romance. But we should also take seriously something just as important, but long overlooked — creative intimacy.

Neuroscience of Creative Writing

Source: NYTimes, Jun 2014

As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.

When the two groups started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.

When we first start learning a skill — be it playing a piano or playing basketball — we use a lot of conscious effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain’s activity as this shift happens.

Even the best-designed scanning experiments might miss signs of creativity, Dr. Pinker warned. … “Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,” he said.

MIT Course 6 (CS) Professor: Take Writing Courses

Source:, Dec 2013

After math courses, the second most useful courses I took were writing seminars — the kind where a small group of students reads and critiques one another’s writing, and the professor functions mostly as a moderator.  It was in such a seminar that I wrote my essay “Who Can Name the Bigger Number?“, which for better or worse, continues to attract more readers than anything else I’ve written in the fifteen years since.  

One writing seminar, if it’s good, can easily be worth the whole cost of a college tuition.

Automated Essay Grading Software

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr 2014

Mr. Perelman wrote the essay in less than one second, using the Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or Babel, a new piece of weaponry in his continuing war on automated essay-grading software.

The Babel generator, which Mr. Perelman built with a team of students from MIT and Harvard University, can generate essays from scratch using as many as three keywords.

Mr. Perelman’s fundamental problem with essay-grading automatons, he explains, is that they “are not measuring any of the real constructs that have to do with writing.” They cannot read meaning, and they cannot check facts. More to the point, they cannot tell gibberish from lucid writing.

Related Article: Slate, Oct 2013