Entering flow state

I use a trick for getting into flow state.

Anybody who does creative work knows about flow state, where your surroundings vanish and for a timeless period you’re creating whatever is you create. If you’re a writer, the words just, well, flow.

Many writers have some sort of process for achieving flow state, such as a pre-writing ritual, or a specific place or specific set of tools that they reserve for their creative work.

I’ve seen working writers mock these techniques—making fun of the writer who needs the right kind of tea in the right special cup and the right ink in the right fountain pen before they can write. And I do see the mocking potential. But I find having such a process is highly effective in speeding the process of getting into flow state.

The key here is speeding. If your pre-writing ritual takes twenty minutes, it’s not likely to be faster than just starting to write. (Which is, after all, the only essential step.)

But some very short ritual, or some special place or object, if you start using it when you’re working, will become associated with entering flow state. And once it has become associated, just following it or having it or using it makes it easier and quicker to enter flow state.

In my case, it’s a vest that Jackie made me. I reserve it just for fiction writing. Having written a lot of fiction wearing that vest, just putting it on puts me in the frame of mind that I’m going to write fiction.

I can write without it. I probably write more without it than I do with it. But especially when I have only a short period of time to write, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to put my vest on when I sit down to write.

[Update: I just remembered that I’ve mentioned my writing vest before, in my Clarion journal, in reference to Steven Barnes talking about learning to enter flow state.]

Doctor Emery’s Nightmares

If you’re a fan of anime-influenced art jam-packed with memey goodness, I’ve got a treat for you: Doctor Emery’s Nightmares.

[Update 2013-12-06: Doctor Emery’s Nightmares is back! I’d take the original link down when the site was taken over by some advertising crap. Now Doctor Emery has a new tumblr site, so I’m pointing there.]

When it comes to physical objects, I’m at least a generation behind the cool kids. (I not only still have an iPod, my iPod still has a hard drive.) But when it comes to internet memes, I figure I’m only two or three steps behind. I mean, I read BoingBoing. I have an account on Reddit! Even so, I usually have to visit Know Your Meme two or three times for every one of Emily Mongeau’s comics.

But if that’s not you—if you already know your memes—then you’ll find Emily’s comics great fun. And if, like me, you’re a few steps back on your memes, you can still enjoy the art.

Oh, and I should also mention: Emily drew the picture I’ve been using for my favicon for a while now. It’s a picture of my totemic animal: the sloth.

Here it is in slightly less faviconic form. Have you ever seen such a handsome creature?

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

Accurate but useless

Some years back, I read a financial newsletter article that offered a technique for predicting inflation rates six months in advance. It had charts that compared its predictions to actual results, that showed that it was pretty accurate. Not perfect, but more than close enough to be useful for short-term planning.

Then I read the details. Their “technique” was this:

  1. Take the actual inflation for the previous six months.
  2. Double it.

As I say, their technique was pretty accurate. Partially it was accurate because the economy rarely turns on a dime—recent trends tend to continue. But it was more accurate than that, because half the months they were “predicting” had already happened! Even if the next six months were rather different from the previous six months, that would only produce so much change in the full year results.

I think that was the point when I decided to let my subscription to that newsletter expire.

Peanut butter is good

We usually buy our peanut butter from a local health food store that grinds it fresh. The owner comes out from behind the counter, grabs a 1-pound package of peanuts from the cooler, and then takes it back behind the counter and grinds it while you wait. (I think you’re supposed to get the package yourself and bring it to her, but I didn’t know that. Jackie usually does the shopping there.)

Sadly, we just used up our package of freshly ground unsalted unsweetened peanut butter, and for lunch today had to make do with our backup supply—some national brand peanut butter. We keep it on hand for two reasons. It’s less runny than good peanut butter, which is nice when we’re making peanut butter sandwiches to take to a lunchtime lecture at OLLI (or any similar brown-bag event) and want a minimally messy lunch. And it stores well.

It’s not as healthy. It’s salted and sweetened. Worse, some of the healthy peanut oil has been replaced with some less runny oil. (Although they now use less hydrogenated vegetable oil than they used when I was a kid.) But you know what? The commercial stuff tastes good even so.

Still, we’ll get some more freshly ground peanut butter first chance we get.

SLF Older Writers Grant

My first impulse, when I see something like the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant, is to share it with everybody. Then I immediately have a counter impulse: I should keep it to myself! Why go out of my way to encourage competition? And then I have a counter-counter impulse: I’d rather be a member of a supportive community of writers.

At that point, I usually go ahead and share the opportunity with everyone that I think might be interested, with any slight feeling of foolishness balanced by a slight feeling of virtuousness.

In this case, I got over my selfish impulse extra quickly, because I don’t know that many speculative fiction writers over 50 anyway.

They also do an annual travel grant, so that’s a reason to click on over, even if you’re under 50.

J. P. Wickwire review of “Watch Bees.”

Found a very nice review of “Watch Bees” by J. P. Wickwire in last August’s Tangent.

Not only a nice review, but one full of great quotes. Here’s just one:

“Watch Bees” takes place in an utterly engaging, but strikingly off-kilter world; full of characters doused in human potential, and whose voices establish themselves early on.

Support your local groundhog

Weather is a local phenomenon. Oh, weather systems can cover half a continent, but the weather on the north edge of a huge weather system will be entirely different from the weather at the south edge. And any particular spot on the planet sees a unique sequence of weather systems, somewhat different from those seen by other nearby spots, and entirely different from those seen by more distant spots.

This is why I’ve always been completely baffled by celebrity groundhogs.

It makes no more sense to pay attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs than it makes to pay attention to the forecasts of distant meteorologists. In fact, it makes much less sense—a distant meteorologist has the skills and technology to produce a useful forecast for your local area. But I have no more interest in what some celebrity groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow than I have in the local weather report for Hong Kong or Timbuktu.

What matters is what your local groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow this morning! Pay no attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs, whatever their celebrity status!

Hereabouts, it’s rather foggy, assuring us of an early spring.

Electric power

I’m taking a course on electric power. The instructor, Debbie Insana, lived through the blackouts and brownouts in California produced by the intersection of partial deregulation of the energy markets with corrupt individuals at the (also corrupt) Enron corporation. Prompted by that experience, when she moved to Illinois, she wanted a house that required no net energy inputs to function. That was hard to scale for a single house, so she ended up developing a whole subdivision of energy-efficient houses in Urbana. (The instructor’s title was “The Changing World of Electric Power,” but the people administering it decided pimp it up a little and listed it as Shocking Events in the Changing World of Electric Power. )

It’s of particular interest to me, because I’ve studied much of this same material long ago. Back in 1976, when I was in high school, I attended a National Science Foundation workshop on the energy crisis. The physics hasn’t changed, the politics has probably gotten worse, but the technology has changed, and with it the economics. It’s all very interesting.

Yesterday’s session was on wind power. The installed base of wind power is growing very rapidly (albeit from a low base). A good bit of the installation is happening in Illinois—but for an odd reason. As a source of power, the wind here is rated only fair-to-good. The big win is that we have excellent interconnections to the rest of the country, with major transmission lines that let us deliver power to the east coast and to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But Illinois is only slipping in here because of an odd intersection of those grid connections, adequate wind, and tax breaks that encourage building now rather than later. The future of wind power going to be off-shore installations. The wind there is stronger and strong closer to the ground. And, it blows strongly during the daytime, when the power is needed, rather than blowing most strongly at night, the way it does on land.

I’m learning about all kinds of new stuff, from technology such as rare-earth magnets making generators smaller and lighter (easier to install on a wind turbine) to lots of obvious-once-you-think-about-it ideas, such as co-siting a wind farm with a gas turbine generating plant: reliable (gas provides electricity when wind isn’t blowing) and cheap (no fuel needed when the wind blows) and flexible (can operate both to serve peak demand).

Wind turbines only function for a certain range of wind speeds—a minimum speed to begin generating power and a maximum speed beyond which wind load can damage the turbine. In excessive winds, they’re designed to feather the blades, brake to a stop, and then lock in place. The teacher shared a video with us of what happens when these mechanisms fail:

I’m looking forward to the next couple of classes in particular, one on solar and one on balancing power in the grid.

Rolling my own coworking space

Over the course of my career as a software engineer, I only accepted job offers from employers that provided their software engineers with real offices, because I expected I would be less productive in a cube. When my last employer moved us from offices to cubes, that expectation proved correct. However, the situation turned out to be more complicated than that.

For certain kinds of work—certain phases in code generation, certain phases in prose generation—I need large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. That was hard to come by in a cube. When I spent the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 building the necessary state in my head to be able to generate code to solve a particular problem, and then had my manager come by at 10:10 to ask whether I was on schedule, I could quite literally lose a whole morning’s productivity—there was no point in starting over at 10:15, knowing that I’d want to break for lunch at 11:30.

For large blocks of uninterrupted quiet, an office with a door that closes is very much to be preferred.

Because I knew I needed an office—which I have in my apartment—I was surprised to find myself taking an interest in coworking. But it turns out that many phases of my work don’t require large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. In particular, when I pretty much know what I want to write, and it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing it out, a certain amount of activity in the surroundings actually makes it easier to get something done.

I have a few theories about why some surrounding bustle helps:

  • I think it’s good to have other people around me who are also working—modeling good working behavior.
  • I think a little activity makes it easier to just get a first draft down—making it easier to get past my internal critic that would otherwise insist on perfection.
  • I think a little stimulation makes it easier to be creative—providing some randomness that my brain can use to generate new ideas and make new connections.

Whatever the reason, sometimes I want to work in a place where other people are working.

There was a coworking place in Urbana a couple of years ago, called Collective Turf Coworking. I don’t know if they’re still around or not (their website seems to be down just now), but they were much too expensive for me.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of local public spaces that serve the purpose very well.

Both the Champaign Public Library and the Urbana Free Library provide a wide variety of spaces where work can be done:

  • Coffee shops
  • Large tables in the main library area
  • Divided workspaces in the main library area (Champaign Library only, I think)
  • Quiet rooms
  • Four-person study rooms

In my experience, the quiet rooms are quiet enough for me to be productive even on things that require quiet, the spaces in the main library area are only a little noisier, and the coffee shops are pretty noisy. The 4-person study rooms are great when two or more people want to work either individually or together.

The other place I’ve used to roll my own coworking space is the University of Illinois. Its various libraries provides an array of workspace options similar to those in the public libraries, but the main place I like to work is the Illini Union. It offers spaces ranging from the Pine Lounge (a very quiet place with desks and chairs), the South Lounge (just a couple of desks, but many chairs and sofas), the vending machine room (a bunch of long tables with chairs), and a very large Espresso Royale coffee shop.

Both libraries and the University offer free WiFi to the public. The University also offers secure WiFi to anyone with a NetID (which I have through OLLI). Not every space has power, but there are plenty that do. (The Pine Lounge has power at every desk, as does the quiet room in the Champaign Library.)

The main downsides are:

  1. Spaces aren’t reservable. On a day where there’s high demand, it’s entirely possible that all the prime spaces will be in use when you show up.
  2. Spaces aren’t secure. I’m unwilling to leave my computer and other stuff unattended even long enough to go to the bathroom and get a cup of tea.
  3. No off-hours access.

Those issues aside, each of these venues actually offer more options than any but the best coworking space is going to, in terms of a full spectrum from quiet space for individual work, meeting spaces for collaborative work, a coffee shop, outdoor spaces, and so on.