black_son_of_gray's Journal

Where are you and where are you going?
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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Field Report:
The deep dive through my collective "stuff" and subsequent purge is revealing some unusual stuff.

For example, for the last 12 years or so I have apparently been driving around with an unopened 1993 Coca Cola bottle in my trunk. Right next to a thoroughly melted and hideously deformed Jesus candle, a portable hammock and an answering machine.

Quick check with ebay reveals that I can get approximately nothing for anything, although if I call the candle "art"...

I am only 1/3 of the way through the trunk. Pray for me.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

We've completed our 3186 mile drive across the US (Maryland, W. Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California), and are now settling in as Bay Area residents. It was a pretty good trip!

Car story: A few weeks out from the trip, I took my car into the shop for an oil change. I had only driven a couple hundred miles since the last oil change, but it was still due in terms of time. While I was there, I told them of my trip and said, "If you can find anything at all that might be/become a problem, please let me know". They changed the oil, and said they couldn't find anything wrong with the car. Actually, they said it was in great shape considering its age (15 years old). I had sold my bike and its accoutrements so I commuted for the last two weeks to work by car (bleh!), and things seemed good to go.

Then on the Monday of my last week, I noticed something… peculiar? I was getting situated in the car after work when I noticed the gauges on the dash moving erratically. The temperature and fuel gauge needles would go from 0 to midway in a sudden tick, then would flip back down to 0. Even more interesting - the car was not running and the keys weren't in the ignition. So back to the shop it goes after some furious web searching. Looked like it could be many things, some no big deal, some more sinister. The shop spent a day taking out the instrument panel circuit board and cleaning it (this was the cheaper option vs buying and installing a new instrument cluster). I got a call mid-day at work from one of the guys. Paraphrasing, he said something like "Welp, we cleaned it and reinstalled it, and when we first tested it, it looked like it was fixed. But now it has come back, so we won't charge you. My advice is that you just learn to live with it." Now there is a phrase you don't want to hear just before driving down the "loneliest road in America"! To be fair, they did their best (the "ticking" of the needle was dramatically improved and didn't always happen, so it was more like a partial fix), and I appreciate their efforts (they were a fairly-priced shop that did good, honest work over the years I went to them- I commend them for that).

Long story short - the dash needles weren't an issue for the trip. Somewhere around Nevada, I did notice the engine started having a "rougher" idle*, and that may portend some other problem developing (maybe with the transmission?), but I plan to donate my car in short order because I now live in a 100% walkable location and steep hills+manual transmission= more stress than I want.

*Is it just me? After 20 years of driving a manual, I feel like I notice all the different hums, hiccups, and frequencies of the engine. Also, inexplicably, my manual car doesn't have a tachometer display, so listening is the primary way I navigate shifting. This may have turned me into a engine hypochondriac. I've found that people who have only driven automatics have a hard time/cannot sense when the engine is under strain or at high RPMs etc. I can't quite wrap my head around it, because it seems to obvious to me, but I found this to be true with multiple people.

More to come.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Trip report with some thoughts/opinions/observations from on the road peppered throughout

"There's … no prettier sight that looking back on a town you've left behind" - Townes Van Zandt
Although most of our journey was along U.S. Route 50, our path out of Maryland was on speedier Interstates. Having lived in the Maryland, DC, Virginia region for about 12 years, we felt like we had seen most of the sights we cared to see within a few hours drive, so we booked it out of town following I-70 and I-68 west out of Hagerstown, MD. Despite it being the last time I'll likely be there for a good long while (or ever), the drive here was quite normal feeling and familiar. I'd done this route at least a dozen times in the past (visiting family), and there was no hint of nostalgia or sentimentality. Also, we were both so incredibly busy up until the moment of leaving that we just didn't have any time to dwell on it or take it all in. Perhaps fittingly, this stretch of road was about as clogged and congested as any we were on for the whole trip.

W. Virginia: West Virginia is pretty straightforward when it comes to moving through space: you are either going uphill or downhill. We took a brief afternoon stop on Morgantown to stretch our legs and see what the town looked like. The downtown area was pretty dead - as most college towns are in the summer - in a sleepy and sad way that resembled when the house lights come on at 2:30am in a bar after last call. Colleges are typically surrounded by what I refer to as "college poverty" - retail areas that look a bit grimy and beater houses with couches on the porch that landlords don't want to fix up because frankly the tenants (and their destructive behaviors) aren't worth it. That being said, I was impressed at how many Middle Eastern restaurants I saw both in Morgantown and in other towns we passed through. Wasn't expecting that. Well into the hills, we also saw a single, massive black bull on the highway at a junction with another road. He seemed to be following the general flow of traffic (we were at a stoplight) and in a relaxed mood with a bouncy step. Wasn't expecting that either. Spent the night in Parkersburg, a relatively sleepy town on the banks of the Ohio river.

Technically this was taken in Ohio, but coal-country nonetheless.

Ohio: Added up across various times in my life, I've spent about a decade in Ohio, and for a while it was my answer when people ask "Where are you from?" I'd never cut straight across the south of it before, though. Turns out, it is a similar but gentler experience to W. Virginia - lots of lush greenery and gently rolling hills. There are others on the road with you, but essentially no traffic - you drive however suits you, with plenty of lanes and time to negotiate others. Summertime, and the driving is easy. We spotted Amish in buggies for the first of three times on our journey (all sightings east of the Mississippi).

Southern Ohio: lots of green, not a lot of people.

At one point, perhaps as I was enjoying the scenery, I missed a turnoff and we found ourselves on another highway running parallel to our intended road. Oops. It was a happy mistake, though, because I spotted a Skyline Chili restaurant along the road and we stopped in for some Cincinnati chili (which could make an appearance here). This was to be our only fast food stop of the trip, but because of morbid fascination and the hyper-regional aspect of this "cuisine", we got ourselves a coney and a 5-way. And it was good. Cincinnati itself was an interesting drive because the road hugs the steep and winding banks of the Ohio river, so you don't really know how close in you are until BAM, there is a break in the hills and the downtown is just splayed out right there.

Before the trip, we had considered that we might spend a few hours in the big cities to take a break from driving and to get a sense of place. We abandoned this strategy at Cincinnati - the first big city we came across. For one, the logistics get ugly, as juggling the tasks of (taking the correct exits| avoiding construction| following detours| lane changes| finding parking |negotiating rush hour, which always seemed to coincide with our arrival) is more stressful than you probably want. Furthermore, through extensive discussion on more lonely stretches of highway, we both agreed that big cities tend to all be the same anyway*, and the nuances probably could not be appreciated in only a few hours. In any case, because we were less familiar with rural environments, we felt like it would be a more enlightening use of our time to explore those spaces rather than bigger cities. So we just kept on going, and soon we were out of Cincinnati and Ohio.

*Urban, suburban, and rural are different, sure. But consider the space of "urban" as a Venn diagram, with everything that a city can possibly offer as the "whole". Within this whole, you get stuff like: the arts, restaurants, regional cuisines and cultural practices, nightlife, parks, museum, etc. I contend that almost any relatively big city will cover many of these things (i.e. the subset of this city, while smaller than the whole, is still relatively large within the whole potential space), and because of that, comparisons with other cities result in very large intersections (i.e. mostly overlap of amenities) with only relatively small slivers on the edges as unique features.

Indiana: I have to admit it: southern Indiana was a not a place I would have thought would be enjoyable, but it was probably the best experience we had east of the Mississippi. Finishing up with my job and the tight deadlines of moving meant that we had a rough list of places to see and things to do, but we did not have a firm plan. This turned out to be perfect, because it allowed us to bail on lame places and explore longer in neat places. Not having time pressure helped.

So in Indiana we began winging it. We deviated north to Columbus, because it has a lot of quirky architecture and we thought we might see some of it driving around town. We saw a little from the road, but not a whole lot. Furthermore, we got stuck in traffic in the middle of town because of a slow-moving freight train (#smalltownproblems). After realizing that architecture sounds more appealing that it actually is (to us, at least), we left town. Between Columbus and Bloomington is a tiny town called Nashville, where we stayed the night. Nashville has three things going for it: 1) it has been an art colony for a long time (and continues to be one); 2) it is nestled in the middle of some really nice woods; and 3) a super-cheap but tasty Mexican restaurant (full meal for me: $7.25).

Artsy/touristy shops in Nashville, IN.

We spent an hour or so sauntering by all the little workshops and stores after dinner, with about the best summer evening weather you could ask for. The mixture of touristy kitsch and art was a little sad to me, though, because while on the one hand, these kinds of small tourist towns are probably one of the few places some artists can make it, on the other hand I got a distinct vibe of "art as consumption"*. What I mean by that is, I got the sense that the art, lovingly produced by a dedicated and skilled craftsman, serves mostly as a commemorative tchotchke of the well-to-do spending the weekend glamping (more on glamping later). The next day, after stuffing myself to an embarrassing extent at the all-you-can-eat country style breakfast**, we chose to connect back to Route 50 by taking a scenic route through the Hoosier National Forest. Lots of twists and turns, deep broad-leaf forests making an almost-dark tunnel of the two-lane road, open pastures with a soft morning mist and lots of wild animals (we even saw some turkeys). In the autumn, this sort of place must be crack to city-dwellers, as I'm sure the trees just explode with color.

* Definitely a similar feeling in all the mountain towns of Colorado. Do they exist except to serve the RV-towing vacationer?
** Maybe it's worth chiming in here to say that I basically eat one breakfast every day of the year: oats with berries and nuts. In the week and a half that we were on the road, I probably ate more eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, and pastries than in the preceding decade. It actually wasn't too bad, because 1) it was usually included in the cost of lodging, and I am sure I got my money's worth, and 2) we usually weren't hungry until dinner time.

A pretty great evening and morning in south-central Indiana... then down the road to Illinois we went.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Illinois: Despite a couple hours of research spent trying to find something of interest in southern Illinois, we couldn't. It's just endless fields of grain. Maybe we missed something. We did stop briefly to stretch our legs and take in the sights of Carlyle Lake, which is the largest non-"Great" lake pertaining to the state. Here were the sights: a giant boat ramp and affiliated parking lot, picnic area, and lake-front restaurant - all completely devoid of people. No cars. Nuthin'. The restaurant was closed. Near as I can tell, there was only one boat on the lake.

Missouri: A lot more action in this state. When I was a kid, our family took an epic roadtrip to the Southwest from the Midwest, and I distinctly remember the awe that I felt when we passed through St. Louis and saw the Gateway Arch. Route 50 would have taken us around the city, but because of my nostalgic enthusiasm and desire to share such an incredible awe-inspiring visual spectacle with my SO, I decided to plunge straight through the heart of the city via interstates. Although it was a still pretty neat this time around, there is something about seeing it from the confines of an interstate in rush-hour traffic that dampens the mood. Understandably, I think SO thought it was just alright. More than any other city, traffic was heavy and intense. One interesting aspect to me was that the interstate was just suspended over the city on stilts about 3-4 stories off the ground for a good chunk of the built up area.

Maybe not as glorious as 8-year old me remembered.

Once out of St. Louis, we were a little off course - and once again decided to wing it. We ended up crossing the Missouri River and taking Missouri Route 94 towards Jefferson City along the River. This unexpectedly turned into another great scenic drive. The road winds through some of Missouri's wine country, and also follows the Katy Trail - a pretty nice 240-mile rail trail that I'd be tempted to spend a few days on if I come back to the region. We dropped into a riverfront town for a meal before heading off to Jefferson City to spend the night.

We spent the next morning exploring Jefferson City. It is a weird mix of pleasant (cute little historic downtown, sumptuously decorated capitol and governor's mansion) and unpleasant (large sections of blight one block away from downtown, crazy people wandering the streets accosting people, an infamous penitentiary turned tourist attraction??). Speaking of prisons, SO and I made a fun little game while driving through the numerous small towns on our trip: "Is it a prison or is it a high school?" The fact that we sometimes had a hard time answering that simple question speaks volumes.

The nicer side of Jefferson City.

Back on the road, we stopped in Sedalia to try some supposedly authentic Kansas City style BBQ for lunch. Honestly, the best thing there was the green beans - they were good. SO and I had a running competition of who would order the better meal at the various places we stopped. My strategy was, if a place put their name on a dish, they probably did that because it was tasty and they were proud of it.

I usually won.

We briefly stopped in Independence before driving straight across Kansas City. I don't really have anything to say about either place. Meh, they were fine. This might be the fatigue of multi-day travel talking, or the fact that it was hot that day, of the fact that the massive BBQ lunch was giving me a mild case of the meat sweats. But it's worth pointing out that up until Kansas City, many of the bigger cities looked pretty much the same, and many of the smaller cities also looked pretty much the same (regardless of if they were 1000 miles apart), and the vegetation pretty much looked the same, and the humidity was pretty uniformly high. The biggest difference seemed to be "hilly or flat".

But all of that was about the change… westward, ho!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by trailblazer »

Awesome travelogue. Look forward to hearing about the West!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Kansas: After Kansas City, we shot on over to Lawrence, KS, which seems to me to be a college town that got the balance right - small enough to stay accessible and human-sized, but big enough to not to be completely dominated by the University. For example, the University was not in full session yet (at least, I don't think so), but the downtown area was not dead. On the flip side, the town wasn't dominated purely by boring chain retail - it seemed to have lively events and lots of mom-and-pops. That to me suggests the presence of an actual community.

From Lawrence to Newton (just north of Wichita) was one of the few stretches of night driving that occurred during the trip, so I can't really report on the scenic beauty of Eastern Kansas, other than that there are plenty of large bugs left in the state - and a great many found their way to my windshield*. The last stretch was a mistake, as we were both pretty tired and rolled into Newton in semi-desperate search for a hotel. This lead to the saddest of hotel stays along the way, next to a tractor tailer travel plaza at a poor representative of a chain hotel. The "continental breakfast" was, in its entirety, coffee and toast in a windowless basement. Sometimes winging it goes wrong. Oh well!

*Another night drive down rural roads in Missouri produced streaks of bug guts that haven't been fully erased, despite a full scrub and squeegee at every gas station since.

The next day was a good one with fine weather and an open road on the way out to Dodge City. Because of our evening drive, we were able to make it to Dodge City before noon. This was important to me because we were planning on doing the tourist-trap Boot Hill experience (in part to escape driving in the mid-day sun and heat) and there was going to be a good ole fashion shoot-out that my inner child did not want to miss*. As it turns out, the Boot Hill museum and rebuilt Front Street a la the Wild West glory days was actually quite an enjoyable experience, supplemented with a damned tasty apple crisp a la mode.

*Campy and unexpectedly loud, so yeah, I was satisfied.

Front Street at Boot Hill.

Here's something I didn't know about Kansas: the wind. Sitting in the shade mid-day, the wind provides a very pleasant counterbalance to the heat. During the whole trip, I had two gas pump conversations with strangers. Both were in Kansas. Both warmly wished us the best on our trip. One conversation was with an elderly guy pumping gas into his beat up truck* while is wife waited in the passenger seat. The wind was probably a constant 15-20 mph. I brought up that I never expected it to be so windy and he returned "Oh this is nothing - sometimes is gets up to 60". Sure enough, at one point we passed by an absolutely enormous wind farm, with hundreds of large turbines as far as the eye could see. It's just a shame that there isn't a bigger city around to benefit.

*Trucks! Everything on the road in the middle of the US is a truck. And frankly, I see why.

Behold! The eco-bastion that is central Kansas.

By mid-day we were actually pretty tuckered out again and were looking for a low-key evening where we could just do nothing for a while. We totally scored in Garden City, where we found a decent chain hotel for a decent price (and another cheap but tasty Mexican restaurant downtown). Here's what made it so great: the hotel seemed to be brand new, and had an indoor saltwater pool and hot tub. Ok ok, I get that most people are the opposite of excited about a hotel pool (did someone say Legionnaire's?), but it honestly looked brand new and was completely empty. So we enjoyed a pool and hot tub to ourselves for the evening, got that kind of "good, relaxed tired" that one gets from paddling around in water for a while, enjoyed cookies and coffee while watching a movie on one of the giant flatscreens in our room (there were two!), and slept like babies. Breakfast was also the best of the trip.

Here's another thing I didn't expect in Kansas: Cattle feedlots. I thought it would be endless corn and soy like southern Illinois. It wasn't, although there were a lot of fields and the main signifier of a town was the presence of a grain elevator. Dodge City has a couple of large meat processing plants*, and takes in more than 200 tractor trailers worth of cows a day (at least, according to the nice industry-sponsored video I watched at the Boot Hill museum). On the road, a sizable fraction of the semis you pass by are hauling metal cattle trailers which provide a little puff of putrid scents a few seconds after going by.

*There's just something creepy about business names like "[Insert family name] Meat Solutions". This is entirely due to the corporate-speak bullshit word "solutions".

Feedlots were a whole different story, though. You could smell them a mile away - actually, you could smell them before you could see them. No joke: there are at least twelve distinctly different smells to cow shit, and you'll get to experience them all in the couple of minutes that it takes to drive by these massive facilities. The odor blooms like a fine wine in all the wrong ways. The lots themselves are just metal pens, thousands of cows, brown-black "dirt", and a lagoon or two.

I had two burgers during the trip - one at the beginning and one at the end - and both were really tasty, but I couldn't handle beef for a few days after Kansas.

A single rinky-dink internet photo doesn't do these things justice. This facility was about 10x bigger than what you see above.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Colorado: If you have never been to Colorado, the first 40 seconds or so of this clip illustrates exactly what it is like. For example, you fly into Denver, and driving into town from the airport, you see those majestic Front Range mountains towering off in the distance. They are so prominent, so palpably close, that it doesn't dawn on you that you have a good solid hour-long drive before you climb so much as an ant hill. And then, all of sudden, you're flung headlong into the Rockies.

This phenomenon was distinctly absent for our approach. Clouds, haze, and a mid-afternoon thunderstorm turned our horizon into a gray blur that we kept squinting at, trying to suss out peaks. A lunchtime stop in Pueblo was pleasant enough - we strolled through a nice Riverwalk and downtown area, where I took advantage of day-old scones for 50% off at a local bakery and a semi-crunchy teahouse/cafe.

Downtown Pueblo.

If there was a single "vibe" that distinguished Colorado from the other states, it was this: a distinct blend of "outdoorsy consumerism". I don't mean to sound snide or judgmental, just that there are an awful lot of high-end "gear shops" and expensive SUVs rigged with elaborate roof-racks, knobby spare tires, and bumper sticker CVs, and white people* with dreads who've marshmallow-toasted themselves with sun exposure to an impressive golden-brown while on some all-inclusive expedition.

Case in point: glamping. As the day was waning, and we were interested in seeing Royal Gorge the next day, we left Pueblo in search of some camping just inside the mountains. For a variety of logistical and technical reasons (+ winging it), we settled on a place that had basic tent camping for $50. That extra 0 is correct. My childhood Scoutmaster probably felt a tinge of pain deep in his soul as we pulled into the campground. Here's the kicker: that was the cheapest offering they had. Other campground offerings included little yurt-like tent buildings with full queen beds and turn down service and full on cabins that make tiny houses look, well, tiny. Those went for well into the $400+/night range. No shortage of people, though. Well, that's not entirely true… only three groups were tent camping, including us.

The showers were honestly nicer than many of the hotels we stayed at. And even though we were on the side of a mountain and water had to be trucked up to the campground… coin laundry was available.

In the end, the "camping" was just ok. The sun sliding behind the mountains at sunset was beautiful, and the stars shone against a black sky like you just don't get in the city, but the roar of cars screaming down the highway lingered, echoing off the barren walls of rock and nagging me awake throughout the night.

*There are some really interesting things going on with demographics in the middle of the country, which I won't be able to articulate well, and deserve a lot more attention and thought than I'll give it here. Something along the lines of: "This place seems to be really welcoming and open-minded… but the community seems so homogeneous. Isn't it easier to profess open-mindedness when you don't actually have to deal with the challenges of diversity?"

Our campsite for the night.

In the morning, we rose and packed early, and headed off to Royal Gorge. You can pay $27 to walk across a bridge that spans it, and plenty of people do! You can also hike the rim trail and see many of the same views for free, which is what we did. We had the trail almost entirely to ourselves.

View from rim trail at Royal Gorge.

After a morning of hiking, we drove deeper into the mountains to Salida, a place that I had never before heard of, but which nonetheless marketed itself as "world famous"*. It was nice, and they were having a car show in the park near downtown, so the mood was festive. The feeling that I had in Nashville, IN came back though - the feeling that the whole town mostly just existed as a place for tourists. Evidence: about half of the vehicles on the mountain highways were either RVs, truck campers, or trucks hauling fifth-wheel trailers. The pizza place we ate at was good, though, and I polished off two entrees.

*We passed by dozens of these "world famous" or "world's largest [insert random household object]" places. This is nearly always a harbinger of confusion or mild disappointment. Note that the truly world famous places don't need to mention it.

At this point, we deviated north along a nice long valley to Leadville, which was also having a festival and had a good crowd of people out and about in the streets. We walked around to see the sights, and I got a pamphlet of the activities which immediate excited and bummed me out. I was excited because I learned what burro racing was; I was bummed because we didn't get to see it.
Each burro will be required to be equipped with a regulation pack saddle packed with prospector’s paraphernalia and must include a pick, shovel, and gold pan.
Any race that involves a human, a donkey, and mandatory pickaxe is a race I want to see. (If you look into the winning times, you'll see that they are fast too!)

We left the Rockies by joining up with Interstate 70 and heading west. While I really love big mountains, I was feeling a hint of disappointment this time around - even though I enjoyed the trip through them. For whatever reason, I really get a powerful sense of awe from gigantic natural features, and it felt like I just hadn't scratched the itch.

Enter the fortuitous choice of taking I-70 west. You'd think it would have been on my radar, but I hadn't ever heard of Glenwood Canyon. This is probably because the canyon, dramatic and beautiful as it is, only has enough room for I-70 and the Colorado River. No other development for a good 15 miles, which means it's just you and gobsmacking views for a good quarter hour. Outside of Eastern Utah, this is probably my favorite stretch of road in the US.

Not my picture of Glenwood Canyon (Wikipedia), but you get the point.

After Glenwood Canyon, the mountains slowly morphed into mesas and soon enough we were in Grand Junction, where we spent the night in a funky little historic downtown hotel that managed by the skin of its teeth to keep from being seedy.

Mesas around Grand Junction.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by daylen »

I grew up in Lawrence! Great town!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Utah: When you've been on the road for a week already, you're a little concerned about the condition of your car, and the forecasted high temperature for the day is 105F in a place that has… zero service stations (if we are rounding), you start to reconsider travel plans.

We had planned to spend an extra day in Utah, soaking all the wonderful sights around Moab (e.g. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, Castle Valley - if you are into Westworld). Instead, we rose early in Grand Junction and plowed across Utah in one day. We didn't get stranded, didn't try camping in a place where overnight lows were still well into the 80s, and we didn't turn into golden-brown toasted marshmallows. No regrets. [I'd love to return to eastern Utah in a non-summer month!]

Despite our cowardly behavior, just driving through eastern Utah was a buffet of spectacular landscapes and a rewarding experience on its own. A huge diversity of rock formations, mountains, canyons, mesas, buttes - in a dazzlingly array of colors - awaits anyone who drives down the road.

Of course, nothing else awaits the traveler. A series of road signs makes that quite clear, with warnings like "No service for the next 110 miles". For the first time on the trip, and largely holding true for the next 700+ miles (Grand Junction, CO to Carson City, NV), the view is almost completely devoid of evidence of humans. It's just you, the road, a thin barbed wire fence on each side of the road, and maybe, but likely enough not, another vehicle somewhere within your front and rear views to the horizon.





Of course, pictures can't really do it justice because they just can't capture the scale of it all. You are completely encompassed by it. Similar mood as the Grand Canyon, if that helps.

After the visual feast of eastern Utah came the mountain range that runs through the middle of the state (and cooler temperatures). We stopped in Salina to fuel our car and our bellies. Pro tip: almost nothing will be open in central Utah on a Sunday. All of the heathens wind up at the same cafe. Still plenty of room though.

Lemme just say, it seemed to me that there was a strict quota for natural beauty in Utah. The inkwell must have spilled in the east, because there was nothing left for scrawling in western Utah. We entertained ourselves by trying to come up with as many synonyms to "desolation" as we could. "A place where even the sagebrush gave up and went home." We also don't have any good pictures (it's a bad sign when the camera's autofocus can't find anything of note to focus on), but rest assured that nearly barren ground and milky haze that blurred the nondescript horizon was there.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by trfie »

jacob wrote:
Fri Jan 05, 2018 2:06 pm
Ha! The working title of the book I've been writing/working on is actually "The Middle Game", but it has very few chess references. Only 1 so far. I'm probably gonna change it eventually lest the book drown in a bunch of chess-related search results, but it's an interesting coincidence nonetheless.

For those who are interested in how players at different ELO ratings think (and what mistakes they tend to make at each level), this is a great book: ... 890085022/

And for those who are really interested, Alpha Zero (google's Go computer) recently spent 4 hours playing against itself and figuring out the game---then proceeded to beat the best computer player in the world over 100 games with zero losses. Some of the moves make no sense at all from a traditional "point-counting" perspective and some of them not even from a balance/position sense as far as I can tell (I'm only around 1350-1400 or so, so I don't know much, and it's been a few years since I last picked up a chess piece). Many of the released games show qualities of the Immortal Game. ...

As far as AI developments go, watching those games is some of the most scary AI stuff I've seen yet. Not only is it winning, but it's winning in ways that often don't make sense or are hard to explain. Imagine if something like this was put in charge of military/nuclear strategy :shock: Also crazy how Alpha Zero apparently managed to come up with many of the standard openings (French, Italian, etc.) on its own. More here:
A few corrections:

1. AlphaZero trained its algorithm over 20 hours if I recall, plus the 4 hours playing against itself, so it was really 24 hours. But since it was a very powerful computer cluster, if you multiply the hours by a normal computer, it ends up being quite a large number of hours
2. Stockfish was not #1 in the world computer rankings at the time of the Alphazero-stockfish match.
3. Stockfish was handicapped by the alphazero team, both in its built-in time management algorithm, and it did not have access to its opening book (despite the fact that Alphazero had trained its opening book in the 4 hours). However it was still obviously very strong and the opening moves it played did not look weak.
4. There were some ambiguities and inconsistencies in the initial "paper" they wrote on alphazero, which was not a scientific peer-reviewed paper, and made a number of aspects of what they did unclear.
The games were very high quality, however.

I found it heartening that it did come up with the same standard openings as chess-players, because it shows that human knowledge had converged to the best ideas. Unlike the alphaGo match, where the computer came up with completely new openings and really shocked the Go community.

Maybe the chess references and title in the book is a good idea, because perhaps you can pick up chess-players who are doing searches and become intrigued by your work.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

Nevada: Crossing into Nevada in the middle of nowhere was a relief. For one, right on the state line there is a gas station (see note below), which quiets the niggling worry of being stranded. Honestly, it really shouldn't be that comforting - a gas station is not a tow truck - but for some reason it was for me.

Now, having never previously visited, my naive impression of Nevada was some vague imagery of the scorching hot desert environment around Las Vegas. As it turns out, though, that climate classification ("Hot Desert") only occurs in the southern tip of the state around Las Vegas. The rest of the rather vast state contains many different climate zones - and because of the high altitude and frequent mountain ranges, there are plenty of very comfortable places even in the middle of summer. So the second relief was from the hellish ground temperatures.

Just inside the eastern border of Nevada lies Great Basin National Park, and at this point we were geographically pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Great Basin. To be frank, the hazy wash of "dirt and sagebrush to the horizon" that greeted us at the border didn't give me much hope as we made the turnoff to the national park. I was expecting a sorry affair.

As inviting as Mordor, no?

But it wasn't. Here's the thing: Have faith in the U.S. National Parks system. They are pretty uniformly awesome experiences, staffed by friendly and knowledgable Park Rangers, and almost always "worth it". The park is centered around two mountains, with a lot of high altitude hiking (a summit trail, a glacier trail, etc.). We took a lovely scenic drive from ~7,000ft elevation up winding switchbacks running through the heavily forested mountainside all the way to 10,000ft (7-8+% grade for over 20 minutes - my poor car!) where we arrived at a parking lot and some trailheads.

That's more like it - Nevada mountain road.

We donned some light jackets, water bottles, and some snacks, and opted to hike a trail that climbed up to the tree line and looped around in an ancient bristlecone pine grove. It was a little surreal looking at those scraggly, weather-polished trees. A good chunk of them are a few thousand years old! On the way back, we stopped for a while at a mountain lake and took in the sights before heading back to car. The late afternoon sun lit up the exposed, craggily peaks, yielding some pretty spectacular views. If you are ever in the neighborhood, I highly recommend (it was free, too).

On the trail. These trees are mostly limber pine.

A bistlecone pine.

Another hour down the road and we stopped for the night in Ely.

Golden hour shot of the eco-bastion that is Nevada. Also representative of the general aesthetic of the state - you are either in a long, flat mountain valley with panoramic views of the mountains… or you are in the mountains (probably zig-zagging through a pass).

We spent the night in an historic downtown building that contained (you guessed it) a casino, a hotel, and a Denny's restaurant.

A note about Casinos in Nevada: Remember that first gas station that we saw when we crossed the state line? Yeah, also had a casino in it. By which I mean it had slot machines. Damn near everything in the state of Nevada either is a casino or has a casino in it. I wasn't expecting that. The other major thing that Nevada clearly seems famous for is brothels, which are legal in many places. We might have seen one off the side of the road, but I'm not exactly sure. Because if it isn't a casino, it's a "ranch".

The rooms of the casino hotel were filled with old-timey mining kitsch, like fake sticks of TNT on the wall, miner's caps, and a red-LED-lit lantern dangling over the bed (not joking, and it couldn't be turned off). The bathroom also came with this warning about the showers:


Needless to say, I loved it.

The casino on the lobby level was medium-sized, and had a decent evening crowd considering the size of the town. Cigarette smoke permeated everything. Morning was a different story. At 7am we took the elevator down to the Denny's, and I remember thinking to myself "Pleeeeease don't let there be anyone pumping quarters into a slot machine at this hour". I didn't know if my soul could take that level of sadness so early in the morning.

I was heartened to see the place empty. Our hotel gave us vouchers for a complimentary Everyday Value Slam® breakfast, which was surprisingly good, actually. Enough to buoy my soul when we stepped out of the restaurant 30 minutes later to see an old gray haired guy, dragging on a cig and hunched over a slot machine, feeding in money, with no discernible light in his eyes. No emotion, barely even blinking, just robotically attending to the machine, every move burned into rote. There'd be a couple more slot-machiners by the time we checked out.

We set out that day to tackle the Loneliest Road across Nevada in one day. My biggest worry was that my car wouldn't make it, so when we were checking out I struck up a conversation with the hotel receptionist. I asked her if she knew of a number for a tow truck, just in case something went wrong. She was nice, and regaled us with some of her own car trouble stories, before admitting "Well, if something happens to your car out there, you are pretty much screwed." In any case, she gave us the number of someone local, in case we were close enough into town that we could be helped*, and wished us good luck.

*There were long stretches of road where neither of us had cell phone reception. Also, while we never listened to the radio during the trip, we did turn it on at one point just out of curiosity. We hit "seek" on the FM tuner and it just kept cycling through all the frequencies without ever finding anything.

The following photo sums up the middle of Nevada pretty well:

In the long stretches of valleys between mountain ranges, you know exactly where you are going, because you can see straight down the road for 20 miles to exactly where it enters the next mountain pass. In the mountains, you do a lot of steep climbing, turning, and descending. Before and after each mountain pass, there is a turnout onto the road shoulder designated as the place to put on or take of tire chains. Also, with an example you can see in the photo, there are a disturbingly large number of long, dark skid-marks on the road, which raise a lot of questions - chief among them: "what in the hell is going on out here??" A likely answer is: cattle in the road. Most of the region seems to be open grazing lands, and this is the only place I've ever driven where you routinely experience cattle guards across the highway. Initially I wasn't sure if I should hit one going 70mph...

[ ... Nevada.JPG]

When we rolled into Carson City on the western border of Nevada, we were itching to find a cool, dark place to rest for a while. So we went to a movie theater. Well, actually, we went to a casino which just so happened to be attached to a movie theater. This casino was actually pretty big (as judged by the number of restaurants within it - which was at least 4 plus a couple of bars), and I enjoyed the sensory overload walking through it on the way to the theater. The building itself was really just a big box - not quite the architectural marvel that some of the giants of the Las Vegas strip are. But they did their best, with tropical plants strewn about and by covering every square inch of wall, pillar, and ceiling with a mirror. The end result was a disorienting funhouse effect, and I couldn't help but think about how much Windex they blow through. When we found the theater, we scanned the dozen or so offerings and came to the conclusion that they all sounded pretty lame.

So we went back down to the casino floor, and I did a profoundly un-ERE thing: over the course of 20 minutes, I turned 3 dollars into 75 cents. I was curious as to how someone could sit at these video poker or slot machines all day and enjoy it, so I figured I'll give it a go myself. I put a buck into a video poker game and, after carefully studying the help menus, began to slowly lose my money. These were nickel-per-play games. Sometimes you won 5,10, maybe 15 cents, usually you lost. After only a few minutes, I myself was pretty rapidly pushing the buttons, churning through hands. I lost all interest after about 10 minutes, but I still had 50 cents in credits (and this machine wouldn't cash out any less than a dollar, if I remember correctly), so I continued on until it was gone - not even caring any more. Oh well, maybe I'm a slots kinda guy. We head over to a giant machine. A buck a play. Now, if ever there was an indecipherable gamble, it would be the modern slot machine. It advertised that there were something like 7 ways to win. I put my money in and before I knew it, lights and sounds and spinning came and went, and I was prompted again to enter a dollar to play. Outside of medical billing, this was fastest and most confusing dollar I ever lost. I went to another machine and won … back less than I put in. So I cashed it out. Seventy five cents. Done with gambling forever, although I still remain fascinated by casinos themselves.

We had an early dinner at one of the casino restaurants, which was good but not as mind-blowing as I imagined casino food would be, and left Carson City.

Immediately as we started climbing out of Carson City towards Lake Tahoe, the landscape turned considerably greener. All of sudden we were in an alpine forest with giant pines. We wound through the mountains for a while until at last, the lake appeared sparkling before us. We stopped for the night at a mom-and-pops hotel right on the border between Nevada and California (is a fireplace with a remote control luxurious or tacky??). As when we entered Nevada, right on the state line there are tons of big resort casinos. The evening was very pleasant, so we strolled through a few of them while taking a nice long walk. The patrons seemed to be either spring breaker-type college kids, or retirees, probably at about a (1:4) ratio*. There isn't much to say about Lake Tahoe, other than the place is really nice, but there is an awful lot of conspicuous consumption. We were clearly in a different world from where we'd been earlier in the morning. And this world included 7 dollar green smoothies and dodging unsupervised kids zipping around on electric scooters and skateboards.

*So I don't have a lot of experience with casinos, but I do have a lot of experience with casino commercials and advertisements. I was really curious to see if the portrayals (many super attractive people wearing nice clothes high-fiving each other at the craps table, then heading over to a show featuring flamboyant entertainers before a swanky night at a club) were even remotely accurate. With an n=3 now across all sizes of casino, I can say that they are not. First, there were actually very few table games vs. a vast sea of video games/slot machines, which strikes me as a more expensive and less entertaining version of a video arcade. Second, the demographics are way off. Most people seemed to be retired. Most people were in their street clothes/nothing fancy. Occasionally, I did see some young college-aged groups who had actually dressed up a little - was that the advertising at work? But this was only at the resort casinos in Tahoe. They tended to be in or around the restaurants, too. No one at the games seemed to be excited. Maybe Vegas is different.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

California: SO spent a good amount of time on her smart phone before going to bed in Tahoe, trying to figure out the wildfire situation. We wanted to veer north and visit Lassen Volcanic National Park before crossing over to the northern California coast for some camping around redwoods and driving down on the scenic coastal State Route 1. The fire gods were not on our side. Every single route that we could think of (that was practical) took us past or through large fires, and many of the roads in those areas were closed.

So we followed our mother road, Route 50, to its end in Sacramento and shot across the Central Valley to the Bay Area. We figure that we can visit California's attractions at our own pace in the the off-season. We crossed the Central Valley surrounded at any given moment by more cars that we had seen in several hundred miles of Nevada driving.

Since we were way ahead of schedule due to the fires, we took a nice digressive route to our destination. We cruised through Wine Country, enjoying the winding roads, hills, and small towns of Napa and Sonoma, stopping to eat a late lunch at a farm-to-table bistro before the final stretch.

Wine country

Of course, you've gotta cross the bridge in style to wrap up the journey! Maybe rush hour wasn't the best experience, but it turned out alright: something about my license plate didn't register on the automated camera bridge toll system, and I wasn't even charged to cross.

Queueing up for the Golden Gate.

Final Wrap on Road Trip 2018
A few observations/notable moments:
  • We drove through what seemed like nearly a hundred small towns all across the country. When I say small town, I mean <500 people. Often they don't even have a stop sign or stoplight - the highway just changes to a speed limit of 45 or so. These towns consistently showed two things: 1) An occasional dilapidated home that appeared abandoned until upon closer inspection you realized people were in fact currently living there. This reminded me of the UN report on the third world US. In my international travel, I've seen a fair bit of Japan, Iceland, and Germany (i.e. a fair amount of the countryside and smaller towns). I've never seen anything like these conditions in those countries. 2) I noticed pretty early on in the trip that these small towns often only seemed to have a single retail store (outside of a few local spots like "Bud's Cafe" of something like that), and that these were almost always "dollar stores" (specifically, Dollar General and Family Dollar). That's it. That's all they have within 20+ miles.
  • Some interesting road signs: "EAGLES ON ROADWAY" and "DO NOT STOP TO LOOK AT THE FIRE". Quite a few minutes were spent trying to figure out the merits of "WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS" versus "WATCH FOR FALLEN ROCKS". I think "fallen" makes more sense.
  • We saw a grand total of 1 Trump sign, despite being in Trump country most of the time. We did pass through stretches where there were a LOT of anti-abortion signs. Curiously, we saw a billboard that was specifically against Mitch McConnell ("Ditch Mitch!").
Cost of moving/trip across the country:

Totals for two people:
Gas: $256.77 (8 cents per mile)
Lodging: $868.83 ($95.54 per night for two people)
Food: $440.80 (~$45 per day for two people)
Shipping: ~$1050 for both of us to mail all our stuff.

About the shipping. We shipped everything USPS. If you know what you are doing with Media Mail, and Flat Rate Boxes, you can move a lot of weight cheaply. We made sure to pack the boxes securely and with appropriate packing supplies (I was able to get tons of quality boxes and packing materials from work). Nevertheless, many of our delivered packages looked like they had been put through hell: giant gashes, completely smashed in corners, one box was in such bad condition - a giant hole torn out of one side of the box - that the postal service had to tape it back together to keep the contents from falling out. Amazingly, almost all of our fragile stuff made it just fine, including the laptop I'm using to type this. Our desktop tower, which I packed very well and sent with 'fragile' classification, has suffered some mysterious trauma which banged up the plastic front panel and will only boot in safemode. We'll see what I can do about that, but it doesn't look good. Oh well, everything was backed up anyway. I don't know if other shipping services would have been better - as there always seems to be casualties with moving - but I'm just writing this to let others know how it turned out for us.

Anyway, I wrote all of this travelogue out mostly as an exercise so that I could process the experience and to help myself remember. Thanks for bearing with me, dear reader. Back to our regularly scheduled ramblings.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by classical_Liberal »

Road trips are bar far my favorite form of travel. Thanks for sharing yours!

Your observations about all the small towns are very astute, including the dollar stores, in case anyone ever wondered how all those earnings are generated. Although the really small towns are almost all dying off, the "bigger" towns (say 20K plus) that show up every 50-100 miles are mostly thriving. There are some real hidden gems. Rural USA isn't done yet.

Good luck in the new home!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by suomalainen »

Regularly scheduled ramblings are great, and made even better when interspersed with irregular breakouts of satisfying curiosity.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by jacob »

black_son_of_gray wrote:
Thu Sep 27, 2018 11:45 pm
Shipping: ~$1050 for both of us to mail all our stuff.

About the shipping. We shipped everything USPS. If you know what you are doing with Media Mail, and Flat Rate Boxes, you can move a lot of weight cheaply.
I'm curious how much weight or volume that translates into. I'm having a hard time picturing it. A van load? 1000 cubic foot?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by llorona »

Hey there. Welcome to California!

You're right about visiting attractions off-season. Weather here is pretty mild year-round so there's no particularly bad time to visit.

Not sure what happened with your Golden Gate Bridge crossing, but you need a license plate account or FasTrak transponder to pay toll. If you didn't set up one of those, you might want to check out this site and pay the toll, rather than dealing with potential penalties:

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

I totally agree about the small town variability. Some were great and some were discomfiting, and it often wasn't immediately apparently why - just something about the gestalt of the place. Also, when I saw that a town was "sleepy", I didn't really no what to think. I kinda like sleepy towns, personally, but there is certainly a difference between "laid back, relaxed, slow pace" and "slow death in an economic sarlacc". Hard to distinguish those when just passing through.

More ramblings are definitely on the way, stay tuned. Now with more 50% more mangled metaphors!

I don't have easy access to all of the specific weights (we might have kept the receipts somewhere though). Hope this helps:

Our stuff collectively was probably somewhere between 1-2 shipping pallet's worth of volume, so maybe 0.75 pallet's each. About as much fits in a cargo van.

For the Media Mail, which was 90% books, we had about a dozen ~1 cubic foot boxes. Total weight is what matters here, not really dimensions, with the exception that there is a 70lb weight limit on any single parcel. To give you an idea, I just took this off of a random book box we haven't unpacked yet: To go from Maryland to California was $12.86 for 20lbs 5oz in a ~12"x12"x6" box. So in the ballpark of ~$0.50 per book for 3000 miles.

The Flat Rate boxes were great for heavy-but-small stuff like my tools. As long as it fits in the box and weighs under 70lbs, it ships 2 day and with $50 insurance included. I could often get 20-30lbs in the $14-20 boxes. Some where more like 5-10lbs for $20.

The annoyingly expensive boxes were things like clothes, the computer tower, etc. These boxes could cost as much as $70+ each. We got around some of the larger expenses (e.g. clothes, BIFL pots and pans, which are both heavy and bulky) by filling up the trunk of the car and the back seats. These were also items that could take being cooked in a 150+F car sitting in the sun.

In the end, I don't know if what we did was the cheapest option, but for us there were other important logistical considerations. Some of the shipping options required that everything be shipped bundled all at once (e.g. palletized LTL, like @Augustus was mentioning above), and that would have been tricky with our timeline. As it happened, we were able to spread out trips to the Post Office a couple times a week for a month. This was useful in terms of not having stuff in the way as we were moving/sorting through remaining stuff/furniture. It also meant that we could avoid restaurant meals up until the last day or two because we kept all the pots for the car.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

It has been a little over two months since leaving my job as a scientist and moving across the country, and my day-to-day routine has shifted to a casual blend of [reading | writing | fitness | gardening]. Although I am probably still in the honeymoon phase of unemployment, it has been great. I’ve experienced no remorse, anxiety, or sense of loss from leaving my job. Not only do I not miss it, I don’t even think about it any more.

Since leaving my job, I’ve read about a dozen books - with more than half about the topic of fiction writing (which I hope to try out for the next few months). Altogether, this puts me at maybe 15 books read on “the process of writing” or “the writer’s life”, etc. Some concepts keep coming up in these books, and in looking in the rearview mirror of my professional life, I’ve made a minor personal breakthrough in understanding how my mind works: I don’t necessarily think like a scientist - I think like a writer. Maybe there’s no difference, anyhow.

I’ll explain.

Part I. How I “did” science
The bulk of my life as a scientist revolved around 4 activities: 1) experiments, 2) reading academic papers, 3) writing academic papers, and 4) presentations/teaching.

1. Experiments - For me, actually doing an experiment wasn’t particularly mentally stimulating. If I was lucky, the day’s proceedings involved a mental flow state opportunity (e.g. mine often involved fine tactile skills), but it was usually some physically repetitive drudgery like pipetting solution A into solution B, shaking/centrifuging/precipitating it, then ... Solution C... etc.
The more interesting aspect of experiments was the question: “What is the next one to do?” Early on in a project (typically multi-year), the real answer to this was usually not found in The Scientific Method, but rather, was: “I don’t know, I guess I’ll try this because at least it’ll add another nugget of information that I can add to the pile and maybe that will help.” Often, doing that next experiment provided data that was ambiguous and impossible to interpret statistically. [This doesn’t stop many from drawing conclusions anyway.]
Later on in a project, after a dishearteningly large number of experiments (many of which didn’t bear any fruit at all and were dead ends one way or another), I’d start writing up the research paper (see below). In trying to write a first draft, I always discovered* a whole bunch of things I’d like to be able to state as fact (as part of building an argument), but couldn’t because I didn’t have any hard supportive data. Half the time, these were important control experiments that I should have done years ago at the beginning of the project, were I to have the foresight of what I was really looking for. Sadly, prognostication is a tricky business - in science, doubly so.
*This discovery process didn’t have to be contemporaneous with sitting at my desk with the manuscript right in front of me. More often than not, these “discoveries” occurred while biking to or from work, while going out for a run, or during a morning shower before work. More on this later.

2. Reading papers - This almost never directly helped me figure out something I was interested in. It did, however, deepen the reservoir of tips/tricks/strategies/solutions that seemed to have worked for other people and their topics of interest. (Sometimes these were false positives because not all that publishes is gold.) Reading was an exercise in filling a large toolbox with random tools that you never knew if you were going to need. Often, I would get bored with the material concerning my research focus and read very wide, consuming anything and everything I thought was interesting, taking advantage of the library’s subscription to every journal under the sun. (Nothing but paywalls for me now. :( )

3. Writing academic papers - Apparently some people start writing papers knowing what they are going to say. They write very procedurally and linearly, and the final draft contains the still detectable remnants of the first, although some refinement and tweaking has clearly tightened things up a bit. I know these people exist - I have coauthored publications with some of them.
For the life of me, though, I cannot do this. I always thought I knew what I was going to say, and I’d write it down as the first draft. Often I wouldn’t even get halfway through the first draft before something cropped up. It wasn’t because I hadn’t provided some structure or logical framework for what I wanted to say - I often outlined the main points of my arguments to serve as a scaffold for my draft. What cropped up was the messy business of making sure that what I was saying wasn’t, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Usually this meant that I had to go do more experiments (see latter-stage Experiments above), which would get me to revisit the thinking behind the earlier experiments (and the assumptions, interpretation of that data, context, etc.).
Inevitably, in revisiting or reanalyzing my data yet again (maybe for the hundredth time), or redoing an experiment yet again (maybe with slightly different conditions), or [insert any number of steps in the process], I would discover something new or a deeper understanding about my problem that allowed me to reframe it in a much clearer, more-to-the-point way. This sounds like it should be a great turn of events, and in the end, I think it always was - from a “good science” standpoint. In practice, it was often very frustrating*, though, because I knew what it meant: another round of reanalyzing data, generating new figures, and writing a new draft that was structurally very different from the previous one. To my great relief, though, it also meant that the paper I had been writing, which I now knew to be flawed in some fundamental way (e.g. framing, logical flow, or Type 3 error) was not going to be put out there with my name on it, and that the paper I was about to write was going to be less wrong.
Think about me repeating this process for months to years on any given project and you’ll have a decently accurate portrait of how I “did” science. After a decade or so working this process full time, I’ve yielded maybe a few hundred pages of published academic writing, as bullshit-free as I could make it.

*Consider the often conflicting dual career mandates of a “successful” scientist: one must do exceptionally good and thorough work, and also publish frequently. I always sacrificed pace of publication to ensure the quality of my results. I also probably paid the price of this sluggishness on the academic job market, too.

4. Presentations/teaching - Making the slides for a lecture or presentation involved a very similar process to the writing, but with the advantage that I always knew what I was going to say (the content of presentations was always rather formulaic). The rub with crafting a good presentation was 1) to match the level of detail and sophistication to that of the audience, and 2) to make sure time was budgeted correctly*. Because a choice picture (or rather, an schematic animation) was worth a thousand words, I spent way more time fiddling with the grouping and animation tools for Drawings in Powerpoint than I’d like to admit. Here again, I found that just making a presentation straight through was never enough. I’d make it, run through the slides, mentally churning through what I would say and how, and think about how that might play out for the average audience member. In doing this, I’d often find that big chunks of that presentation were too complicated or unnecessary or out of order. Rinse, repeat. Same process as writing a paper.

*About of a third of senior scientists, who have been giving presentations for maybe 30+ years, are clueless about both of these. Their talks are inexcusably dreadful.

Part II. What I’m learning about how fiction writers really write

Much has been written about fiction writing, and a lot has been condensed into punchy little statements that start to sound like cliches. Some of the nuggets that keep popping up:
  • Realistic and compelling characters are more important than an interesting plot. The reader needs someone to root for.
  • When asked whether they know how a story will end when they sit down to write it, a very large chunk of well-regarded writers say “No.”
  • “Writing is rewriting”.
  • The point of finishing the first draft is just to have something to work with so that you can start the writing process (which, of course, is rewriting). It is unlikely to be good reading, or more tactfully put:
    The first draft of anything is shit. - Hemingway
  • There tend to be two kinds of unproductive writers: 1) those that can't generate (e.g. have “writer’s block; have full novels worth of story in their heads, but can’t ever seem to write it down; or simply can’t come up with anything at all); and, 2) those that can't revise (e.g. have several incongruous and typo-ridden tomes which are instantly rejected by any and every publisher that sees them).
The image of writing-process that emerges is that writers 1) have an story idea and maybe a general outline of plot (or a basic plot arc), but 2) by the time they write it, then revise it, then revise it, then revise it, [...], and are 3) finally satisfied with it enough to send it off to the publisher or the presses, the completed manuscript may be entirely different. For example, entire chapters or hundreds of pages may have been added or axed, characters created or eliminated, or the narrative point of view may have been shifted (e.g. Go Set a Watchman).

Why does this happen? Well, superficially you could say that it is just a function of modifying what was already there in the first draft, but a deeper explanation is that in revising the story, the author discovers new dimensions/details of the characters that they didn’t know when they first started, and those discoveries lead to consequences which are vital to the story and need to be mentioned/modified. In revising a pivotal scene where a character reacts to a traumatic event, for example, the author may realize that the character’s response isn’t quite right - it would be different, given who the character is. While it may be convenient for fitting into the previously outlined plot structure, the character just isn’t being true to themselves. Readers are very keen at sniffing this characters-behave-for-plot-convenience out, and don’t like it. Considering the primacy of character over plot, it comes off an awful lot like bullshit. So the writer needs to the change the story to let the character be true to themselves. Which may mean a huge reorganization of the story. Rinse, repeat.

One interesting idea that I’ve come across with respect to writer’s block concerns two modes of thought: a creative, associative, generative mode and a critical, logical, deliberative mode (c.f. Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2?). The idea is writer’s block is an overdeveloped critical mind stifling the creative mind before it can get anything down on the page. The remedy, therefore, is to develop the skill of turning off/ignoring the inner critic so that the creative mind is free to meander. An exercise that routinely comes up at this point is to practice writing stream-of-conscious musings immediately after waking up. In the hypnopompic state, your critical mind isn’t banging on all cylinders and is less intrusive. In hindsight, I was inadvertently benefitting as a scientist with similar critical-mind-silencing methods (see * in 1. Experiments).

Part III. Putting it together

Are either of these processes - how I worked as a scientist and how fiction writers produce stories - really any different?

Both are forms of iterative rumination. Not the rumination that is associated with negative psychological outcomes, I mean rumination like what a cow does. Here, that means treating ideas/concepts/problems like mental cud, repeatedly retrieving them from mental storage for a cerebral chewing. After a few rounds (sometimes it takes many), new discoveries or parallel associations to another concept are made, or deeper insights revealed.

This style of thinking is also reminiscent of an evolutionary process, with similar properties: it necessarily requires time but the pace of revision of the ideas can be rapid or sluggish (c.f. punctuated equilibrium). While thinking cannot be squeezed into a schedule with a guaranteed payoff, more time is probably better if it can be spared (of course, at some point, there is a tradeoff there).

I guess I could use the label “The Scientific Method” for this thinking process (“chewing the cud”), but it just feels more organic and broader than the specific practice that The Scientific Method brings to my mind. And in any case, I haven’t heard descriptions of novel writing as “scientific”, although the same problem solving algorithm and insights (perhaps more) seem to be utilized. The physicist Richard Feynman was jokingly reported to adhere to the following algorithm...
The Feynman Algorithm:
1. Write down the problem.
2. Think real hard.
3. Write down the solution.
Interesting discussion of that here.

... which is just a stripped down version of the scientific method and/or “chewing the cud”: step 2 is just acting as a black box for a do-while loop where the different possibilities are considered from different angles. In science, that might be hypothesis testing. In literature, that might be plot device or character choice testing. [Any so on for many different applications]

Part IV. Application

I think the articulation of this thinking process, and in particular what I’ve learned from viewing it through the lens of a writer, will be helpful to me moving forward.

Where I think writers have made significant headway over the scientists in understanding the process is that writers have the framework of balance-between-the-creative-and-critical, whereas scientists do not. Editing and revision of a piece of writing (i.e. the do-while loop) require a constant seesawing between creation and analysis, and this is explicitly discussed and cultivated in writing circles. Creativity is just not being discussed in the highest science journals at all (as part of my 2. Reading Papers [above], I’ve looked through just about every issue of Science and Nature, among others, for the last decade).

...Which really brings home the point that I should work to develop a balance between creative and critical thinking modes. My creative mode has clearly been undernourished. It really is baffling to consider how many years of my formal education were devoted to developing “critical thinking” (well over 20), while I honestly can’t recall any particular instance (!) of instruction on how to develop practices to enhance creative thinking. Obviously, there is a heavy selection bias in the training of new scientists towards quantifiable analytical skills (i.e. test scores) and conscientiousness rather than creativity (sadly, “working harder” or having fancier equipment is often the solution to scientific problems vs. coming up with creative, novel ideas). But aren't scientists supposed to be the ones who come up with the brilliant ideas to save the world? They are creatively stunted throughout their education (as, I assume, most every student is). We’re doomed.
Also, this explains why tech innovations are often unoriginal and lame. "It’s like Uber (which is like taxis...), but for helicopters!"

Also, I sense that viewing my thinking through the lens of the writing process will help me troubleshoot and avoid frustration with the challenges of each stage of the process. At conception, I should be mindful to hold back the criticism of nascent ideas and allow them time to be fully expressed. They can be culled later. First drafts don’t need to be perfect. Knowing that the solving of the problem isn’t done all at once, and that new and interesting solutions will likely develop over time if I just keep at it. Going back to the drawing board if something feels like bullshit. Etc.

I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here intellectually. In all likelihood, I've just reinvented the wheel and there is probably a developed field for all of this... but I’m just excited to have connected some dots in my life and hopeful you might get something out of it as well. Are you a cud chewer too?

Mister Imperceptible
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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by Mister Imperceptible »

Your commentary on the lack of creativity on the part of scientists is indeed discouraging. I can see how you would say you think more like a writer- your “ERE as Chess” post got me reading your journal.

I’m subscribed.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray »

I'm on another Vonnegut kick, and came across this sentence, in Hocus Pocus:
Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
(The other flaws mentioned immediately before and after that statement: that it is human nature do disregard people you don't know as insignificant, and that people are just plain dumb.)

This line stuck with me, and I chewed on it today while doing my Sunday chores - yard work and sweeping. It occurred to me that "maintenance" is the final destination, in a sense, of many endeavors. As Vonnegut writes, no one seems satisfied with that destination, probably because the sparkling sense of accomplishment is usually duller for maintenance than building/creating, and the novelty of the thing being maintained is gone. And the uncertainty of the outcome, addictive as that is, is also gone.

Is this all, ultimately, about reward circuits?


I briefly considered whether I'd enjoy pouring a new driveway more than I would the weekly sweeping of the one we've got. I probably would. And that's the challenge moving forward.

In ERE, this relates to the "chop wood, carry water" Wheaton level, although as I think about it, it might be clearer to describe it as "holistic system of previous level habituated into lifestyle". Certainly not as exciting as crafting the formulae in one's wealth accumulation spreadsheet or troubleshooting a preposterously high expense. Tangent: Many years ago, I read a book whose take-home point, at least as I remember it, was that because science was so effective at answering questions, it would eventually run out of important or practical ones to answer, and the costs would ramp up to answer the increasingly trivial questions that remained, and so on, until the public wouldn't stand for funding the science, because it would be answering questions that were too arcane for the public to understand or care about. Budget priorities, or something like that. Anyway, one could say similar things of ERE - at some point, there isn't much left to do but live your life.

Would that it were so simple.

Insight: Consider public discussions surrounding environmental sustainability, and how that quickly morphs into developing new products. Sustainability is ultimately just maintenance, and that isn't nearly as preferable as progress, which is just building more new things. Our best and brightest minds would much rather craft the solution than carry it through. And here we thought our brains were a survival advantage!

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