Continuations of Thought on Arbitrary Topics (writing a blog)

Artificial Intelligence has been newsworthy for some time, but never before has my curiosity been more piqued than when Jeremy Kahn (Bloomberg) published a story this week in Fortune: “This Article Is Fake News. But It’s Also The Work of AI”.

The story explains that OpenAI, a non-profit artificial intelligence research group in San Francisco, has unveiled a machine learning algorithm that generates synthetic text, or fake text, after being prompted with arbitrary input. The program even adapts to the style of the input – chameleon-like in generating realistic and coherent continuations about a topic of the user’s choosing.

In Kahn’s example, only two lines became the input: “A train carriage containing controlled nuclear materials was stolen in Cincinnati today. Its whereabouts are unknown.”

With no human guidance, the language model finishes the story by explaining in great detail that the incident had occurred on the downtown train line, which runs from Covington and Ashland stations, and that the U.S.Department of Energy was working with the Federal Railroad Administration to find the thief. It claimed the stolen material was taken from the University of Cincinnati’s Research Triangle Park nuclear research site, according to a news release from Department officials, and ended with a quote from the U.S. Energy Secretary, “We will get to the bottom of this and make no excuses.”

OpenAI’s company website reveals other fake news examples generated by the program, including reporting on a war of the orcs, Miley Cyrus caught shoplifting on Hollywood Boulevard, a remote herd of unicorns discovered that spoke perfect English, and JFK has just been elected President after rising from the grave.

In every case, the language model finishes the thought with a completely unexpected, relative and captivating narrative – sometimes on its first try. The implications and potential abuse of this new technology are frightful, but I can’t help being intrigued by the program’s ability to create such colorful stories from a random thought – perhaps because this is also the most compelling challenge of your everyday blogger.

In six years of writing to this blog I don’t think I’ve ever created a cohesive narrative on the first try, no matter how unexpected or captivating the topic. And while it seems like writing a big, fat, fake narrative would be fun, fiction seems to be the most difficult of all writing endeavors. I realized early on that my writing would be limited to reality.

Fortunately even the most mundane ’real’ topics seem fascinating material in those early years of blogging – and they flowed like water.

I had only published 30 posts when I decided to write about my foot. A quick search revealed the Statue of Liberty had been designed with toes just like mine. I named the post, ‘The Normal Variation: A Lesson On Morton’s Toe,’ and the rest is history. That post was the number one read post on this blog for the first five years. Bloggers everywhere will probably understand when I say, who knew?

But you never really know which topic will interest readers. I’ve written two poems – they were both about a day in the life of one or all of my dogs, and I’ve written extensively about my personal running adventures. When there was nothing of interest to write about within those topics, I’d go fishing for a topic.

On one such occasion my searching uncovered comments made at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in June of 1999 by Dr. Stephen Seiler. He had coined the phrase, the “black hole” of training, which, in the athletic world, meant the no-man’s land of mediocrity — a place where an athlete’s high-intensity effort is performed too slow, and the low-intensity effort is performed too fast, resulting in every training effort being performed at medium-intensity…. which accomplishes nothing. I could completely relate to this newfound advice, and wrote a passionate study on how to avoid the moderate middle of training. ‘Training’ became the topic of choice for several years as I explored the depths of distance running myself.

I became enthralled with Arthur Lydiard’s base building philosophy after a Kung Fu classmate had mentioned it in class one week. I spent months working through the program and writing about each phase. That’s about the same time I began to realize just how many runners across the World are also interested in all things running. Readers have visited from over 100 countries, and I love that no matter where we live, we have things in common.

When I went back to school in 2014 I wrote about kayaking, hiking and climbing, but I also learned about Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome that year, and wrote how that theory, and our response or adaptation to stress, can help athletes in their training. Life provided the blog topics, and for awhile it seemed they’d never dry up. Eventually they do, even if only temporarily.

This is where I imagine the OpenAI language model could have stepped in and turned this little blog of mine on its head. I could provide dozens of arbitrary thoughts, and AI could create a captivating post; although the easy answer is not always the right answer.

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Eventually I had a crazy idea to write an entire series about runner’s injuries – taking them one body part at a time, and ‘The Anatomy of a Runner’ was born. The first post I wrote was loosely titled after Meghan Trainor’s song, “It’s All About That Bass,” and it took over the number one spot last year for the most read post. I was nervous about taking on human anatomy, but it has been the most challenging and rewarding writing I’ve done so far.

Beginning this blog has changed my life most unexpectedly. I love to write. To tell a story. And it doesn’t really matter the subject. I’ve risked alienating my fellow runners by writing about my garden, the dogs, our life, or my interior design adventures. It is always a tough decision to do that, but every topic requires that you adapt your style of writing somewhat, and I like that challenge.

I’ve wondered lately how blogs end. Do you plan that last post, or maybe you write a post one day and never return. Maybe the problem is that we run out of ideas, or life no longer seems exciting enough to write about. Maybe life gets too busy to write, or the reason you started blogging in the first place isn’t going so well. Who wants to write about something they no longer do or enjoy.

In 2013 I created a document on my iPad that I named ‘Draft.’ I write my entire post into that document, and edit it several times before I paste it into WordPress (where it undergoes another several gazillion edits). Sometimes my draft document also contains random thoughts or ideas I’ve found to use in other posts.

At the top of the document right now is a quote from Nordstrom’s co-president, a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, and an idea for the title of a future post. There’s also a reference from a study about the known predictors and injury rates of recreational runners who steadily train in long-distances, and the remnants of a post I started last week about our living room, but then deleted out of frustration. Sometimes my draft document is completely empty – correctly reflecting the number of ideas in my head at that time. As my husband says, “Close your eyes.”

There’s dozens of potential topics left to explore though, even if only the first two lines of thought have been generated. As the saying goes, the only way to get better at writing is to write – to encourage yourself to go ahead and write about that arbitrary topic that came to mind in the middle of the night. After all, practice is the only way to get good enough to write an unexpected and captivating story on the first try – without artificial intelligence, of course.

A Tumultuous Downsizing Project

By late October our life had taken a nose-dive toward the uninhabitable center of the earth. We decided to put our house on the market for only the month of October to let fate determine whether we’d finally downsize to our little cottage. Fate decided. We downsized.

For three weeks in November we were betwixt and between two houses; not fully settled into one, not fully moved out of the other. Some people find the whole process invigorating (me) while others find it quite miserable (my husband).

It’s difficult to describe the amount of purging required to fit ourselves into 975 square feet of space. To make matters worse, those 975 square feet had already been furnished for the vacation rental market so there were two houses to clear out instead of just one. We dealt with the furniture first.

My sister was fortunately in the position to take several entire rooms – accessories, art and furniture. Julie, our friend and dearest of all realtors, took another significant portion of furniture and a variety of other things for the very extraordinary vacation rental properties she’s renovating. The two of them saved the day. We kept four rooms of furniture and sent the rest to consignment stores all across town. Then for the next two weeks we dealt with stuff.

For almost everyone I know (except maybe our friends the Markham’s), we accumulate stuff we don’t need. We had buckets of old photos, candles of every color and size, four hammers, three ladders, too many bottles of glue. I had several dozen pairs of shoes, purses I didn’t use, and a matching robe for every pair of pajamas.

Our gym upstairs housed three different types of stationary bikes, a treadmill and a full set of free weights. There were towels in every bathroom, multiple sets of linens for every bedroom, 25-year old Christmas ornaments, a music box my parents gave me 50 years ago, and every medal, racing bib and trophy from the past 11 years of road racing.

There was no chance I would throw everything down to the curb for it to end up in a landfill, so I sorted everything and tried to find the appropriate home for all of it. More than likely I’ve touched everything I own a half-dozen times each.

Eventually the purge ended, and we left our house with barely a whispered goodbye. We were exhausted.

The first week that we lived in the cottage our neighbor across the street walked out of his house and had a massive heart attack right there in the middle of the road. Another neighbor and I reached him about the same time while my husband dialed 911. The neighbor and I performed CPR until the paramedics arrived, and then they worked on him for some time before he was pronounced dead at the scene. It was upsetting for the neighborhood as a whole. I had trouble sleeping for several weeks.

Sunday before last was a beautiful warm day. I spent the afternoon working in the yard and decorating the cottage for Christmas. The man’s widow was out walking their two dogs so I worked my way across the street to offer condolences. The dogs were on especially long leashes and reached me first. Still wearing my gardening gloves, I reached out to let them smell my hands and instinctively bent over to say hello. One of the dogs jumped up and bit right through my nose. A trip to the E.R., a visit to a plastic surgeon, and eleven stitches later I was glad to still have something that resembled a nose on my face. Three days later my son arrived from Texas with his new wife and their two dogs.

We had planned their trip months before we sold the house that had extra bedrooms and plenty of bathrooms, so we booked them into an Airbnb down the street and kept their two dogs at the cottage – along with our three. It was a full house: five dogs, four people, and also love and fun all around. Their trip ended with a freak snow storm that hit Western North Carolina over the weekend leaving us with oodles of snow and only a generator for power.

Ours has been a tumultuous transition, but we do enjoy life at our little cottage – and for the first time since October, there’s nothing to pack, move or get rid of, nothing on our schedule, and enough time in every day for a run. Life is good.

A Lull in Anatomy

I had this idea to write a series of posts on the anatomy of a runner. So far, I’ve published several posts – chapters as my husband calls them – on various body parts and their contribution, or hindrance, to our running goals.

I had set parameters for myself from the beginning. First, each post should contain everything there was to know about the function of a particular area: how our bodies work so ingeniously, what can go wrong, why it goes wrong, and the most up-to-date remedies.

My past frustration was that every resource for this information contained one tidbit of information or another, but not everything. You may hit a dozen some odd sources before finding all you need to know about an injury – not to mention that some of these sources propagate the same gobbledygook year after year despite new research or methodologies, which leads me to my second parameter. . . that I must find the latest and most conclusive research, limiting my references to those studies completed within the past 10 years.

Surprisingly, some topics haven’t been studied in the past 10 years, even though previous studies were inconclusive, and some of the new studies raise more questions than answers leaving us nowhere.

The third parameter was that this would not be a conglomeration of anecdotal advice. If there was ever a personal reference, it should only be to offer affirmation of the scientific findings.

With this in mind, I compiled a short list of running-related anatomical topics. There’d be a post on all the obvious players – the legs, feet, lungs, heart, and the list kept growing. Researching one topic yielded fascinating facts on another topic. I’d cut and paste links to these findings into draft documents dozens of times a day. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became.

It’s not easy to read scientific studies though. They have all kinds of words I’ve never heard before. They’re complex, and, at times, boring with all that science mumbo jumbo. It’s a massive effort to sort through the data, understand it, confirm it with other sources, and figure out how to dialogue it into a post that made sense. After the second or third topic, my husband declared we should plan on these posts taking me three weeks to finish. That proclamation has proven true, and has even grown to six or seven weeks in some cases.

Then I understood we’d have to cover some parts of the body before others, otherwise things wouldn’t make sense. So there became an order to the postings, and the research. Shortly after finishing the upper and lower leg, I realized we’d better address pain, for example. The general topic of pain, even excluding chronic pain, became one of the most intense topics to date. After days of editing, my husband carefully suggested the post was long enough that it could become two topics. I had severely broken the word count bank. I took out any reference to perhaps the worst of all running pain, hitting the wall, and made it a separate post. It wasn’t the only time I split one post into two.

The next topic on my list is the brain. I had already gathered enough research to compile a formidable post when Alex Hutchinson announced his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. I may have been first on the pre-order list, but this great book remains on the table by the sofa still awaiting my full attention. There’s been a lull in my effort.

By all accounts the brain is shaping up to be the most fascinating topic of all the running-related anatomical topics. The past decade has produced “paradigm-altering research” in the world of endurance sports, and what we once viewed as physical barriers is actually limitations created by our brain as much so by our bodies. Pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, fuel, as Hutchinson describes, involves the delicate interplay of mind and body. As does writing I have learned.

Stay tuned – the brain is under construction.

 

Where We’ve Been

Marriage is not always pretty. It can be downright fussy. Until you realize without warning, it’s perfect. I’ve walked down the aisle four times, and ran out the front door three. Maybe it’s not the perfect record, but I’ve always said, I am where I am because of where I’ve been.

The anniversary of my last walk down the aisle was last Monday. Eighteen years ago, at 39 years old, I knew from the get-go this marriage would not go down in the Guinness book of records for the longest marriage ever – we wouldn’t live that long. What I did hope for was a ‘good’ marriage. I felt certain I could accomplish this small feat with the perfect partner.

For those first few years it was obvious you don’t pick the perfect partner – you create one. Then I realized he might be feeling the same way about me. Getting the little things right seemed incredibly urgent. I couldn’t believe he didn’t understand how important it was to turn the lights off when he left a room. He found it amazing I couldn’t be happy with the same cleaning service, gardener, or dry cleaners.

I asked him what he had learned the most after being married to me for 18 years. He said patience. After we I laughed, he told me he’s learned that I’m hard-working, thoughtful, a good listener, and that he appreciates that I have what he calls positive ambitions. The funny thing is I would have said all the same things about him.

He holds my hand when we walk together, and kisses me before he leaves to go anywhere. I think he’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. . . and the last time I wrote glowing things about him to this blog, his ego got so big I could hardly live with him for a solid year.

The first marathon I ran was 10 years ago, which means he’s spent more than half our married life enduring my long-run days, and the resulting middle-of-the-night gimps to the bathroom. It crosses my mind that we’re both getting older and you never know what these middle-of-the-night gimps may be preparing us for.

Our resolve has been tested at times, but our best decision seems to have been to approach everything as partners. We would end up being partners in businesses, investments, as parents to each other’s children, and with our families – although we both agree the most important partnership has been in life itself.

The fast-paced and adventurous early years have transitioned to simple, sometimes lazy days of retirement where it seems more important than ever to be at peace with yourself and each other. We are here, after all, because of where we’ve been.

 

Part One: Coffee Break

In a conventional three-act structure, the goal of the first act is to establish the main character and her internal motivation, since we need to know who the character is before we know why, or if, we care.

We like to know what’s at stake for the character in her quest and what will stand in her way before we reach that pivotal moment that propels us and the character into a new direction, and the second act (this according to “The Nighttime Novelist” by Joseph Bates, a book my sister-in-law gave me).

The book takes a coffee break at the end of each act to review progress – to ensure the voice you’ve set up to tell the story remains true.image

My voice began to take shape three years ago this week when I was attempting to win an argument with my husband. Just before admitting defeat I said, “If I could write my position, you’d understand.” He told me to write it, and when he went to work the next day, I started writing.

My position was posted on a Chicago sports blog where it registered hundreds of views the first day. My husband encouraged me to start my own blog. A few days later I did, and that “position” became my first post.

imageI enjoy reading the last post on a blog and that person’s first post. There’s such raw emotion in a blog’s first post, as if their fingers could hardly keep pace with thoughts that fire in rapid succession. There seems to be a delicate balance between creating a refined, well-edited story, and wearing your emotions on your fingertips for the world to read. A little of both seems ideal, however difficult this may be to achieve.

Last month I took the WordPress Blogging 101 on-line course – along with hundreds of other bloggers across the Planet. A new homework assignment dropped in our email each night, and it wasn’t long before I realized blogging could become a full-time job. I said to my husband, “I know they are going to suggest we change our blog’s theme, and I’m not going to change my blog.” I changed my blog – trying at least a dozen themes before settling on an entirely new look.

The first act seemed to be ending – a good time to review my progress, freshen my look, and ensure my voice remains true in every post.

Some folks write their posts well in advance, schedule them to publish at the most opportune viewing moment, and go on with their day.

Then there is my style. . .

write every word in my brain on this topic, edit, edit, edit, preview, edit, preview, edit, edit, edit – all on the day before I hit Publish, at which time I ask my husband to read it, wait for him to say, “Good”, or “Hmmmm,” sleep on it, or lie awake and re-write everything in my brain, preview it again over coffee the next morning, edit an untold additional number of times before finally I hit Publish. . . eyes clenched shut.

imageIt’s exhausting, and I love every minute. Here’s to Act Two.

 

My first post: It’s Not About The Race; A Runner’s Perspective