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 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.

 

Ivy Hills, forever.

It has been a year since my husband and I made the drastic decision to settle into one house forever. It’s a daunting word in my world. An endless or seemingly endless period of time. I’ve never found anything even slightly interesting about forever.

Plenty of past homes have been worthy of forever. The front door of our first condo in Chicago opened onto a wall of windows that overlooked the Sears Tower. The full east side of the apartment was a wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan, while the west side overlooked the suburbs. It was breathtaking, and so was the job offer he got from a company in Florida.

When I was in school a few years ago, my 20-something classmates were just beginning to think about their future careers. The subject came up in class one afternoon.

Our instructor would give us the floor to say whatever came to mind after we had spent the week pushing ourselves to the very edge of our personal limits jumping off telephone poles, climbing the Alpine Tower blindfolded, or for me, forcing myself to hang upside down in a kayak for as long as I could hold my breath before escaping.

On this particular day, my classmates were admitting their fear of moving away to some unknown part of the earth. Hoping to relieve their concern, I talked about how exciting it is to move to a new city and to see the world. Trevor very politely spoke up after a bit of silence to say that some people may not be afraid to move across the country, while others (particularly those in our class) may find it terrifying to move down the street.

Here we were, a class full of adventure junkies, and what scared us most was as different as night and day. Move me a hundred times between now and eternity, just don’t leave me in one place.

My husband and I seemed ready for forever though. This is our favorite spot on earth. It’s never too hot, not too cold, but just cold enough. The views will sweep you off your feet – driving down the road, sitting at a red light, hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or in the parking lot at the grocery store.

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A view from the grocery store parking lot.

It’s a quaint, little community. We complain about the tourists all summer, and when they flock in for the prettiest fall colors on earth. As unlikely as it may have seemed prior to this moment, this is home.

We also seemed to be ready to stop remodeling houses, although this one will clearly take us forever to finish.

If the weather is nice, we work outside – where there’s ivy to clear, dead trees to clean up, flower beds to be designed. If a limb breaks off anything, it goes into a vase of water and we wait to see if it will take root. After all, we have forever.

 

Our neighborhood is called ‘Ivy Hills’ by the locals, for good reason. After clearing the ivy from a hidden swan on the back patio last summer, I got the worst case of poison my doctor had ever seen. At the time of this writing, I have poison ivy again on my left shin, left arm, right toe, on my neck, under my chin, and on both sides of my face. Ivy, forever.

 

Mr. Boggs, Dudley and Bentley (left to right) on the stone wall by the patio – now clear of ivy.

If the weather’s bad, we work inside – where there’s still 8 doors, 12 windows, 2 columns, the master bath, and almost every ceiling in the house to be re-painted.

When decorating previous homes, I raced to finish every room (preferably in 3 weeks or less), and once a room was finished, rarely did anything change – not one piece of furniture moved, drapes never replaced, rarely one pillow changed seats.

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Vases of something green hoping to take root in rooms here and there all over the house.

This time my husband has encouraged me to take it slow, be patient, and enjoy the process.

Suddenly, there’s a seemingly endless amount of time to watch how the sun travels across the garden, to experiment with decorating the bookshelves, or finding the best spot in the room for a plant. . . the pillows have finally changed seats.

Forever is beginning to be a little less scary. In fact, forever can be quite pleasant indeed.

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Oodles of time for cozy naps in the sun with a friend (Mr. Boggs and Bentley).

five pounds of rambunctious

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Bentley

Life as we knew it came to a screeching halt six weeks ago. My husband bemoaned him being a puppy, “The animal shelter is full of adult dogs – why did we need a baby?!” Toys are in every room. I step on them in the middle of the night – they go squeak, of course. Potty training is the thought of the day – every day.

I was sure we had added to our family too soon after losing one from our family, and I tried not to fall so hard for him. It didn’t work. Within the first few weeks I realized he would never replace Dakota, and I wouldn’t want him to. He was Bentley, and I already loved him for who he was.

He barks wildly, commands the room at all times, and we’ve barely had one good day of work, or one good night’s sleep since he moved in.

He sits in my lap during coffee, chews my fingers when I type, and growls when we kiss the top of his head. I decided early on he would either get used to my kisses on the top of his head, or he would bite my nose. . . make-up does not cover a bitten nose by the way.

He moves at lightning speed, which took his little catch-me-if-you-can game to a whole new level when he learned to climb the stairs. Getting dressed requires an inordinate amount of focus, and I will admit to having put my running tights on backwards just this week. The first time my husband locked him in the bathroom while he showered, he rolled himself up in the toilet tissue. I babysit while my husband cooks, he babysits while I play the piano. Mr. Boggs babysits when we’ve all lost our minds.

When I realized he was getting too cold in the middle of the night, I put him in bed with me. He climbs on top of my pillow and sleeps on my head, or across my throat. Sometimes in the middle of the night he presses his face to mine, cheek to cheek, as if to say I love you.

 

Maybe life has not come to a screeching halt at all. . .

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Mr. Boggs, and Bentley.

11.21.59

It was a Saturday, the 325th day of the year. Senator John Kennedy was on the campaign trail, Alan Freed, the DJ who popularized the term rock-and-roll was fired by WABC New York, MGM’s Technicolor version of Ben-Hur had just been released, and Jack Benny and Richard Nixon played their famed violin/piano duet. It was the first day of my life.

My grandmother helped pick my name, and it makes me proud when family tells me how much I remind them of her. This name is said to give me the possibility to excel in artistic, dramatic and musical expression. In fact, I have played the piano from a very early age, find great pleasure in the art of interior design, and my husband would say I excel at drama.

 

Left to right: a photo with my younger sister in 1972, Santa’s helper in 1976, and a photo at church with a boyfriend and his nephew, 1978.

I grew up a Preacher’s kid, and lived in a parsonage until I was 19 years old – under the very watchful eyes of my Dad’s congregation. My older sister and I hated it at the time, but that scrutiny, and my Mother’s faithful attention to how we handled it, taught us valuable life lessons.

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My two sisters in the front, and my Aunt Olivia and I in the back of my red Karmann Ghia – which was my older sister’s car before it was mine.

img_2539One of my earliest memories was of JFK’s assassination. It happened the day after my 4th birthday and I was glued to the tv in what seemed the worst tragedy ever. I suppose it remained the worst tragedy in my life until 9/11 – and then, of course, there was this year’s election.

All through high school, I spent as much time as possible on the tennis court with my friend Jane, worked at the local bank after school, and played softball several nights a week. Tennis partners changed, as did the names of the companies where I worked, but this combination of activities went on until I was well into my 30s. It was just perfect.

Life sort of gets bracketed into these segments of time. There’s growing up, being a parent, maybe you have a little ‘me’ time, and then retirement. My husband and I have been in the retirement stage for exactly two years (i.e., 24/7 togetherness).

 

Photos with my son, and my husband on our Wedding Day, 1999

I’ll admit there was a re-adjustment to 24/7 togetherness. I was probably a little skinnier, and in better shape when I had the days all to myself.

He likes to read. I’d rather work in the yard. He likes to cook, and actually enjoys going to the grocery store. I mostly think of eating as a social opportunity. I could go for weeks without watching a minute of the news. He thrives on news. But, to borrow a line from the not too distant past, we are stronger together.

 (far right photo is with my Mom and my Aunt Olivia).

The things that make us so different from one another are also the things that make us so good together. . . and I happen to believe that holds true for all people, all over the World.

These first 57 years of life have brought more sweet treasures than tragedies, and I am a lucky person indeed. Here’s to many more happy years of together.