Blocks and unblocks

When you can't write, a professor told me in 1993, write about not being able to write. She had good intentions, but if I write about not writing, I end up in recursive spin-loops, wading through mental labyrinths flooded to the knees with half-understood linguistics, brain-function theory, the computational problems of parsing sentences - mixes of technology and philosophy and pure wish-fulfillment that make up my version of science. The mere act of pressing the “s” key can set off a full week of confusion.


Whew. That just about did me in. The number of processes and coincidences inherent in that “S” is exhausting. How did I get to that letter? Why a capital? Oh, and how does the brain work? How does that fit in with natural selection, and the human insistence on God? And where did it start? Can we trace it back to pond-lightning and spitting stars? And why?

This is why it's better just to watch TV. I have never watched TV while asking the cosmic “why,” only the small, self-pitying whys of media and culture.

I suppose writing is one-dimensional; symbols, translated from some mysterious mental workings, are arranged in a line of time. The line is cut and spliced into 2-dimensional pages; pages are layered into 3-dimensional books. The book is distributed; other minds compile the symbols back into the single, long strand of language. A book is a long line cut into bits. It would be inefficient to carry around mile-long ribbons of text wherever you went, endless tapes of symbols.

Cheap analogy: behind modern computers there is the theory of the “Turing Machine,” which is a sort of general case computer. It consists of an infinitely long tape with a little reader, a “state machine,” that can add or rub off symbols on the tape, acting upon the state of the tape according to tape's own instructions. Computers are Turing Machines; they replace the infinite tape with the finite but incredibly small and tight spirals of the grooved hard disk and the more vague, unmoving space of RAM.

So perhaps written language is a kind of Turing Tape, always being erased and rewritten, which makes the book a single state of the state machine. Perhaps we are all state machines and the tape of language is running through each of us, rewriting and editing the tapes left by others.

Or perhaps I am full of shit. Honestly, I'm not expecting much out of myself at this point, and neither should you. Or expect the world; expect truth; and make do with what is delivered.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

That Shaggy Feeling. Soon, orphans. (May 12)

Antilunchism, by Paul Ford. Snack trams. (May 11)

Tickler File Forever, by Paul Ford. I'll have no one to blame but future me. (May 10)

Time's Inverted Index, by Paul Ford. (1) When robots write history we can get in trouble with our past selves. (2) Search-generated, "false" chrestomathies and the historical fallacy. (May 9)

Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

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