Nate Dickson Thinks...

Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

Before diving into computer science I briefly studied (human) linguistics. One of the facts they taught us had to do with the number of words in a language and the number of words it took to express something in that language. The more words you have available to you, the fewer you need to express a thought.

Put another way: the greater the range of words from which you can select, the greater the odds of you knowing a single word that expresses the thought you want to convey, and thus the fewer words you need to express your thoughts.

Put another way: the size of a language and the length of a sentence in that language are inversely proportional.

Put another way: eloquence obviates loquaciousness.

Study By The Fire

Just because I have to be studying doesn't mean I have to be at my desk. Sometimes it's nice to mix school work with a pleasant environment.

Like many of you, I end up doing free tech support for friends and family and neighbors, etc. etc. The most common—and most dreaded—question I get asked in that role is

Why is my computer slow?


Or: Why we think we will eventually figure out faster-than-light travel

Nature: You're basically a prey species. You've got no claws, no fangs, no fur, no real defenses...

Humans: Hey look we sharpened some sticks. Bring it.

Nature: Okay, but you're still really slow and small compared to things like bison and deer.

Humans: We don't need to be fast, there's a bunch of us and we can walk for days carrying our pointy sticks. We'll just follow food until it's tired and then it's stabbity times.

Nature: Okay but you're still cold and probably die in winter.

Humans: Hey look you can use pointy sticks to make fire. And after you stab an animal you can eat the inside and wear the outside. Also, P.S. We used fire to melt this rock and then it turned into a liquid that we poured into some clay shaped like a sharp thing and now that melted rock is a really sharp thing.

Nature: Okay but you're still limited by the animals and plants around you, there's only so many calories to go around.

Humans: Hey look if we get this animal to breed with this animal the kids are bigger and tastier. Also it works with plants. Also we bred the nicest wolves we could find and now they like us. We made enough extra calories to support cuddly house wolves!

Nature: Well, you still can't fly. Ha.

Humans: Hmmmmm. think for a few centuries, build up industry and science and art and math and literature and different forms of government and faiths and cuisine and fossil fuel distillation and finally...


Nature: At least stay in the atmosphere!

Humans: MAKE US.

Nature: Well stay off of the space rocks, those aren't for you, you're a prey species.

Humans: Sorry can't hear you busy landing a robot on an asteroid!

The steps that brought this to you:

  1. I typed this using the Hanx Writer app on the iPad.
  2. Then I printed it using AirPrint, direct from my iPad
  3. Then I took a photo of it, using AirPrint. I folded it just to pretend I had mailed it or something, I don't know. This isn't a project that has a lot of seriousness around it.
  4. Then I uploaded it to
  5. Then I wrote about it and shared it on the internet.

There's no real thesis here, no real point. This was just because modern technology makes it really easy to do pointlessly convoluted things for fun.

The source of this post.

There's that moment when your subconscious nudges you slightly.

“Pen. Paper. Now.”

And that's all the warning you get. So you dig out your notebook and pen and sit down and put the pen to the page...

And something pours out. for the first few characters you have no idea what's coming. And then as the words form you realize that what you're writing is the idea that's been quietly coalescing out of your thoughts and experiences. It formed slowly, like frost on the ground, and when it was ready that other part of your mind told you to collect it before it's burned off by the sun.

The more you pay attention to this little nudge, the more you honor that instinct, the better you get at catching these fleeting ideas. And the more you value inspiration the more of it you will get. The Muses are vain; they only reveal themselves to those that respect them.

To achieve mastery of any skill, the conventional wisdom goes, you have to practice that skill for ten thousand hours. And practice doesn't just mean “do that thing”, it means focus on building that skill.

When we talk about practicing a musical instrument, we've got a good idea of what that looks like. My kids spend half an hour every day practicing the piano, playing songs that their piano teacher assigned them. Their teacher assigns these songs based on their current skill level, and they are calibrated to stretch the students' abilities, to be just a little harder than the students can comfortably play.

And once my kids are done playing their songs, the songs are gone, dissipated into the air around the piano.

But what about practice writing? When I work on the skill of writing, I end up with lots and lots of random little files called things like free write Tuesday, October 30, or random story about Or, well, blog posts like this.

Some people, of course, end up with notebooks full of their words. Tolkien famously used the same paper notebooks over and over, erasing them when they were full and filling them again. His son Christopher has spent a lifetime going through those notebooks, figuring out what the erased versions said and publishing those erased stories.

I know this happens every year and everyone who has a camera in their pocket loves taking pictures of it. But I have a camera in my pocket and I love taking pictures of the fall colors. This is the first year I've worked in downtown proper, and the old, well established trees all over downtown are just beautiful.

Fun anecdote: I came out of my office, and saw some really beautiful trees, so I started snapping pics, then I took a pic of a plant with little purple flowers. Then I realized I had been watched the entire time by a guy who was just trying to have a nice smoke break.

Anyway, here's the whole gallery

Let me tell you a story, a story that is over three decades old.

It's a typical December day, I'm in kindergarten. All of us kids are sitting on the floor, around our teacher. The teacher is holding a set of cards with letters of the alphabet on them. The one I remember is “O” because it had a photo of an Octopus, not in the water, but on a gray solid background. Even at five years old I could tell you that octopus wasn't happy about life, if it was still alive. But that's not the point.

Somewhere around “Q” the door opens and another classmate comes in. She's wrapped up, bundled up against December weather. She puts her backpack down, carefully takes off her earmuffs, puts them on the shelf (“R”). She unzips her jacket, takes her scarf off and hangs it on a hook (“S”). She takes her coat off and puts it on the same hook (“T”).

Then she unzips her jeans and takes them off as well. (“NO!!!!” yells the teacher, but the card says “U”.)

But it's okay, she's got a skirt and leggings on under the jeans; they were just doubling as snow pants.

So Here's the Thing

We moved away less than two years later. I'm only about 50% sure I remember this girl's name; it's possible I'm conflating her with the one friend I had in that school before we moved. I certainly don't remember her face; I don't even really remember what color her coat was.

And what's even weirder is that when I recall this memory, she's not a five year old kindergartner, she's an adult. So am I. Contextually, our teacher is roughly fifteen feet tall, because right now I'm over six feet and she's quite a bit taller than me.

My memory of this event isn't a movie, it's just a script. The actors have changed over the course of my life to make sense with me being in the scene. This event happened in the 1980s, but in my mind her clothing (and my clothing) make sense for the 21st century.

Every time we recall a memory our brains wire in new connections to that memory. In computer terms every “read” is also a “write”.

I spend a lot of time thinking people are expecting things of me, that things are “due” by a certain date, even when there are no possible due dates. Nobody is expecting me to post anything on this blog. Nobody is expecting me to get to bed by a certain time, other than me.

Part of it is my #MBA program getting under my skin, of course. It's really hard to get out of that mindset when I'm training myself to always be looking toward the next due date, the next assignment. So it's a necessary evil, but one that will only last a few more months.

I hope.