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11 Neil Gaiman Quotes on Writing

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WikiMedia Commons / Kyle Cassidy

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author spanning genres — he has hits in the worlds of comics, young adult fiction, grownup fiction, television, film, and even nonfiction (I particularly enjoyed Don't Panic, his Douglas Adams/HHGTTG companion). Here, eleven quotes from Gaiman on writing.

1. On Nightmares

In an NPR feature, Gaiman discussed the stop-motion animated film Alice by Jan Svankmajer. In that interview, he made an important point for writers of stories for kids:

Kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed. Kids will make their nightmares up out of anything, and the important thing in fiction, if you're giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable.

Gaiman signing "Anansi Boys" / Flickr User Jutta

2. On Learning to Write as Adventure

From his now-famous 2012 commencement address at The University of the Arts:

I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.

Gaiman and His Wife Amanda Palmer / Getty Images

3. On Freelancing

More from the same commencement address:

When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

4. On "Impostor Syndrome"

One more nugget from that commencement address:

The problems of failure are hard.

The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don't know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don't have to make things up any more.

5. On Rejection

When asked about rejection on Tumblr, Gaiman replied:

First I got really grumpy, and then got very determined to write things that were so good that not even the stupidest most irritating gatekeeper alive could reject them.

Gaiman at the "Coraline" Premiere / Getty Images

6. On Smeagol/Gollum Slash Fiction

A fan wrote in to ask Gaiman whether he read fan fiction, what his favorite fan fiction was, and also what his opinion was on the usefulness of writing fan fiction. In other words, "Please tell me that fan fiction is good."

Gaiman's response is below, emphasis added to the portion in which he writes sample Smeagol/Gollum slash fiction. (For those who have forgotten their Lord of the Rings details, Smeagol was Gollum's Hobbit name and represents a second self in Gollum's subterranean monologues. And Wikipedia will educate you about slash fiction if you need a hand there.)

Er, no, I don't read fanfiction.

I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you're writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you're writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you're still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.

(I just made that up. I imagine it would go something like: "Oh, the preciouss, we takes it our handssses and we rubs it and touchess it, gollum....no, Smeagol musst not touch the preciousss, the master said only he can touch the precioussss.... bad masster, he doess not know the precious like we does, no, gollum, and we wants it, we wants it hard in our handses, yesss..." etc etc)

(Thanks to reader Cat Schaefer Pedini for pointing me to this gem.)

7. His New Year's Wish

At 10:08pm on December 31, 2012, Gaiman posted his New Year's Wish (emphasis added):

It's a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world.

So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we're faking them.

And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it's joy we're looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation.

So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.

(Thanks to reader Joseph Palreiro for posting this one!)


Gaiman accepts the Vonnegut Award / Flickr User dtd72

8. On Public Speaking

Writers are often called upon to speak in public. Gaiman recently posted six tips for speaking in public, but I'll just give you the first:

Mean it. Whatever you have to say, mean it.

Read the rest for helpful advice, especially the second point. I like to wing it, pseudo-bravely and joyously (see above).

9. Why You Shouldn't Do Creative Work Solely for Money

In an NPR interview promoting the book adaptation of his aforementioned commencement speech, Gaiman explained why doing creative projects just for money isn't worth it:

Whenever I did something where the only reason for doing it was money — and this was a lesson that I learned beginning with being a 23-year-old author hired to write a book about Duran Duran — that whenever I did something and the only reason for doing it was the money, normally something would go terribly wrong. And I normally wouldn't get the money and then I wouldn't have anything. Whereas, whenever I did anything where what prompted my doing it was being interested, being excited, caring, thinking this is going to be fun, even if things went wrong and I didn't get the money, I had something I was proud of. ...

It's something that, you know, I forget. Sometimes somebody waves a paycheck and I go, 'I don't really have any reason for doing it, I'm not interested. But, yes, what amazing money, how can I say no?' And then I do it, and then I regret it. And you can almost feel the universe itself sighing, like, 'Why doesn't he learn this one?'

Gaiman, Claire Danes, Charlie Cox at the "Stardust" Premiere / Getty Images

10. On Kidnapping His Favorite Authors

Here's a snippet from a CNN interview in 2001.

"When you're 11, walking home from school through this strange little English landscape, running these weird, wonderful things through your head ... well, now this is one of those 'I've never told anybody this before' things," Gaiman says conspiratorially, "but here we go:

"My worst fantasy was a really cool one. I got to kidnap all of the authors whose work I liked, living and dead — I got to go 'round and round up G.K. Chesterton and Geoffrey Chaucer and all of these guys. Then I got to lock them in an enormous castle and make them collaborate on these huge-plot books. And I would tell them what the plots were.

"I was about 10 years old. And I plotted this 12-volume giant epic about these people going off to collect these rocks from all over the universe.

"As daydreams go, it says an awful lot about me as a young man: I wasn't confident enough about my ability to come up with stories. I was coming up with this huge, intricate story in order to justify in my daydreams of creating stories."

Gaiman and Palmer perform at SPIN's Liner Notes / Flickr User Zoe

11. On What Constitutes a Good Day

The original source of this one appears to be lost to history, but so it goes:

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.

More Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has an astonishingly comprehensive online presence. To get your fix, follow his very official Tumblr, his journal, his Twitter, and if you just like quotes, the fan Twitter account @GaimanQuotes is worth a shot. I'm also impressed by the fan-maintained Neil Gaiman Visual Bibliography, a comprehensive guide to basically everything he's ever put to paper.

Gaiman also has a lot of book releases this year. Just out this month are the book Make Good Art based on his commencement speech, plus the (free) short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties. In June we can look forward to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The man is prolific, generous, and a damn fine writer — thank you, Mr. Gaiman.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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