We all deserve to know more about AI

PSA created by KCJ in partnership with CCUNESCO

Since you bought your first smartphone, an entire generation of kids has been born that will never know a world not mediated by AI algorithms.

Why is this important?

For one thing AI and kids is serious business. According to a Pew research report released in 2019, YouTube videos targeted at and featuring children were 3 times more popular than any other content on Youtube.

Ryan Kaji, the year he made a mere $11 million

In 2019, the year Ryan Kaji turned eight, he made $26 million from his YouTube channel, Ryan’s Toy Review, making him that year’s highest paid Youtuber (and beating out his $11 million salary from the year he turned seven).

A significant part of his success could be attributed to his cuteness and his (and his parents) relentless daily video work schedule. That reach would not have been possible, however, without the boost he received from Youtube’s owner, Google, whose AI algorithms were tracking children’s viewing habits, and assessing when, where and how to best place its most popular content.

In September 2019 those practices were curtailed somewhat when Google agreed to pay out a 170 million settlement for violating The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). That same month, two complaints were filed against Ryan’s parents, one for failure to disclose that he was receiving money from toy companies, and second because in certain ways Google’s AI was not working. Ryan’s target preschool audience of three to six year olds were also being treated to ads for R rated movies, and the bodacious spokeswomen of Carl Jr.s.

Kids don’t realize that the adults around them weren’t born into exactly the same world they were. They expect their parents, educators and leaders to understand the power and the mechanisms behind these algorithms. But if the current popularity of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma can attest, in too many cases they don’t.

This is why in the fall of 2019, we at Kids Code Jeunesse, a Canadian charity with a mission to seed digital skills communities across the world started working with the Canadian branch of UNESCO on The Algorithm Literacy Project, a campaign to raise awareness around the need for better understanding of how algorithms work.

We created a PSA to spark a conversation around how AI algorithms use data to predict what kids like. We housed this on a webpage with discussion guides and materials to explore both traditional and AI programming, and the ethical issues that are and will continue to emerge.

We have no illusions that the video will reach the same number of kids that Ryan does. Our objective remains to start a conversation that addresses this blind spot and inspires teachers and parents to want to learn more about algorithms, to increase their willingness to learn side by side with their kids, and their confidence that they can do this.

Over 2020, even with all the challenges of teaching during the COVID, we have still managed to work with teachers to pilot and introduce materials that will seed the literacies that kids will need to better conceptualize and understand AI: data, machine learning, and modelling, as well as algorithm literacy.

Puppies or cookies?

We’ve worked with kindergarteners to conceptualize the first layer of machine learning by assessing their confidence level over whether the picture they are seeing is the face of a puppy, or the topography of a cookie. As they question why this is easier for them to guess than for a computer, we seed the healthy skepticism through which we hope they will continue to see AI.

We’ve worked with elementary school children classifying data through Google’s Teachable Machine (which to Google’s credit, runs of tensor flow, a great platform for experimentation that allows the user to keep data within a browser and entirely out of Google’s control or analysis.) In doing this we’ve opened up discussions around why a computer might have an easier time identifying the faces of white men, than black women. Is this a failure of the computer; or a failure to train the computer with a diversity of data?

All of these activities internalize what we call The Big ideas:

  • That AI is everywhere, but often invisible
  • That it is not magic
  • That it can be wrong
  • That training data matters
  • That the use of AI is creating and will continue to create ethical issues around bias, transparency, accountability and explainability.

It’s one thing to use AI to help you decide what youTube video, or what Netflix movie you want to watch next. It will be another when teachers or future employers use it to assess a future generation’s work performance. There will always be situations where we should always have the right to have humans explain why they are coming to the conclusions that they are about us.

Our algorithm literacy campaign is a conversation starter, but it’s also a call to action to take some small step today towards either learning something about AI, or transferring what you know about AI to someone else.

We are confident we can harness the tremendous power of AI, to imagine, create and share what we know and have. But first we have to aim to go beyond digital literacy to acquire digital wisdom.

Further viewing and reading


Pew Research Report on Kids and YouTube

Children’s Online Protection of Privacy Act

The Social Dilemma

The Write Mood


In his book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, British evolutionary psychologist Dylan Evans argues that one of the things that distinguishes us from animals is that we are the only species that has invented artificial technologies to alter our moods. The first of these was language. “Our ancestors probably consoled each other with hugs and caresses long before they learned how to  talk, but once language was invented they found a new way of providing consolation by offering words of sympathy and advice.”

With the invention of writing we started find other new ways of consoling others, and eventually even ourselves. As Evans points out, the idea that our thoughts can influence our emotions goes back to Aristotle.  But as we look down the long road from Aristotle to gratitude journals and kitten posters, he’s obviously very far from the last person to believe this.

Of course humans didn’t only use writing to console ourselves. We’ve also tried to use it to control ourselves. It makes so much sense.  Thoughts influence our emotions.  Writing gives our thoughts permanence. So, writing should be able to give our emotions permanence. Or to be honest about what we really want, it should be able to make one emotion permanent: happiness.

New books are published every month about how to use writing to make you happier. If you’ve ever undergone cognitive therapy for depression you’ve experienced the relief of understanding, finally, what was missing from your eight years of talk therapy.  Fifteen minutes of daily writing.  You didn’t need that psychotherapist probing your memories and denials.  You just needed to write down your negative thoughts, and replace them with more rational ones.  Your brain is smart. How could it not realize the folly of  this constant flow of irrational  frustration and negativity?

And yet, if this works, it seems to only work for as long as you want to keep doing it. Unless you’ve had the good fortune to  experience a language disabling stroke, like neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor,  you may have noticed that your brain remains remarkably and curiously  stubborn in its insistent tendency to feel unpleasant things, and accompany these unpleasant feelings with unpleasant thoughts.

About the only thing as long as our history of believing that writing can change our mood, it our history of becoming disillusioned with writing as a way to change our mood. As Evans points out, writing may be one of the slowest and least effective ways to become happy. And so “humans have constantly sought to discover other technologies of mood that might provide a faster and more secure short cut to happiness than words alone.”  If you want writing to permanently alter your mood, probably the only writing for that would be a signature on a prescription.

Evans takes this  a little farther. He wrote his book at the turn of the millennium,  while he was a research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, and also moonlighting as a D.J. In the chapter “Short Cuts to Happiness” he gives a lucid and interesting of summary of the various different technologies humans use to improve their moods, from color to music, and from anti depressants to meditation. Then he ends with his personal favorite, dancing and taking drugs. And true enough, if your goal in life is to change your mood for the better, writing will never compare with the speed and intensity of dosing on ecstasy while drinking smart drinks and getting holistic massages.

If language was the first technology we used to artificially change our moods, it was probably the first technology we invented that, in time, actually seemed to make our moods worse (and wouldn’t it be nice is raves were the last!)  Before language, humans felt fear, followed perhaps with a silent grunt. With language each stab of fear was accompanied with a potentially misleading headline like:  “THIS MIGHT KILL YOU!”   Hear that inner headline enough times , and it’s not surprising human history tends to be a violent one.

But trying to change our moods by changing our thoughts is probably about as useful a strategy as changing world events by legislating that headlines should have a more positive spin. The problem is that our brain is only doing what’s it’s designed to do.

It’s designed to get us to pay attention to our emotions, and so like a highly ambitious blogger, it has figured out that the key words “fat”, “loser” and “fucked” work a lot better than more reasonable, even more accurate, phrases like “slightly, but not dangerously overweight,” “average person over concerned with failure”, and “crisis, which if you were Chinese would also mean opportunity.” Our brain, or certainly one of the strongest parts of the brain, the amygdala, wants hits. So it pitches the stories it attaches to our emotions accordingly.

So now we find ourselves in this weird time in civilization where our brain is increasingly hooked up to other brains as they write their raging reddit approval seeking stories, or relentlessly chart their bland routes to happiness. Online readers seem to be increasingly helpless in the face of this onslaught of questionable mental energy.

I’ve spent years keeping messy stream of consciousness journals, and the one useful thing I’ve learned from this practice is that much of  what goes on inside my brain is, essentially, just bad writing. (I find it easy to accept that this is also true of others.  There are days, however, when I am feeling the weight of so much of this bad writing being outside of our brains.)

Interestingly, the newer schools of cognitive therapy seem to be coming to that conclusion as well. Third Wave cognitive therapy concentrates less and less on trying to replace thoughts, or reason with thoughts.  It works on simply accepting that most of our thoughts are and always will be negative, and  a little lame.  The newest of these therapies is known as Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).  Developed by cognitive therapist Steven Hayes, it is rooted in Buddhist mindfulness techniques.   At the core of ACT’s philosophy is the idea that merely accepting that the human brain is in a constant state of emotional and cognitive flux unburdens us from the emotional stress of constantly trying to control it.

ACT has a lot of  interesting strategies for dealing with the relentlessly primitive thoughts coming from our brains. One of them is the effective use of irony. For persistently negative, immature thoughts, Hayes recommends the “mental T-Shirt.” Instead of trying to debate your brain next time it calls you a loser, merely appropriate this label by visualizing yourself in your “Loser” T-Shirt.  The goal of this trick is to develop the habit of recognizing a thought as just a thought and moving on. (I find this works equally well with useless obsessions. My “Fucking Goldman Sachs” T-Shirt is currently in my mental laundry hamper, though I’m sure I’ll be wearing it again.)

In The Happiness Trap, Australian ACT therapist, Russ Harris, cites research that shows that about 80 percent of our thoughts have some degree of negative content. Harris compares the average human brain to a  tabloid press constantly following us around looking for evidence of our deficiencies and weaving must read stories from these.  In dealing with our minds we have to decide if we want to be  Sean Penn or Julia Roberts. Is it worth our time to be in a constant battle with it. Or is there a way to simply get used to that reality, and go on about our day, and our life?

Does this mean that writing can’t be used to improve our lives, or increase our happiness?  No. Of course it can.

Writing can be used to articulate our values, and break down and make visible our goals. It can make us aware of commitments we want to make and remind us when we’re not making them. Writing can be used to define what is truly meaningful to us and to humanity. And most of all it can be used to  redefine happiness.

Writing can help us start thinking of happiness  as the feeling that sometimes comes over us when we’re living a complex, rich, interesting life; when we’re taking consistent action towards things that are important to us–whether these are the basics like friendship, family and work, or the higher pursuits like meaning, and spiritual and intellectual challenges. Writing can help us understand that real happiness necessarily incorporates all the frustrations, anxieties and disappointment that are part and parcel of living a full  life.

But while it’s okay to use writing to take the edge off a persistent, or overwhelming moods, for the love of god we have to start saying no to using writing as a way to nail these moods to the ground.

On The Difference between Writer’s block and Blogger’s block

I wrote this a few years back when I was a more prolific blogger.  As I head into the last stretch of a book manuscript, I’m suffering from a bit of both writer’s and blogger’s block. Hoping this re-post will dislodge some cognitive sludge. 

Lately I’ve been experiencing a bout of blogger’s block. I’m long back from vacation to a place where internet access involved fighting other family members for the one working computer.  I’d decided it wouldn’t kill me to give up blogging for a couple of weeks.  But, I’ve been back for well over a month and plugging myself back  into the big collective buzzing brain of the blogosphere has been a lot harder than I though it would be.

I want to be clear. This isn’t writer’s block. During the six or seven weeks I haven’t been blogging, I have been writing and publishing other things.

This is different.

I’m something of an expert on writer’s block. I’ve struggled with it all my life so my bookcase is like an ongoing cocktail party of writing gurus. There you’ll find the matriarchs of inspiration books:  Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland If You Want to Write, three Natalie Goldbergs,  two Julia Camerons, and both the Annies,  Lamott and Dillard.

Way off in the corner, all on her own, is Joyce Carol Oates. I can only recommend her if you want to give up writing, or fetishize it to a whole new level of masochism. There will be no nurturing of your fragile talent in The Faith of  The Writer.  JCO will keep you guilty for every moment you don’t spend writing or reading.  Because without a rigorous writing practice  you’re “doomed to remain an amateur: an invidividual for whom enthusiasm is ninety-nine per cent of the creative effort.”

Doomed! And if you’ve ever had that niggling feeling that you will be punished for your creativity JCO is happy to inform that, yes, in fact you will. “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it.  The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment”

My favorite writing guru, however, is Lewis Hyde. While the other gurus are good for daily inspiration during a dry spell, or the occasional kick in the head during a period of banality, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World  has given me the big picture. Hyde gives me the reason I continue writing whenever I find myself staring down the monthly inventory of punishment.

The Gift is notoriously impossible to summarize, but I’ll give it my best shot.  Hyde believes that artists are always in a paradoxical place between the market economy and what he calls the gift economy. While they should never lose sight of the realities of the society they live in, and should be careful to protect themselves economically, art has essentially grown out of ancient rituals of generosity that have disappeared over centuries of capitalism. In the gift economy status is earned by generosity and the endurance of our gifts, not from wealth and the profits from imposed scarcity. Artists have a certain responsibility to preserve what remains of the gift economy, and those who lose sight of that responsibility will end up paying the price creatively.

I love my writing gurus, but sometimes I look to teachers from other creative fields. Sometimes the solution to my writing rut is some kind of wordless creativity. That’s when I take out Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain and start sketching upside down running shoes. A couple of year back Linda Barry’s What It Is got me into a creative  process that’s kind of like  doodling while I’m on the phone with my muse.  Another one of my favorite books on creativity is by the choreorapher Twyla Tharpe, There’s an  exercise in The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life  called Egg, which  is basically just sitting on the floor and curling tightly up into fetal position. As Tharpe points out, in this state you have nowhere to go. You can “only expand and grow.”

Tharpe believes profoundly in the relationship between the mind and the body.  As do I, which is why I’ve become increasingly interested in the neurology of writing block.  A few years back I discovered The Midnight Disease, a book by the Harvard Neurologist Alice Flaherty.

Flaherty found the subject of writer’s block so difficult to pin down that she separated it into two chapters: Writer’s Block as State of Mind, and Writer’s block as Brain State.  These are not really two different kinds of writer’s block, but two different perspectives on the same problem. Flaherty has a scientific discomfort with much of the psychobabble that seems to go along with writing/self-help books wounded inner children and shadow artists.

When it comes to creativity she speculates, the brain works a little like the heart. The writer’s ability to pump out work “depends on his energetic state (normal motivation with absence of depression and fatigue) and ability to co-ordinate the rhythmic contractions (skill, good work habits, avoidance of procrastination)….Just as the blood that the heart pumps out eventually returns to feed it and prime the next contraction, so a writer’s output is the basis for further ideas. When that output falters, there is less inspiration and energy for further work, a vicious cycle that has given many writers the literary equivalent of a heart attack.”

So where does blogging fit into this?  Why does it feel like a different kind of block?

Flaherty suggests that the criterion for whether or not you’re blocked is whether or not you’re suffering.

But let’s be honest. The criterion for whether or not you’re blocked is whether or not you’re writing well.  Even the best writers get into ruts where they know the words on the page are just words, and not the magic that makes great writing. And even if you are writing well—and here’s where JCO has a point–if your writing really is mere enthusiasm, and you’ve surrounded yourself with readers who are looking more for distraction than depth, are you fooling yourself?

There was a moment last summer when I did take a step back, looked at my blog, and noticed how much of my writing had become about t.v. and  breaking pet stories.  My brain felt controlled less by creative energy than by a dependable cultural cycle of distraction and what I’d call comfort writing. What I was writing was fun and easy, but it didn’t result in much that was going to last. I began to wonder, was blogging itself a  form of writer’s block?

I still think no. I’ve come to the conclusion that a certain amount of your writing should be mere, doomed enthusiasm. Not all of it, but at least some of it. Otherwise everything you write starts to take on a kind of relentless overintensity that becomes its own rigidity.  (Yes, I’m talking to you JCO.  I’ve read your other books as well.)

Like Hyde, I do think that artists should protect themselves professionally and financially, and I also think artists should give some of their work away for free to keep our best cultural instincts alive. And ideally they should give people what they want.

But something in me, and in us, I would argue, wants to give it away just for the sake of giving it away. Not for status, or legacy, or proof of our generosity, or the endurance of our creative labor.  But because giving it away for free is our way of building the psychic, social and cultural energy that sustains us all.

Runners don’t sit around in a state of angst about how much running they should do for free.  They pretty much just do it. And sometimes they focus on technique, and sometimes they just get out there and run for distance. And sometimes, I hope, they just go for a walk.

Over the last few years blogging has become that kind of practice for me. Just writing for the fun of writing. Just publishing for the feeling of connection.  Just hooking my writing brain up with other writing brains in the giant marathon of culture and creativity.  It’s become a little like a mental aerobics session that makes me a little less anxious about my other work, sharpens my skills and increases my endurance for the long haul.

Some people run with the pack. Some people break away. Some people never finish, but even making it half way was more than they were doing when they weren’t trying. Everyone is in this with their different challenges and their different gifts.

I now think of blogging as that part of my brain that longs to just put it out there without all the slow rituals and negotiations of the market economy. That part of my brain that needs to be free.

Five years ago, I was a professional journalist who could never have imagined giving a good part of my writing away for free.  Now I can’t imagine there ever being a time when I won’t give at least some of it away. And when I’m not doing that, I think from now on I will always feel a little blocked.

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On The Difference Between Writer’s Block and Blogger’s Block by Juliet Waters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Q: To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.


A: And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Here’s a concern I wasn’t expecting to encounter this year in a Q & A with Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books. New York Magazine, April 7.

International Tweet Grace Paley Day, December 11

All that is really necessary for the survival of the fittest, it seems, is an interest in life, good, bad or peculiar.


Recently, I set out for a short stroll through Twitter. I follow too many people, for too many reasons I’ve long since forgotten. I’ve made lists to filter my feed and increase the odds of productive loafing, but my general feed has become a sometimes scary, ugly thing, closer to a stroll down my neighborhood expressway. Soon, I’ll sit down on the side of the road and do some curating.This week, however, I’m contemplating the possibility of some kind of twitter muse because I cannot fathom the odds of my logging in just as this tweet appeared.

@emilynussbaum Monday night drunk Grace Paley tweets are the best.

— Jason McBride (@jasonmcbride68) November 26, 2013

Jason is like an old camp friend, who I know from the month we spent in the Banff Centre Literary Journalism Program. Nussbaum is the TV critic for the New Yorker. I don’t know her, but I shared her suffering at HBOs ending of Enlightened, so I feel a certain bond. And Grace Paley is, pretty much, my favourite writer.

As testimony I offer the above sketch, from the cover of her collected poems Begin Again. I did this that summer I decided to finally learn how to draw (and enjoyed this exercise so much, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn anything since.)

Paley is best known as a much anthologized short story writer, but her stories seem so autobiographical at least one has been listed as an essay. I was fortunate enough to interview her when she visited Montreal for the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, and I suspect she identified mostly as a poet, but this is just a hunch.

Whatever she is, I was in:

And so was Emily,

@JulietWaters It’s true. There should be a whole Tweet Grace Paley Day. The maybe one for William Blake.

Next exit Wikipedia, where I discovered Grace Paley’s birthday was December 11. (Blake’s was November 28. I love him too, but not enough to have spent American Thanksgiving as the lonely Canadian tweeting to tigers on turkey day.) This seemed like a great day to declare a sort of pre-Christmas virtual holiday on which to honour the writer who inspired me to be a writer, and gave me advice I have tried, though too often failed, to follow. “Keep a low overhead, and never live with anyone who doesn’t respect what you do.”

So, if you hear from me on Twitter over this week or next, it’s probably because you seem the kind of person who might be interested in participating in this project with me. I don’t expect anyone to take the day off. But if you want to take an hour off to read a story (or even a half hour, some of her stories are very short), or even just a minute to read a tweet, I’ll be there.

On December 11, my plan so far is to:

  • Tweet links, factoids, best lines, and tweet by tweet, at least one poem.
  • Live tweet, during my personal viewing of Grace, a documentary produced by her friend Sonya Friedman.
  • Re-read “Wants” for the hundredth time. I already tweeted a few lines of this last week, but forgot to hashtag them, so I’ll re-tweet those.
  • Head out to La Grande Bibilotheque de Montreal where I will return, on time, Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. And NOT take it out again. (Read “Wants,” if you haven’t)
  • Think fondly about all my co-workers in the mother trade, and the men, the rock of whose reason, I have not always been able to “get under” (Yes, this includes you, Ray Kurzweil.)
  • Re-read “An Interest In Life” for the thousandth time.Then drink at least one beer, while making a list of recent lucks I hope might bring a smile to God’s eye, if he has a minute.

And finally to pretend, for this one day at least, that Twitter is not all that different from an urban park, and that we’re not all that different from Faith Darwin sitting in a tree, thinking, “What a place in democratic time!’

Prize Season

I was a book critic for many years, so I know November is a heady time in the book world. Because December is the month where the vast majority of books are sold (Merry Christmas!) if you can get a book noticed in November, through a spot on a shortlist, or better yet, a prize, you’ll sell more copies during that all important post publication window period. Writing federations and granting agencies often cooperate by holding awards when they’re likely to do the most good.

I’ve been through this cycle many times as a journalist, and even a jury member. This is the first time I’ve actually been on the receiving end of this ritual. Not with a book, but last week a non-fiction story I’d abandoned about a year ago was nominated for a prize at the Quebec Writers Federation gala. It was a story about my son’s little known learning disability, visual motor dyspraxia. For whatever reason I couldn’t seem to find the right place for it. I received several  thoughtful and sweet rejection e-mails, but no one willing to publish it. So, I shelved it. And as often happens, got drawn into some new subject.

Then late last summer the editor of Carte Blanche, QWF’s literary journal, prodded me to submit something. I sent “Bluefooted” (which, if you’re curious will also explain my website’s header.) And to my delight, not only was the story short listed for the journal’s best story of the year, but a couple of nights ago I won.

I even got a trophy, which I would not now have, had it been accepted in any of the magazines or newspapers I’d pitched it to.

In my acceptance speech,  I thanked the editor who prodded me, and vowed that I would use this huge trophy to prod everyone at the gala to remember those abandoned stories and projects and get them back out there.

And now I’m doing the same with you. Here’s the trophy (designed by urban sculpter Glen LeMesurier). Imagine me wielding that pointy trowel looking part, somewhere in the vicinity of a place you best be moving back to your favourite writing chair. I know it’s hard, and I know the rewards seem increasingly scarce. But when they come, for however long, it all seems worth it.


A Personal Glossary of Writing Disorders

An example of “alien handwriting” courtesy of www.abduct.com

We’ve all heard of post-partum depression. But after giving birth to premature twin boys, who later died, Alice Flaherty developed a rare case of post-partum mania, and with it hypergraphia, a chronic, compulsive urge to write.

“The world was flooded with meaning. I believed I had unique access to the secrets of the Kingdom of Sorrow, about which I had an obligation to enlighten my –very tolerant–friends and colleagues through essays and letters.”

In time it subsided, and the grief thawed. She became pregnant again, this time giving birth to twin girls. The hypergraphia returned. Soon she had wallpapered her house with post-it notes. But this time she was better prepared.

Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and also teaches at Harvard medical school. She decided to curb the second bout of hypergraphia with a prescription for mood stabilizers.

But this gave her writer’s block, leading to a depression severe enough to hospitalize her. In the comfort of a psychiatric ward, where her credentials gave her access to certain privileges like “how to get into the room with the Cap n’ Crunch”, she discovered a culture of manic-depressive writers.

“…the hospital had a literary tradition–and a physical campus–more impressive than that of many liberal arts colleges. One day a staff member gave me a virtual tour from my window. He pointed out buildings where two famous poets had stayed. If I pressed my nose against the window’s steel mesh, I could just see where a third had taught poetry to patients soon before being admitted herself. All three, manic-depressive. The scientist in me can quote the study (the single study I must point out) that finds manic-depressive artists to be more productive when they are adequately medicated. The residual psychiatric patient in me is not convinced–it thinks I wrote better when I was a least a little bit ill.”

Flaherty went on to write The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, a book about the neurological basis for both writing disorders and writing talent.I’ve drawn from this book for the first few writing disorders presented here. The others I’ve drawn from my own life.

Hypergraphia: As described above, an overwhelming urge to write. Hypergraphia may seem to be the opposite of Writer’s Block. But that depends on how you define writing. People with hypergraphia don’t usually write well, though they often think they are.

What’s significant about this disorder is what hypergraphic writing lacks, that special substance that compels a reader to keep reading. We know what’s happening in the brain when someone writes compulsively. But what is happening in the brain when they’re writing well? What’s the difference between mania and the productive drive and disassociation better described as “the muse.” Forget all those right brain, left brain self-help books. Flaherty’s book suggests that this is still almost as much of a mystery to modern neurology as it is to us.

Writer’s Block: “Dissecting writer’s block” is according to Flaherty as easy “as carving meatloaf at the joints.” The problem is we don’t often know if we’re blocked. Maybe we’re just procrastinating, maybe we’re processing an idea. Flaherty uses two criteria as a basis of diagnosis. First that the blocked writer is not writing, despite being intellectually capable. And second that this writer is suffering from not writing. If it doesn’t bother you that you’re not writing, then it’s not really writer’s block.

But it’s not only a question of output. Writers can be both hypergraphic and blocked if they’re not writing the kind of writing they love. Coleridge was a hypegraphic journalist, but struggled over his poetry. Oliver Sacks writes about an agonizing block while writing Uncle Tungsten, where he trashed 2 million words of writing for 100,000 word book.

Sometimes the block is a result of being hypercritical. Think of all the self-help books on de-fanging the inner critic. Still, no writer ever progressed beyond mediocrity without the willingness to endure at least a little fang.

Graphomania: Often confused with Hypergraphia, sometimes deliberately because it sounds scarier. Graphomania is actually the chronic urge to publish.

Flaherty claims it was coined by Milan Kundera who argued that this condition arises from emotional isolation and ennui, and

“Takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions: 1) A high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities. 2)An advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual. 3) A radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel.)”

Ithink we can now safely add one more condition: the invention of technology that enables quick and easy publication for anyone with a computer:

Dysgraphia: My son has this disorder, which affects the ability to master the muscular co-ordination needed to write quickly and legibly. I discovered this when he was five. His neurologist caught it two years after he was diagnosed with mild temporal lobe epilepsy. Now you know the origins of my fascination with writing and neurology.

You might think that handwriting is a separate problem from the cognitive process of writing. But a kid struggling with the mechanics will soon learn to detest everything involved with the demands of writing. I’ve seen this with my very bright eight year old who has plowed through four Harry Potter books since Christmas. Every time he starts a writing project he does best to convince me that he can’t because “I have no ideas, Mom. Really. None.” If you can successfully block your imagination on demand, no one can ever make you write. This would be my strongest argument against Flaherty’s second criterion for diagnosing writer’s block. Just because someone doesn’t admit to suffering, doesn’t mean they’re not.

And there are other problems linked to dysgraphia, which is typically only the most obvious manifestation of:

Dyspraxia: This is a disorder that affects the gros motor-skills. People who have this often have a hard time with hand eye coordination, sports, anything involving muscular planning.

What does this have to do with writing? They typically have poor posture making it uncomfortable to sit for even small periods of time at desks. Children with dyspraxia who are sitting on a chair that is an inch too high to plant their feet firmly on the floor will have a tendency to experience a low grade vertigo that will make it difficult for them to concentrate. They become fidgety and seek sensation.

Because dyspraxics have a poor sense of space they are typically messy, chaotic, and slow. Bright dyspraxics usually get labelled as lazy, unmotivated and slovenly. It is not unusual for kids with dyspraxia to fail or abandon school around grade nine or ten when projects become too long for their poor organizational skills. It’s estimated that about 2 to 10% of the population suffers some degree of this.

But sometimes they compensate for their problems by becoming actors, storytellers and choosing professions that allow them to develop their oral and performance skills. Daniel Radcliff suffers from dyspraxia. He fell into acting because he was failing school. His mother figured he needed something to boost his confidence. The next thing he knew he was on his way to Hogwarts and a hero to school aged children around the world. _______________________________________________________________

So what about you. Anything here strike a bell? Aware of a disorder I haven’t included?

And are disorders necessarily a bad thing? As Flaherty mentions time and time again, it is rare to find a writing genius who hasn’t struggled with some form of writing imbalance. Correctly naming your disorder, if you have one, can be the first step to curbing its excesses and maybe even taping its power.

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If you haven’t read anything yet on Twitter’s new blogging platform, Medium, here’s a nice place to start. Finnish HCI student Jussi Ahola contemplates the various ways that e-readers don’t, and could better exploit the design concept of “socio-pleasure,” the social pleasure we take take in objects beyond their use value.

Designing for socio-pleasure

Rakoff Revisited

Last week I saw Sarah Vowell on Stephen Colbert, there to publicize Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel the posthumous book by the brilliantly acidic, but always self-aware David Rakoff. I interviewed Rakoff for The Montreal Mirror in 2010. He was here to visit the city of his birth, and to talk about Half Empty, the last book he lived to see published. This was the second time I’d interviewed him. He was a difficult interview, not because he wasn’t forthcoming, but because as the son of psychiatrist, he never stopped asking me questions. Listening back to the first interview there was way too much about me and too little about him.  To protect against this,  I scrawled at the top of my notebook “DON’T TALK TOO MUCH!!!” Needless to say he noticed it and  teased me about the whole time. But I did manage to get him to talk. 

Painfully Funny
David’s Rakoff’s latest collection is not as negative as it claims

David Rakoff’s book of essays Half Empty skewers optimism, utopian thinking, and positive psychology. It champions the less popular emotions, like anxiety and grief. Whoever wrote the back cover promises “his sharp observations and humourist’s flair for the absurd will have you positively revelling in the power of negativity. On the cover there’s a starburst sticker that reads: WARNING!!! No Inspirational Life Lessons will Be Found in These Pages.

But right now, eating brunch with Rakoff at Beauty’s, it seems like a bit of false advertising. Rakoff is hilarious as ever in Half Empty. He reminisces about group think at the turn of the millennia, his brief and ill-fated acting career, and serves as an acidic tour guide through Disneyland. Midway through writing this book, however, Rakoff discovered he had a malignant tumour in his shoulder. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, and there’s a possibility he’ll lose his left arm.

Considering this, he’s surprisingly upbeat as he wolfs down a normal sized plate of eggs. “My left arm is not the world’s best left arm right now, but it’s still attached. So that’s good.” I ask him for the prognosis. “I don’t know. I’m in this chemo right now that does seem to be working, or by my estimate seems to be working. But there are things where I’m as good a judge as anybody. Like, I can now sleep on my side, which I couldn’t do for a year and a half. At the top of my breath, in the left lung, there’s less pressure. So that would suggest it’s getting smaller. But is it getting smaller in the way my surgeon needs it to get smaller? I’m not a surgeon or an MRI machine, so I don’t know. I hope. I’d love to keep it. It’s a roller coaster I have to say. But it’s okay. It’s better than it’s been.”

When I point out that his relaxed attitude seems, frankly, a little inspiring, Rakoff explains that the starburst warning on the cover was mostly just a compromise with his publisher. It got him off the hook for the standard trite non-fiction subtitle. “It’s always a true story of three nouns. Money, madness, or murder. Or how the blank is blanking the blank. How the socialists are ruining America, or how the right wing is fucking you up the ass while you sleep.”

In fact, his book is not meant to advocate negative thinking as a way of life for everyone. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he says, happy to take the middle road here. “Some people are just going to be that way. Some people aren’t. It’s like having brown eyes. But I would advocate for a more realist thinking and more detail oriented thinking. It’s very nice to think in those sunny broad strokes. But eventually you do have to have detailed thinking. And optimism doesn’t really make room for that. Not on any level and not cognitively. That’s not a value judgment. That’s literally the way the brain works in an optimistic mode. It opens up, it widens, and it dilates. Which is great, but you’ll be fucked if you’re only on dilated mode.”

And being anxious, Rakoff insists, doesn’t necessarily mean being unhappy.

“I couldn’t tease apart those threads in the first chapter, about how one could be happy and anxious. And then by the end of the book I understood. When they test for sadness, anxiety may be something that they’re testing for, but it’s not the same thing. Anxiety is a sensitization to the world at large, but it’s not the same thing as fear. True fear is completely unproductive in that it leads you nowhere. At best it can evoke a kind of evolutionary flight response. So you don’t end up as somebody’s dinner. But if you’re actually not in the jungle, and you can’t fly—if the predator is in your own body, it’s useless.”

Maybe not the most feel good life lesson, but a valuable one, whatever the cover says.