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Caffeine as Fuel for Writers, if Not Speakers

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[Back in 2015 I sung the praises of strong coffee as a sure aid in getting over writer’s block. It still has this virtue for many of us, but my aging self can’t handle a racing pulse from the same doses of caffeine. If, as they say, death is God’s way of telling us to slow down, more modest levels of caffeine may keep us in the game a little longer.]

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach. New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loves coffee. A lot of his cartoons have featured the stuff. My favorite is entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dietitians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s. At the wide base of Cheney’s chart are “The Caffeine’s” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchor the rest of a pyramid of necessities which include “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top. Together they make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker. (OK; probably not nicotine, which is an addictive and deadly substance).

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Cheney obviously knows about writers, which a movie mogul in the age of the typewriter once dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness. Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped by the spur of this addictive substance. We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant. Notwithstanding a New Yorker article a few years back suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in owing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my heart race.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry. As the Atlantic’s James Hamblin explains, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the doubting New Yorker article concedes the point: Caffeine

“boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration ... Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion."

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in. A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand. And then there are more recent studies in the last few years linking moderate caffeine intake with lower rates of Type 2 Diabetes, lower rates of depression, reduced risk of heart disease, and even human longevity.

But there is an exception. A person giving a presentation to a live audience probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase in adrenaline that comes when we face a group waiting to hear from us.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what amounts to two stimulants can be counter productive. They can make a presenter wired tighter than the “C” string at the top of a piano keyboard. We all know the effects; instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation. In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different. But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than vocal performance.

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The Problem of “Complications”

Every refinement of software also creates more decision points. And with so many to choose from, its easy to get lost in the weeds, forfeiting the task it was originally designed to facilitate. 

Apparently, some people collect new and extraordinary watches that are mostly cherished for their finish and uniqueness. A small cadre of watchmakers cater to this unusual and expensive form of collecting, building timepieces that are especially valuable for including a “complication” that increases their uniqueness.  For example, a watch that shows something less obvious than moon phases might be prized.

Collecting these rare pieces is clearly a hobby for the rich, but it is also and useful analogy for the evolution of a lot of modern data and communication systems that we all use.

The arc of software development seems irrevocable:  from practical and simple to complex and esoteric. The compulsion for complications supposedly gives users more power.  Everything from Android Auto to the latest version of Windows “does more” by adding refinements and that require relearning features once easily mastered. Surely there is now a wristwatch that can be set to periodically extend a little hammer than will tap its owner on the wrist. What an ingenious complication, and how useless. I tend to have that reaction for version 10.3 of software that was far more focused and user-friendly when it was just version 2.3.

Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word is a good example. I have used it for years.  But each new iteration seems to move it just a bit further from being an efficient writer’s tool. After eight books I still can’t claim that I’ve mastered the “auto” functions, page layout options, and probably a hundred other complications. The blue ribbon above this Word page that I am writing will let add diagrams, charts, SmartArt, icons, 3D models, pictures, word art, add-ins, cross references, equations, watermarks, and so on.  But, of course, all of these features have to be formatted as well. I’ve easily spent a day formatting a single picture for a book. If putting together a bespoke magazine is in your future, Word has you covered. It has evolved a long way from being a blank slate to conveniently lay down and edit language. The assumption seems to be that somebody somewhere must clearly be waiting for the chance to drop in emojis, crossed out words, color charts, “wingdings”–whatever they are–not to mention five different shades of pink for the text.

Here’s the point.  It’s worth remembering that every refinement of a software function also creates more decision points. And with so many additions, its easy to get lost in the weeds of formatting and forget the core necessity of focusing on language use. Technical choices can move the sideshow of software settings into the spotlight as the main event, making the invention of creative sentences just an ancillary act.  I’ve seen this a lot with my students: submissions elaborately designed and badly written.

What we may need is a new theory of devolutionary development in the study of organizations to account for what is happening. Our tools don’t necessarily get better over time; many complications make them more difficult to efficiently use. I’ve heard more than a few say its easier to hop in their old truck to run a quick errand  than the family’s new car, whose two computers are said now to hold 100 million lines of code. Again, it’s the idea that the car’s displays give us too many decision points. Who has time to keep eyes on the road when there are screens with scores of settings that invite adjustment?

There’s an older theory of “media convergence” that predicts the merging of old media forms into hybrids:  radio programming based on recordings, or the merging of video and film production, or films that play like video games, or the modern smart phone that functions as a computer. But sometimes the early iteration of something is best.  One way to account for the small renaissance in vinyl records is that they were made to do one thing pretty well. They play two audio tracks sitting on the nineteenth century tool of a record turntable.  Sometimes we want the purity of the simpler thing.