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Making Characters “Reveal Themselves to You”

Question: How do you make\r\nyour characters seem real to you?

\r\n\r\n

Anne Lamott:\r\nWell, that’s a good question.  I’ve\r\nknown these people for a long time. \r\nI started Rosie in 1980, so that’s 30 years ago; I was going, oh,\r\n that’s\r\n15 years ago now.  Is that 30 years\r\nago?  1980—oh my God.  And I\r\n can honestly say in this case,\r\nthis little girl with black curls and enormous Siamese blue eyes came up\r\n to me\r\nand tugged on the sleeve of my shirt and I saw her and I knew her name. 

\r\n\r\n

And it turns out, my father had a character named \r\nCasey\r\nFerguson 30 years before that in one of his novels and I don’t even \r\nremember\r\nreading it, but I loved the name. \r\nI thought, this was great. 

\r\n\r\n

And then I wanted to write about alcoholism because\r\n I’m a\r\nsober alcoholic, but I wasn’t at the time; I got sober in 1986.  But I was so fascinated by what was\r\nhappening in my interior landscape that this wonderful, adorable, \r\nreligious,\r\nhigh-achieving person simply could not stop drinking, if I had one.  I wanted to write about that partly for\r\nmy own salvation.  And then all of\r\na sudden one day, there was a knock at the door of the Ferguson house \r\nand they’re\r\na lonely family; the father has died and Elizabeth, the mother, is shy \r\nand\r\ndepressed.  And there’s this big zaftig woman with\r\n a kind of Gibson Girl haircut and she’s new in the\r\nneighborhood and she has decided that she and Elizabeth are her new best\r\nfriends.  And so, then one day, she\r\ntricks Elizabeth into going to a backpacking trip, but she really \r\nminimizes\r\nwhat it will involve and Elizabeth is just enraged; she’s not a backpack\r\n sort\r\nof girl.  But they meet these two\r\nguys and get drunk with them up at the campfire, and she ends up \r\nmarrying\r\none. 

\r\n\r\n

So, little by little they reveal themselves to you \r\nif you’re\r\nopen and receptive to what would be the truth of their lives and their \r\narc and\r\ntheir thinking and their growth, or their setbacks.  My\r\n main problem is that over and over\r\nagain, I try to get all my characters to say stuff that I think is so \r\nwitty or\r\nerudite you know, so that everybody will go, whoa, that Anne Lamott is\r\nlike so brilliant, and then I have to go through and take it all out.  I do a final draft where I go through\r\nand I take out all the lies. 

\r\n\r\n

But you get to know them little by little and you \r\ndon’t\r\nalways know.  It’s like real life,\r\nyou don’t know the answer, you don’t know, God or life or your own \r\npsyche doesn’t\r\nhave a magic wand and you ask something and all of a sudden receive the \r\nanswer,\r\nit’s a process.  And, little by\r\nlittle, I can answer the questions of my characters predicaments and \r\nwhat they\r\nmight reasonably come up with as a response to crises.

\r\n\r\n

Question: How do you\r\nbalance autobiography and fiction?

\r\n\r\n

Anne Lamott:  Everybody\r\n assumes that almost everything I write about that has a teenager in it \r\nis a\r\ndirect telling of something that Sam went through, which is not the \r\ncase.  I mean, I’m the teenage girl drug\r\naddict.  I love drugs.  I \r\nsmoked the non-habit-forming\r\nmarijuana every day for about 20 years, and so people—I’m powerless over\r\n what\r\nother people assume to be either fact or not, and so people assume that \r\nstuff I\r\nwrite about in novels happened... and mostly the emotional truth of the \r\ncharacters\r\nare autobiographical because I’m the only person I know all that well, \r\nand\r\nmostly what happens in the novels never happened in real life. 

\r\n\r\n

Then with “Imperfect Birds,” I had five young women\r\n who have\r\nall been very druggy, and have mostly grown out of it with one \r\nexception, and I\r\ndid very long and extensive interviews with them and I would ask them, \r\nwhy\r\nwould you do this with the guys, what do you get in return?  Why would you do that drug if it keeps\r\nleaving you so crazy and in so much trouble?  I \r\nknow the answer to that because it’s mood altering and\r\nanything is better than feeling small and kind of afraid all the time.  

\r\n\r\n

But I had these five sources that really helped me\r\nunderstand the psyche of the American druggy girl and a high-achieving \r\ndruggy\r\ngirl.  And then I have been a\r\nparent of a teenager, and I talked to a lot of the other parents and I \r\nsaid,\r\nwhy did we not—how did we not notice this or that or the other?  Why were we so afraid?  So, Sam \r\nhas certainly given me bad, bad\r\nnights and left me wanting to just claw at my own throat with \r\nexasperation and\r\na feeling that no worse parent had ever existed, except for maybe \r\nJeffrey\r\nDahmer’s mother. 

\r\n\r\n

But I think that’s what all novelists do.  You draw on your own material and you\r\ntalk to as many people as you can.

Recorded April 6, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen
\r\n

Creating fictional people that seem real requires, among other things, writing a final draft in which you "take out all the lies."

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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