Putting pen to paper
There's an email in the deepest, darkest archives of my Gmail account which I've kept looking back at over the years. I sent it on September 1st, 2008. The United States was in the midst of a financial crisis, George W. Bush was still the president, and the state-of-the-art way to talk to your friends was by posting on their Facebook Walls.
At the age of 16, I had just started 11th grade and had written a one-page short story for a class assignment. I felt proud of the work and wanted to share it with my brother.
He quickly replied to my email:
Bloody brilliant! So much fun to read. No major suggestions for improvement. Pursue this talent further someday, if only for fun.
In the 14 years since then, I've been a prolific writer. I've filled up pages and pages of journals, and in my last job, some coworkers nicknamed me "Quippul" because I always wrote a huge volume of documents—sometimes well-received, sometimes overly lengthy and philosophical—using Quip, the company’s document editor of choice.
I'm in between jobs now, so this feels like as good a time as any to finally take my brother's advice. In recent years, I've unfortunately let all my writerly energy get swallowed into journals and corporate documents. After spending a decade as an engineer and accepting the rigidity it imposes upon thought and sentiment, I want to make space again for the liminal and mysterious.
More concretely, there are two types of writing I want to do:
- I want to share my travel observations with friends
- I want an outlet to help develop my thoughts on a wide range of topics
So, I’ll be publishing two main types of posts: travel diaries that capture my impressions about wherever I am in the world, and essays which flesh out a particular idea in depth.
The travel diaries will be more narrative and personal. Expect travel writing, short stories, random musings, maybe some voice narration… we’ll see!
The essays will flesh out a topic I’m curious about. I intend for these to be 20% memoir, 30% research, and 50% rampant theorizing. There will be diagrams. I considered sticking to a few topics or a theme for these, but decided against it. Will the results be charmingly eclectic or just totally incoherent? …we’ll see!
Some essay topics I’m considering writing about soon:
- Types of work: A model for which work activities fulfill you or drain you, and why?
- Unpacking "smart": What does it mean to be smart, clever, intelligent, witty, wise?
- A new tech paradigm: What assumptions at tech companies need to be invalidated due to recent macroeconomic changes?
- Family, community, and roots: Eastern and Western perspectives
I’m excited (and a bit nervous!) to start publishing publicly. Thank you, dear reader, for coming along for the ride.
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The Gem Thief
For the curious, below is the short story I wrote in 2008. The assignment was to write a page using only one-syllable words. I really wanted to use the word "Louvre" somehow. I didn't manage it, but the idea of writing something related to art inspired the story.
Try writing a few sentences using only one-syllable words. It's hard!
The whole world is grey. The street I walk on? Grey. The sky, with all its clouds? Grey. The shops to my sides are grey, and so is the rain that soaks me. The knife in my boot is grey, and so is the gun in my coat. The locks I pick are grey. If you look long and hard, you can find some shades of life—red leaves stain the ground, a bright green sign shines in the night. But I have not tried to look in a long time.
The men on the news call me the gem thief. I heard that, so far, I have filched more than ten grand’s worth of prized gems. The cops are on my trail, but what they don’t know is that I don’t steal to get rich. I steal for a cause they just can’t grasp. And that’s why they can’t catch me. I’m good with my hands and with my eyes, and my eyes crave just one thing—the cold, hard gleam of a jewel.
I live in a flat, where I sleep, eat, and hoard my loot. In my small room, I can flee the grey of life. I watch light dance off the sides of my gems. One may guess that I know all their names. In truth, I know none. Names mean naught to me. I have no name of my own—why do my stones need names, dear to me as they may be? I know them each by their hue, their shape, their sheen. I don’t need to know their names to care for them. If I was asked which one I love the most, I would not know—they all have a place in my heart.
You may think that I am a strange man, but I think you would be wrong. What do you spend your life with? Foul, sad beasts, each with their own flaws and faults. What do I spend my life with? Fine stones with no flaws at all. They do not hate me, they do not fight with me, and they are there for me all the time. In my mind, all of you are the strange ones.
The AI version?
A lot has changed since 2008. In just the past year or two, there have been a remarkable set of advancements in generative AI—models that can produce complex visual and written content from a short text prompt. The two models I've played around with the most are ChatGPT and Midjourney for text generation and image generation, respectively. There's been an explosion of interest in these models, and much discourse about what they mean for the future of art and work.
While reminiscing about the story above, I wondered: how would these models fare when given the prompt I was given as a high schooler? I've put the image and text results below—take a look and decide for yourself.
It's certainly possible that writing a more sophisticated prompt for one of these models would yield better results. If you figure out how to make that work, please reach out to me with what you're able to produce!
- Midjourney: Just "The Gem Thief".
- ChatGPT: "Write a one-page, first-person short story using only single-syllable words. The title of the story is "The Gem Thief" and it's about a person who steals gems and prefers looking at them over interacting with other people. Make it poetic and evocative."
The gem thief was sly. He crept in the night, a hat on his head, a bag on his hip. He was fast and he was sly. He got in and out, no one knew. He was a ghost.
The gems were bright. Red, green, blue, and white. They sparkled and shined. He hid them deep in a hole, a hole he dug with care. He looked at them all day, and all night. He talked to them soft and low. They were his friends.
He was alone, but he had the gems. He loved to look at them, to hold them tight. He loved the way they felt. He loved the way they shone. He loved the way they talked. They were his friends.
But one day, the cops came. They searched his hole, they found the gems. They took him away. He was sad. He missed his gems. He missed their shine. He missed their talk. He missed his friends.
He was in a cell. A cold and dark cell. He missed the light. He missed the gems. He missed their shine. He missed their talk. He missed his friends.
But he knew he would see them soon. He knew he would hold them tight. He knew he would love them. He knew they would love him. He would be free. He would be sly. He would be fast. He would be a gem thief.