Olga Werby

Olga Werby, Ed.D., has a Doctorate from U.C. Berkeley with a focus on designing online learning experiences. She has a Master's degree from U.C. Berkeley in Education of Math, Science, and Technology. She has been creating computer-based projects since 1981 with organizations such as NASA (where she worked on the Pioneer Venus project), Addison-Wesley, and the Princeton Review. She conceived, designed, and illustrated the award-winning "Field Trips" series of programs distributed by Sunburst Communications. Olga has a B.A. degree in Mathematics and Astrophysics from Columbia University. Olga currently teaches interaction design and cognitive theory at the American University in Paris and the University of California at Berkeley Extension Program. She was part of the faculty of San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and the campus of Apple Computers. Olga is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. She also holds a California teaching credential and is part of the San Francisco Unified School District where she often tests science-related curriculum materials in public elementary and middle schools.

The Eliminati

Secret Society

We live in a society where people acquire vast amounts of stuff and then run out of space to store it all. Some respond by adopting minimalism; true believers embrace the clean aesthetics of clear floors, empty shelves, and bare closets. Of course, in our disposable consumer culture, these same people can buy replacements for what they have discarded. The zen state of declutter is but a momentary illusion. Marie Kondo, apostle The Gospel of Decluttering and an advocate for minimalism, built her career encouraging people to discard items that failed to “spark joy.” Upon having her third child, however, she came to the conclusion that minimalism and kids were not compatible and confesses to now having a messy home. Apostate! The urge to acquire stuff is probably pre-programmed into us by evolution, just like the extra layers of fat we accumulate when food is plenty. Because good times don’t last, humans hoard resources for a rainy day; those with a cushion fare better during a downturn. But, as with many traits driven by evolution, the accumulation of stuff can become pathological. Hoarding can be a detriment to survival, and the line between prepping and hoarding is thin. Some manage…

Different Kinds of Stories

The Orchard Window by Daniel Garber, oil on canvas 1918

I believe we can distill the plethora of story types into two main categories: feverish cliff hangers that compel their readers to read on through the night, and the more tranquil tales that follow a structure of “this happened, and then this, and then this.” Of course, many stories offer a fusion of both types. Thrillers often drive the narrative to the very last word, while other stories might resemble meandering rivers that gently float the reader to their conclusion. I appreciate both, but I find the more mellow stories can be more compatible with a busy schedule. Kids, for example, don’t care if a novel is impossible to put down when demanding attention. The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom, a new game released just before Mother’s Day, is a case in point. My son predicted that on its release date, people would take the day off to indulge in the game. He was right, resulting in what could be called a national Zelda fever day. We saw a similar scenario during the release of the Star Wars sequels, with fans playing hooky to go see the movies. The only literary equivalent that comes to mind is the…

Developing a Story

Vars signs books

How does one choose a story? Or does a story choose its teller? For me, random triggers in my subconscious coalesce and spark inspiration that is not yet a story but rather the embryo of one. That seed, with time, might ripen enough to be worth planting. But the seed of a story doesn’t contain a compelling narrative that grabs and doesn’t let go until the very last word and beyond. A good story stays with its reader long after the last word is seen or heard. It rises unbidden in the middle of the night to infiltrate the reader’s dreams and deliver something new — a melding of what the author was trying to tell and what the reader took away. What does it take to develop a good story? A spark of imagination is one. Persistence is another — it takes time and perseverance to get words down on a page. But there’s more. I believe that good stories, like all good products, are constructed following a design process. There are always constraints on how the story needs to be told for a specific audience. There are industry demands on authors. There is a ton of background research.…

Playing with ChatGPT

Julia set fractal gif

I am a bit late to the ChatGPT bandwagon — people all over the internet are pointing out badly written prose. But I did want to give it a try. I have hundreds of story ideas that I have jotted down over the years. Most won’t ever be written into an actual story. So it seemed like a fun exercise to give ChatGPT an assignment of writing a short story using some of my notes as prompts. I tried three, iterating on one of those multiple times to see what differences my suggested changes made to the AI-generated story. The results are at the end of this post. The first thing I noticed is that all of the ChatGPT stories were flat — there were no unexpected twists or turns; and the endings sounded the same, each with a strange bit of morality embedded for good measure. The AI had a bit of literary echolalia — some phrases were repeated over and over again. It’s like it liked saying “like” as a verbal tic. I didn’t expect that. Stories tended to start with “In the world…” and conclusions began “In the end…”. The strangest response I got out of ChatGPT…

The Fragility of Normal

Fortune: May you live in interesting times

We all want to go back to normal. We cry about it and complain: “Enough is enough. We want our lives back.” This need to “go back to normal” is always with us, although maybe on a different scale post-pandemic. But even before Covid, there were always things that disturbed our perception of normal: new teachers, new housing, new jobs, new routines, stores and restaurants closing, cars that break down, challenging illnesses, new bus routes. Towards the end of our vacations, we come to realize that, although adventures are fun, it is good to be home where things are as we expect them to be. This want of predictability, for having our expectations met, is at the crux of a deep-seated need for normalcy. We have a limited capacity for taking in and processing information — we have limited short-term memories. When there is a flood of unfamiliar data, we get overwhelmed. We end up not having enough cognitive and emotional capacity to handle the new stuff on top of all the other things we have to do. Sudden change makes life feel overwhelming. Anchoring Errors This brings me to anchoring errors, which are basically little cognitive traps our minds…

Gift of Time

time illustration

Nothing is more precious than time. It’s not an accident that we celebrate birthdays — full orbit trips around our star — in addition to milestones of physical, mental, or social accomplishment. It’s also of interest to note that when we pledge ourself in marriage, we swear to be together ’til death do us part. In both cases, we are celebrating the passage and gift of time. Time is the most precious and the most personal thing we have to gift. Our allotted time is very limited, and once it passes, there is no getting it back. No amount of wealth or social connections can retrieve time lost. When it’s gone, it’s gone. As far back as we are able to glimpse into our history, people traded in goods and services. We make things. It takes the time it takes. Some tasks can’t be hurried and some are tied to events beyond our control, like weather and natural disasters. But we didn’t start selling our actual time, as opposed to goods and services, until recently. We sell our time cheap and value it even less. When people talk about “slow quitting,” they are talking about minimizing what they accomplish during…