September 16, 2007

An Observation on Web Writing

Posted in Books, Reading, Writing at 9:08 pm by mj

I’m currently reading three books that, unexpectedly, illustrate the difference between writing for the web and writing for physical books, and helps explain why I often feel so unfulfilled after catching up on my feeds. Two of these books are essentially blog posts edited for print, while one is a popular science book.

The first is Managing Humans by Michael Lopp. I’ve been reading randsinrepose.com for a while. I find his style (on the web) informative and hilarious. In print, however, I feel like I’m reading a For Dummies book. Maybe it’s the yellow cover. But the big, bold Easy Reader-esque headlines every third paragraph certainly aren’t helping. Is it still funny? Yes. Is it still informatiive? Yes. But it’s obviously self reflective, and doesn’t contain much beyond Lopp’s personal experiences.

The second is Smart and Gets Things Done by Joel Spolsky. Just like 98% of every other programmer, I’ve been reading joelonsoftware.com for what seems like forever. He also has a great blog “voice,” and his posts feel natural while also instructional. The print edition of his columns, on the other hand, is tiny (the only books in my collection that are smaller are some O’Reilly pocket reference editions) and the print is larger than normal. Reading this, I don’t feel like I’m getting much out of it. Maybe that’s because I’ve gotten so much out of his faux blog over the years.

Now let’s compare these–as I’ve serreptitiously done–with a popular science book. A book without any numbers or graphs, and a large number of “Just So” stories and fictional recountings of everyday life.

I’m talking about Sperm Wars by Robin Baker. Baker doesn’t spend time with scientific details, and, as I said, many of his explanations are plausible “Just So” stories (I mean that in the positive sense). Whatever scientific evidence lies behind them, he leaves as an exercise for the reader to discover elsewhere. It’s highly entertaining, if a bit embarrassing to read on BART (after a few, um, “close calls” with reading nearly-pornographic sections with an attractive woman sitting next to me, I decided to finish it at home lest anybody get the wrong idea).

And yet, for all the scientific evidence it leaves out, it’s a normal-sized book with normal-sized print and normal-sized chapters. It’s a book. Both the fictional “scenes” and the explanations are entertaining and flow well. This is a book that’s meant to be read and grokked, not skimmed and (maybe) shared.

Both Michael Lopp and Joel Spolsky do well when they abide by the Web Writing Commandments handed down by the Great Spider In the Sky lo those many years ago. I doubt if I would read either if they didn’t–and neither would many others. I don’t abide by those commandments, but that’s the least of my problems with this blog.

But here’s the thing: does making it easy to scan your posts and, therefore, discover and subscribe to your blog mean that your readers are connecting with you the way they would a traditional print author? I read a lot of great blogs. I learn a lot every time I have time to catch up on my feeds (about once a week). I’ve spent time organizing my Google Reader folders/tags so I can easily skim the media type blog headlines, I’ve segregated out partial feeds to the point I almost never bother “reading” them, and more… all with the goal of saving more time to get more out of the other, more valuable blogs I read.

And still, there’s nothing like a good–or even decent–book. I just don’t feel the same satisfaction.

Am I alone?

March 6, 2007

User Interface Reductio Ad Absurdum

Posted in Books, Fun, Me at 10:00 pm by mj

What can one do but chuckle when presented with the following?

I could go on about how Amazon.com has the worst cart management interface (except for all the others). And how it’s so incredibly difficult to find old, saved items, and move or delete them, that I just don’t do it. And that the result is a list of items, many of which are 2-4 years old, half of which I already own (received as gifts/bought elsewhere) or decided I didn’t want.

But I know it’s all my fault.

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February 25, 2007

Public and private life

Posted in Books, Education, Life at 2:19 am by mj

Danah Boyd on ending relationships in the internet age, and the divide between the personal and the social:

The Internet has allowed us to take the most “intimate” thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you’re going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

Danah is eloquent and nearly poetic as always; I did not quote the best part of her post, so be sure to click through.

The real reason this stuck out in my mind is because she quoted Hannah Arendt, who was my favorite thinker in college. I borrowed several of Arendt’s books from a professor my sophomore year, and went on from there; her densest writing would fill me with a semester’s worth of references in a single paragraph, and she’d draw connections through the centuries that I never would have made. (I’m not sure I could make it through any of her books at this point.) I can recall those days fondly now, even though I know they were far from my happiest days.

Arendt also made another argument, though, that the private life is absolutely vital to life at all. Not just to thinking (a case she also made), but to development and resilience. The case that I remember best is from The Crisis In Education, which I just tracked down:

These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. In the public world, common to all, persons count, and so does work, that is, the work of our hands that each of us contributes to our common world; but life qua life does not matter there. The world cannot be regardful of it, and it has to be hidden and protected from the world.

I’ll continue on, because the next paragraph is as relevant this month as it ever was:

Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all. This may indeed be the reason that children of famous parents so often turn out badly. Fame penetrates the four walls, invades their private space, bringing with it, especially in present-day conditions, the merciless glare of the public realm, which floods everything in the private lives of those concerned, so that the children no longer have a place of security where they can grow.
[…]
It is the peculiarity of modern society, and by no means a matter of course, that it regards life, that is, the earthly life of the individual as well as the family, as the highest good; and for this reason, in constrast to all previous centuries, emancipated this life and all the activities that have to do with its preservation and enrichment from the concealment of privacy and exposed them to the light of the public world. This is the real meaning of the emancipation of workers and women, not as persons, to be sure, but insofar as they fulfill a necessary function in the life-process of society.

The last to be affected by this process of emancipation were the children, and the very thing that had meant a true liberation for the workers and the women–because they were not only workers and women but persons as well, who therefore had a claim on the public world, that is, a right to see and be seen in it, to speak and be heard–was an abandonment and betrayal in the case of the children, who are still at the stage where the simple fact of life and growth outwieghs the factor of personality.

I’m interested in whether Danah–who lives and breathes teenage culture–agrees with Arendt on this.

The case is often made pragmatically, that your words and deeds online will be seen by your future college admissions boards and employers and lovers and, yes, enemies. But is this liberation destroying life worth living, or are we adapting and, eventually, will better understand ourselves because we (humans in general, not me, because, well, I’m a lost cause) grew up making distinctions between public and private acts that before were (arbitrarily) made for us?

Oy, 2AM. Would I were twenty-three…

April 11, 2006

Home Library Organization

Posted in Books, Categorization, Me at 6:04 pm by mj

David Weinberger asks How do you sort your books?, apparently as part of the book he’s writing on classification in the physical world.

It was nice to see that I’m not alone. I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by my organization. My books are roughly organized by the year I last referenced them, and then suborganized by topic in rough order of descending importance. This scheme works because it means I can put my shelves wherever I have room, and not have to clutter any rooms with excess shelves.

I also keep my professional books separate from everything else, but I think that’s mostly a side effect of trying to have books I’m most likely to reference in my office. And since we’ve expanded into two offices (his and hers, you might say), my professional books are, more than ever, organized by the rough year of last reference.

And, of course, I never bother organizing my “to-read” pile. Or, piles, I should say: each pile being organized by the quarter in which I first ordered the books in that pile. That’s probably the most embarrassing part.

It was interesting to hear the idea of organizing your books by the color of the cover. That seems somehow intuitive to me. I often don’t remember the names of books, but I usually remember the color of the spine and the picture on the cover. I’ll have to contemplate that. It would make for a nice visual element.

Of course, knowing my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I would still never be happy, since I’d never be able to decide whether to place (for example, a book I’m looking at right now) The C++ Standard Library with the gray books (for its cover), yellow books (for its typeface), or orange books (for its neat orange-plated C++ logo on the spine). That’s something that could keep me up nights.