Tag Archives: writing

Smart people don’t read the news

When I was a kid, going to secondary school and college, smart people consumed the news.

If you didn’t have much time, you “snacked” — consumed the few news segments on TV. If you considered yourself a serious person in society, wanting to be an informed voter and current on events and discoveries of the day, you got a morning newspaper and read it. Gave you wonderful material for conversation the rest of the day. Finally, if you really wanted to understand how the world around you worked, you subscribed to magazines, where long format and deep-dive articles took their time explaining to you why things were the way they were.

No more.

Nowadays most people don’t trust the news, but they still consume it. I find that odd.

The usual culprit is that the press has some sort of leaning to it — it’s either conservative or liberal. But press has always been biased, so I don’t buy that. People will tell you that it was the fault of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but while that played a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the entire story.

Nope, the reason consuming the news today sucks is that we live in a world of constant outrage.

At some point, news publishers realized that emotional engagement, not facts or solid background material, drove readers to consume and share. So all of our media channels are full of people who are either outraged about something or are using thinly-veiled logic to get us upset about something.

And so we have a treasure trove of material designed to drive “engagement”, which just means it’s stuff guaranteed to provoke an argument. Any news event can be spun half a dozen ways to try to generate anger — and it will be. Then, whichever angle works out the best will be mined for eyeballs until the next story comes along.

This consumption of material engineered to constantly outrage does not make for a healthy mind. Part of the reason is the constant emotional roller coaster it puts the consumer in, but part of the reason is that the media outlets are constantly trying to cover up and deny that this is why they’re running the stories to begin with. So most outlets well-known for “just the facts” reporting are anymore just presenting a light sheen on top of articles designed to enforce pre-existing attitudes.

Put another way, the reader is constantly being manipulated. The only question is the degree of manipulation and the honesty involved.

That’s why I’ve converted to reading tweets and opinion columns. Tweets are almost entirely too shallow to waste much of my time, and they’re wildly inaccurate, but they keep me apprised of the general gist of day-to-day conversation. Opinion columns are there to make a point regarding some pre-existing opinion. I find that to be perfectly fine. If you’re going to spin and slant the news to make your point, at least be a man about it and tell it to my face. Don’t hide behind “analysis” and pro and con segments.

With these two forms of news consumption, as long as I read opinion columns from all over the spectrum, I get a fairly good balanced diet of what’s going on. I don’t find all the drama in the news that my fellow consumers feel.

Consuming the news has changed. Smart people don’t do it like they used to.

I wish I could say long format pieces have survived this shift. They have not. More and more, I’m seeing long format articles that amount to nothing much more than extended arguments put forward by one special interest or another, many times with an interview of a token person holding an opposing position as some sort of fig leaf to “fairness”. What is needed here, as in tech and science news, is reporters that actually know their area and can write stories at length about important events happening there. Instead what we’re finding is reporters who are getting socially involved in issues, then try to pry meaningful news from their social network. You end up with four-thousand-word cocktail party chat. Not always, but more and more.

It’s sad that news is dead. As a former freelance writer who has written for both weekly, daily, and magazine outlets, I liked them. The TV guys were never hitting on much, but they had a fun, egocentric job to do as well. These guys as purveyors of what’s important to know are long gone. Their job positions and media outlets will go on for many decades longer, sadly. And dumb people will keep consuming them, keep getting upset every day, and keep wondering why the world is such a bad place to live in.

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Publishing Your Ebook For Nerds – Lessons Learned

Working on wrapping up my third e-book. It’s a book on how to make and manage effective backlogs, or the lists of things both teams and developers do. The first two were kind of a lark — although I was trying as hard as I could, I realized that this was something that was going to take a while to learn.

This time around my e-book is much larger, and I’m hoping to hit the mainstream, both in terms of content and quality. Most all organizations have the job of coordinating their work both globally and locally, and I’ve made the book as a lesson wrapped in a story. I figure either you’ll like the lesson or the story, maybe both.

After spending several days fighting tools, I thought it’d be good to capture what I’ve learned. If you’re a tech person who wants to write an e-book, this’ll help you get from words to e-book format.

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Google Analytics Doldrums

I have between 20 and 30 sites on the internet. What can I say? Some folks collect shoes. I collect domain names and then make content — apps, targeted text, or mixed-mode stuff — for them. Or at least most of them.

I also use Google Analytics. Great free tool. But heck if I can figure out what’s useful to do with it aside from just a few measurements. Looks like there’s all kinds of stuff in there. And they just keep adding stuff, like the new upgrade. Let’s describe a few usage scenarios to see what I’m talking about.

It used to be under the old interface that I could see all of my web sites at one time and get a feel for how they were doing. Now I can’t even do that. So when my wife’s hamburger casserole recipes site began losing traffic, it took two months for me to figure it out. I can’t just scan 20 sites in one column and get a delta from the previous month. That’s not a good thing. You must understand that most of these sites make nothing at all, perhaps only enough to keep their domains renewed, so they’re all competing for my attention. If I can’t look at all of them at once and see their changes over time it destroys my workflow.

I like the new real-time metrics. Nothing like posting a Tiny Giant Books article about being a ScrumMaster on HN and watching hundreds of people come to visit. What great eye candy! But what to do with all of those little flashing circles and cool maps and stuff? On the real-time graph I can at least get a sense of where the traffic is coming from. Perhaps if lots of people are visiting from DZone I could go there and see if there were any questions about the content. That’s what I keep telling myself, at least. Hasn’t really worked out that way.

Paycheck Stub has also suffered a bit of a traffic hit, but only in the last week or two. I’d like to know why, but heck if I can figure out how to get GA to cough that up. I think it’s a change in search term usage by readers. Not sure. It’s the type of thing where I could spend 6 hours tracking it down only to make an extra few dollars a month from the resulting fix.

My funny picture site, Caption of the Day, looked like it was taking off for a while, but has leveled out recently. Are different people visiting it now than a few weeks ago? Do people not find the images as funny? Has somebody flagged the site for some stupid reason? I have no idea.

It seems like with web site analytics you’re always swimming in tons of raw data and somehow magically you’re supposed to make some kind of sense out of it all. Developers just keep adding more bells and whistles, continuing the user information and option overload.

It’s not that none of it is useful. I love using average time on site and bounce rate to compare how useful each site is to the readers. It’s just that there’s so much stuff, and very little of it is immediately useful as actionable data. For this blog I can tell you that there were 70 thousand visitors last month, 25% of which were returning friends, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Do those 25% visit regularly? Don’t know — aside from that statistic, I can’t find out. There’s a “frequency and recency” tab, but I’m not sure it’s answering the question I have, which is about the population, not the site.

Part of the problem here is that as a website content creator, I have questions about the people that are visiting, but the reporting is focused on the site. it’s a subtle difference, but to me it means the difference between being able to walk away with something useful to do and just kind of mindlessly staring at a bunch of numbers and graphs. How many logical segments of people are there? I would expect groups like Mac User-College Access-US or FB User-IE-middle-aged. If the system could propose a few demographic clusters like that, then I could use those and diving down into the rest of it would make sense.

I create stuff for people, I don’t publish data to a server. There’s a big difference. My questions are about people, not visiting statistics. I’m not getting results from a survey, I’m trying to make something people want. It’s like I’m always trying to translate from one system to another. Some days it feels like I’m in training to become a psychic.

I understand that there’s no magic bullet here, but there is room for improvement. If the answers are framed the wrong way, no matter how you ask the question you end up frustrated.

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English To Nerd Translation

One of the drawbacks that I’ve noticed about technical people is their desire to make everything more simple than it actually is. So, for instance, on the internet they think of content and comments as basically being data that is transmitted around between “nodes” (people) which process it.

People are social animals. English is not a computer or mathematical language, therefore it stands to reason that much communication, on the net and in person, contains social cues. Smart people — much smarter than I am — still can’t seem to get their head wrapped around this. They keep asking questions that make the assumption that since the words don’t parse exactly, the speaker must be making some kind of mistake.

So I don’t have to keep repeating myself, here’s a translation table:

English phrase Nerd Translation
I’m not trying to be an X… There’s a hell of a long conversation here, with a lot of qualifiers, but frankly I don’t have the time for it. Instead I’m just going to offer some generalization that you can easily throw rocks at. I know that you will, and now I’m telling you to have fun with it.

So if I say “I don’t mean to be old grumpy guy” that means that what comes out of my mouth next will be a generalization and summary of my feelings that I fully know for all intents and purposes sounds like old grumpy guy. Sorry, can’t be helped. That’s the way the summary looks.
It goes without saying… I have to make some assumptions here so that what I have to say makes sense. I am 99% certain that all in the audience agree with me. However, I could be wrong. So I will publicly identify my premise and move forward. If you call me on it then at least I’ve identified it ahead of time.
As it turns out… This is a variation of “feel-felt-found” method of persuasion. It’s a contrast between a “before” and “after” state. In the fullest form, the writer identifies with the other person’s feelings (“I can see you’re feeling like having 400 buttons on your web page offers more power to the user”) then notes that many more (including perhaps the writer himself) were in the same boat. (“Everybody here felt the same way only two years ago. We loved giving users that kind of power.”) Finally he says something like “but we’ve found that …” or “As it turns out…”

The purpose of this construct is to emotionally bond or to demonstrate understanding and sympathy with the reader in order to gently bring them to a new way of thinking. The decision-making process itself — why the author changed his mind — is usually glossed over with a couple of throwaway logical-sounding points. Sometimes not even that. You can skip the other steps and just start off with the conclusion “As it turns out, this type of interface isn’t that engaging” — leaving the reader to supply the rest of it on their own. This barest form of feel-felt-found basically announces that the author has made a conclusion which is not open to discussion.
To be honest… I have been debating whether or not to say anything because I know by saying something you may have hurt feelings. And I have no obligation to tell you everything I know or think. But on reflection I have found it more honest — honest in the older sense of “straightforward” or “direct” — to share this with you.
“Let me be clear” or “Let me be perfectly clear” (used by many politicians) I know this is sort of a long speech and many of you have not been paying attention, so coming up next is a catchy phrase that I want you to remember. (Interestingly enough, “clear” in this case translates much more as “memorable”)

The majority of these phrases are constructed around the speaker trying to anticipate the response of the listener. In this way, they are conversation “short cuts”. Most of them also send an important social message to the audience.

Note that using some of these phrases is considered poor grammar. That’s okay. We’re not trying to win an essay award, simply communicate with other human beings. The web is an interesting confluence of spoken and written communication. It’s not either one exclusively, but a little of both.

Note also that there’s nothing dishonest going on here. These phrases aren’t intended to somehow hide or gloss over problems with the speaker’s position (although admittedly they can be abused that way.)

For many colloquial speakers, this article probably sounds pretty stupid, even inane. But once you reach a certain level of thinking logically about everything, commonly found among hackers and programmers, this kind of thing easily trips you up. In fact many technical people get very angry at times about language usage like this. It’s as if they feel like there is a “bug”, the communication fails a checksum, and they’re frustrated at having to put up with it.

I really wish that English was more logical. No, scratch that. I actually love the craziness of languages and am fascinated with phrases like the ones above. The differences between real language and mathematical languages continues to amaze and interest me.

I’ll add more to this article as they come up.

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When I Grew up I Ended up Being a Writer

I hated English class in school. The diagramming sentences. The reading stuff by guys who couldn’t write a grocery list without using a thousand words. The political and personal interpretations by the teachers. The endless lists of words to learn. I had a lot of dreams as a kid, and none of them involved writing. Blech!

I hated creative writing. I was in a special creative writing group just for gifted children. The other kids — mostly girls — would write about their feelings in such a mushy and saccharine manner that it made me want to barf. Lame poetry. giving each other fake praise. It was all just too much. When I had a chance to critique these girls my analysis was carelessly acerbic. There is no theme here. Your meter is off. What is the point of this sentence? This adjective doesn’t work here. You’ve wasted my time. You suck. Go away. Learn to sew and have kids — there’s no writing in your future.

I was kind of a class clown. What can I say? Tact was never my strong suit. Engineering and math seemed a lot more practical to me than fluffy prose.

My own writing for the group — I had to write as well — consisted of whatever I thought would mess with the other kid’s heads the most. I remember one short story I wrote about a moose, from the moose’s point of view, that told the story of his quest to find water, instead falling into a temporal rift that transported him back in time to where he was eventually eaten by dinosaurs. I’ll never forget the look on the other kids’ faces as they read my story. They had absolutely no idea of what to do with it.

I liked taking pictures, though, and ended up being a photographer for the school newspaper. That was a lot of fun! And from that job I was approached by the editor of the local weekly newspaper after I graduated and asked to do some lightweight photojournalism. Then, after the Marines, college, and BigCorp, I ended up writing for the local daily newspaper as a stringer and doing some national magazine work on the side.

There was a time in my early 20s that I seriously wanted to be a writer, but it never worked out. Computers and technology always called me back. The money was simply too good.

Twenty years later I get up today, update my funny picture collection, post to my blog, and then start working on my new short e-book. On my larger stack is another couple of blog posts I want to do for some other folks, another two short e-books, about a dozen websites that are in various stages of completion, and a larger e-book which I’ve been working on for a year.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a secret agent. I wanted to be a entrepreneur. Once those childhood dreams evaporated, I wanted to work with something substantial. Something with a deep set of logically-consistent rules. I look around at my friends in the tech community and I see a lot of me when I was a kid: easy criticism of other people’s creative work, disdain of the “soft” sciences, and a desire just to focus on technical things. Like me, they find comfort in the certainty of hard science.

What I found was that no matter what you do in life, written communication is a critical part of your job. In fact, the more important you are in your field, the more important it is for you to be able to communicate. And I’m not talking about simply relating facts, either. The best part of writing is letting somebody else inside the way you think. That’s the real value, whether you’re writing fiction or fantasy. Writing, like managing and like manipulating technology, is a fundamental skill that must be mastered no matter what else you do. It’s not optional. I wanted to do a lot of things. I did those. What I ended up being was a writer.

I miss that moose.

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Signal-to-Nothing Ratio

Here’s a tidbit it took me a while to figure out.

Let’s say you write an article and post it on a few social sites. It becomes a very popular article, and thousands of people read it. A few people pointed out that you didn’t know what you were talking about. These people were obviously mistaken (grin). A few people somewhat agreed with you and added some of their own content. Finally a few people not only understood what you were saying and completely agreed, but took your thoughts to the next level. The distribution is like this.

I used to think that reading the responses to an article gave me some indication of how my writing was doing. If lots of people agreed, I had a good piece. If lots of people disagreed, then either I didn’t know what I was talking about or I was completely out of whack with most of the folks reading it thought. I thought comments were some sort of quasi-immediate feedback on the intellectual content of my writing.

This is because commenters themselves will gladly offer you their opinion of how correct you are. “Boy you really nailed that”, “You completely don’t understand X” , ” and “I think you’re correct in this part but missed these other parts” are common types of comments to receive. If folks are leaving comments on the veracity and perspicaciousness of your writing, it must mean that people want you to write true and insightful stuff, and that the depth of insight and intellectual power displayed in your article is of paramount importance.

Boy was I wrong!

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The Startup Racket

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket” – attributed to Eric Hoffer.

I’m a startup junkie — I love everything about how people can form together into small teams and change the world. To me it’s the great untold story of the 20th and 21st century.

I also love writing. I have been a writer in some fashion or another for over 20 years, and loving every minute of it.

When I first started being serious about writing, I bought a copy of “Writer’s Market”, which would tell you where you could sell your writing. I subscribed to magazines like “The Writer” which educated me on all things a professional writer does and is. I attended conferences about being a writer. I sought out advice on how to submit, how to query, what to do or say and what not to do or say.

And a funny thing happened.

First, I became slightly successful. I wrote for local newspapers, regional magazines. Heck, I even did an interview of Clive Barker for High Society magazine. I realized that as much as I loved writing, it was a long haul and being rich probably wasn’t in the cards.

Second I realized that I was consuming a vast amount of total crap in all the literature about writing. Take stories about what editors want. Some editor would write 500 words about what he wanted — short cover letters, strong hook, yadda yadda. But what did he really want? He wanted a story to sell magazines. The story he was writing all kind of boiled down to “Don’t pester me kid. I get a hundred like you every day, so write short letters, don’t call, use an agent, do any freaking thing except for pestering me. I don’t have time to sort through all of this junk I get”

Then there were the people who tried to sell me on making a living writing children’s books. Or how-to books. But only if you paid them $99.95 for the full course. The deal here was that gee, there’s no way all these folks are successful children’s writers — so where is the real action? The real action is selling courses on how to be a writer, not actually being one.

Lately, however, as much as I love startups, I’ve been seeing the same thing in the startup culture. As well-meaning as most people are, it’s more of a racket than a help.

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