Posts Tagged‘writing’

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New Orleans: Day 3

I’ll have to admit I was a little bit stressed this morning. I’d spent the majority of the night previously thinking about the narrative I wanted to put forward for my post for Lifehacker and the night’s sleep didn’t bring about any sudden moments of clarity. This isn’t completely unusual, indeed there are many times when I go through a similar process for my daily entries here, but the thought of not being able to deliver something (well, something that was up to my standards) to someone else for publication wore on me heavily. Still I’m not one to dwell on problems that don’t have an immediate solution so I trucked myself out to TechEd.

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My writer’s anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that the first session I had chosen turned out to be a 75 minute long advertisement for NetApp. Now usually I’m ok with sessions like this, especially if I’m interested in the particular tech they happen to be peddling, but no where on the session information did it say anything about this being all about whatever NetApp could do rather than, you know, what the session description led you to believe. Thankfully the second session I went to was with Mark Russinovich (of SysInternals fame) who’s presentation was not only great the stuff he talked about it was the inspiration for my post on Lifehacker. That’s also led onto me figuring out where I want to go with it for the next 2 that are due which just makes everything a lot easier.

The lack of a common meeting point (like the press room was the last time around) has led to this weird situation between all of us. Since we’re all in sessions for most of the day and the majority of them don’t overlap I actually didn’t see anyone else from the Lifehacker crew today. Sure there were a couple emails shot about but apart from that I’ve had no contact with them. After the experience I had travelling with DFAT it certainly feels a bit weird to me as we’d always meet up after work for dinner and a chat, something which was always fun after you got over that initial getting-to-know-you hurdle.

However this also afforded me a little freedom to do what I pleased after TechEd finished. After battling with dodgy Internet to get my post and pictures uploaded for the better part of an hour I finally made it out of the hotel and set out to look for some local cuisine. I’d tracked down a decent looking restaurant called Luke and, after walking in circles and almost giving up on finding it, settled in for a nice meal of baked oysters, a burger and an Oaked Arrogant Bastard ale. The food was quite incredible as the following photo will attest:

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I had thought ahead and brought my camera with me to the restaurant (none of the pics I’ve uploaded so far are from it, however) and afterwards I went on a bit of a tour around the area near my hotel. There was no limit of interesting subjects, at least for someone like me, and looking over the photos shows that I should have at least a couple keepers, maybe more once I get done with them in Lightroom. I was going to install a copy of it on this laptop however I don’t really have the time to go through them right now, unless I want to cut sleep out completely. It’s enough to satisfy me should I not get another chance, but I’m hoping to spend the better part of Friday doing the same thing again, only during the day.

So two days and two more posts to go. I’m feeling an awful lot better about this whole thing and I feel like its going to be reflected in my writing. Hopefully I luck into some more of those inspirational sessions as whilst I’ve got a general idea of what I want to write those kinds of posts always feel a whole bunch better. We shall have to see though and I’d better stop prattling on here in favor of getting some decent rest before tomorrow.

 

 

I’m about 20% On My Way To Mastery.

Its almost trite to talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers these days as it seems everyone is familiar with the key concept of mastery requiring a certain level of practice, on the order of 10,000 hours. Indeed the idea even spurred people on to do their own experiments to see how true the rule rang to life and the results of said experiments shows that there’s something to it, even if the hours required may vary wildly from person to person. I have unwittingly been participating in my own versions of these experiments for the past few years and a new milestone came up yesterday that I had completely forgot about.

I hit post 1000.

It seems like a lifetime ago when I hit that milestone that every blogger seems to celebrate publicly: the 100th post. Reading it again it’s clear to see how far I’ve come as the post is littered with smilies (which look horrendous to me now), the tone is completely different and it’s clear that I’m writing it directly to the only people I know are reading, I.E. my friends. Whilst I can’t claim that I’m some kind of blogging superstar now I do know my reach extends much further now than it did back then with my daily readership exceeding that of my monthly numbers back then. Back then however it felt like I had made some real substantial progress in my quest to become a blogger but upon reflection of my 1000th post it feels like I’m just starting out all over again.

Most of my posts don’t take that long to write, comparatively speaking, with most of them going from concept to draft to published piece in the space of 1~2 hours with more than a few being way above that. Putting that in perspective I’m probably about 2000 hours into the requisite 10,000 to obtaining mastery which, at my current rate, puts me at mastery some time in the mid 2020s. There are ways of accelerating this of course (I’d say that my experience writing for LifeHacker probably counts for 2x~3x the hours I spent on it due to the amount I learned whilst working for them) and I jump at the chance whenever they come my way but it’s still daunting to think that I’ve invested almost 5 years at this point and I’m only 20% into my journey.

Does that make me want to stop? Hell no! The opportunities that have opened up to me as a result of my work-daily rantings have been some of the most exciting things I’ve ever done and the more I blog the more those things seem to keep on happening to me. Whilst I’ve never attained the kind of overnight success that I had envisioned coming my way one day the slow and steady build up just never seems to stop. It can be disheartening some times when you write something you believe is brilliant and inspired only to have it fall on its face but, as the past has shown, I’m a terrible judge of what will be popular and for that I blame those little multiplying haters in my head.

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It’s comforting to know that people I respect highly struggle with the same things I do, even if our medium of choice is different. I’ve always had this disembodied version of myself hanging over my shoulder, constantly critiquing everything that I’m doing. In all honesty it’s a great thing and it’s responsible for a large part of why I’ve enjoyed so much success in other aspects of my life but it can be a real detriment, especially when it collides with my almost OCD level compulsions. It hasn’t gotten any easier as the years have gone by but I’ve developed a whole bunch more tools in order to deal with it. That’s probably the biggest insight I’ve had into this whole 10,000 hour thing as it’s more about understanding and overcoming your shortcomings more than anything else.

Unlike my myriad of other hobbies I feel that blogging is one that will stick around for good, just like gaming and software development did before them. It’s something that I’ve made a heck of a lot of progress in and the idea of giving it up just doesn’t seem to make sense like it did back when my daily viewer count was in the single digits. Whether or not it’ll morph into more or less than what it currently is however remains to be seen but I’m sure as I keep chipping away at that 10,000 hour goal more good things will come of it. I might not ever become the blogging starlet that I thought I was going to be all those years ago but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been a blast regardless.

So This is Why You Keep Coming Back.

It might surprise you to know that I have a pretty keen interest in the realms of psychology. I’m not exactly sure where the interest comes from but I think it has something to do with me viewing the human mind as an incredibly complex machine, one that we’re only just beginning to decipher the inner workings of. Primarily I’m interested in what motivates people to do certain things so I can understand where they’re coming from. Thinking back to my university years I can see that this interest probably stemmed from my obsession with trying to understand the everyman, figuring that I was so far removed from normalcy that I had to undertake such tasks. That interest has of course lead me to try and figure out why people keep coming back here to read my writing and I recently uncovered some interesting facts that might shed some light on that.

I’ve known for quite a while that I’m not particularly good at judging what articles of mine will be popular and ones that won’t. I’ve tried to crack that secret formula of writing something that will be an instant success but realistically the most popular articles I’ve written have always been slow burners, coming into fame a long time after I wrote them. Still I noticed an interesting trend after each of those hits took off on their own accord: more people would start visiting. Not just from random searches but also returning visitors and each new hit would build on the last one. I put it down to simple network effects (I.E. one new reader usually entails more readers as they share the posts around) for the most part, but something I read yesterday changed my view on this.

B.F Skinner was an American behaviourist who’s research into cognitive processes spans a good 5 decades from 1938 to 1989. He was also somewhat of an inventor, building several contraptions to test his various theories. One such device was the Operant Conditioning Chamber (or Skinner Box) a simple device designed to test the link between behaviours and their link to rewards both positive (reinforcement) and negative (disincentive). They’re usually quite simple devices consisting of some kind of operandum (say a lever or button) that the subject has to activate in order to receive a reward.  Despite being so simple they can be used to study a wide range of behavioural mechanisms and one of them is particularly intriguing. 

Given a direct relationship between the operandum and the reward (press button, receive bacon) subjects in the box will make the association and would operate it when they wanted said reward. However should the relationship be indirect, say the reward only comes randomly, then the subjects began to develop behaviours that they believed were consistent with the reward. Examples of this were birds performing such unusual behaviours as bowing or dancing before pressing a button as they associated that behaviour with the completely random reward. With that in mind I started thinking about where I’d seen this behaviour elsewhere and pennies started dropping.

Games, especially casual and MMORPGs, are heavily based around this concept of random rewards. MMORPGs are probably the best example of this when they follow the usual formula of “kill baddies, they drop loot” but the best rewards don’t drop often. Indeed back in the beginning days of World of Warcraft one of the end raid bosses, Onyxia, had an ability called Deep Breath that, from a scientific point of view, was triggered completely at random. However guilds attempting this boss would employ crazy strategy after crazy strategy to stop her from using said ability, with some swearing by its effectiveness. It got to the point where it became a meme for each new patch that players would observe “Onyxia deep breathes more often” or someone would discover yet another mechanic that apparently affected the frequency.

For bloggers the effect is somewhat similar, although it usually takes a slightly different form. I know for myself that if I find a blog post that I really like I’ll usually end up subscribing to the author’s RSS feed, hoping to get more of the same. Of course not everything they put out will be gold but day after day I’ll find myself coming back hoping to see the writing that captured me in the first place. Every so often they’ll hit on it again and I’ll be hooked again for however long, but usually long enough that they’ll strike gold again.

And that, my readers, is probably why you keep coming back. I don’t know what post brought you here or what may have made you subscribe to me but undoubtedly the reason you keep coming back is that you’re hoping to see something along those lines again. I hope I can deliver on that often enough to be worth your while and indeed, since so many of you do come back I get the feeling I do that often enough to keep reinforcing that behaviour. Not that I’m actively trying to condition you though, although now that I think of it the prospect of doing so is rather tempting… ;)

Why I (and You Should) Blog.

I was never a big fan of writing. I’m a very stereotypical nerd/engineer in that respect as I always struggled to get my thoughts down on paper, especially when I was told I wasn’t elaborating enough. I became frustrated with the arbitrary word counts as everything I needed to say could be summed up in a couple paragraphs and struggled with gathering supporting arguments. It got easier when I started writing documentation professionally, since all you really need there are the facts, but I only really started to enjoy writing about 6 months after I started this blog when I started to force myself to punch out at least 1 post per weekday.

I’ll be honest with you though, I still struggled with the basics for quite a while. Back then inspiration was a lot easier to come across than it was today (thanks to me not having a massive back catalogue of stuff I’ve already written about) but writing anything more than 500 words was a complete chore as the engineer in me yelled continually that anything more was just me waffling on. Over time however I came to realise just how to trigger that part of my brain that knows how to break down a subject into several key points that I can then turn into a paragraph each and now I routinely find myself writing 1000~2000 word posts on things that I’m passionate about.

Of course the small bit of recognition I get amongst my friends and peers for my various musings here go a long way to keeping me coming back to continue writing. It’s why whenever I hear about a friend starting up a blog I’ll link to them, subscribe to their blog and comment on their posts as I know how hard it is when you’re first starting out. I was shouting into the darkness for a good year before I got anything above what I’d classify Internet background noise so I know exactly what it can feel like to do something with seemingly no return. Of course most of the benefits don’t come from page views, but they certainly help to keep you on track to improving your writing (and hopefully other aspects of your life too).

Now I don’t necessarily recommend doing what I do exactly as whilst it’s been immensely helpful for me it’s also had the rather undesirable side effect of giving me a crazy OCD for getting a post out every day. Whilst some of my most complimented bits of writing come from the days when I have to drag inspiration kicking and screaming out of the dark reaches of my brain it would probably be a whole lot better, at least creatively, if I only wrote when the inspiration hit me. Indeed some of the best blogs I read come from those who only write when they really have to. That’s not to say that all my posts are forced out (the majority, thankfully, aren’t) but unless your goal is SEO and page views blogging or writing whenever suits you is probably the best option.

I’d also go out on a limb and say that any sort of online creative expression (whether blogging, vlogging, tweeting or whatever) will help you better yourself in some way. Of course I think some mediums are better for certain things (blogging is best for writing, of course) but giving yourself some sort of creative outlet, even if you think you aren’t that good, will do wonders for you. Sure many people already have these, especially those who make a living off their creativity, but having your own place of expression where only you are in control is definitely something worth having.

I’m not going to say that everyone in the world should blog, more that if you’re looking for a sure fire way to improve your writing and being able focus your thoughts then starting a blog might be the way to go. Plus there’s always the possibility that what you jot down will gain you an audience that will keep coming back for your musings, something that’s extremely gratifying (even the trolls, to a point). Hell if you’re worried about what people might think then just open up notepad every time you want to write something down and save the files off in some random location. Even doing that I think you’d be surprised of the improvements after a while, I know I certainly have.

It Would Be So Easy To Give Up.

I’ve been an on again, off again developer ever since my first year of university. I wasn’t particularly good at it either and it took me a good year of slogging through various programming languages before the penny finally dropped when I started using C#. After that initial hump however I found it much easier to pick up on new languages and technologies which has ultimately culminated in me attempting to create my own web application from the ground up, something I would’ve seen as impossible just a few years ago. It’s just over a year and a half since I began work on my pet project and in that time it’s gone through 3 complete rewrites, 4 redesigns and several months of me staring at a computer screen wondering if this is the best thing to do with my time.

It was that little hater getting into my head again.

I hadn’t really been thinking about much until a friend of mine commented on how he’d noticed that my writings indicated I was getting tired of developing Lobaco. After thinking about it for a while I knew he was right, the long weekends spent coding and testing had been taking their toll on me mentally. I had begun to fantasise about other applications I could be developing or other hobbies I could pick up, losing hours in research. After a while they started to meld together and my new found hobbies were turning into other potential start up ideas and I began lusting after them as they began to look so much more tangible than Lobaco. It was the dreaded unknowing procrastination beginning to slip in again and I had been welcoming it willingly.

As Jay Smooth put so aptly it was being in the thick of creation for so long that was making me lose sight of the end game. I’ve been writing on this blog for over 2 years now and there have been many times I’ve thought I should just give it up and shut the whole thing down (I would gain a considerable amount of time per day back again) but every time I get a comment either here or in real life I know that the work I do here is appreciated and it keeps me going that much longer. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that some days I just won’t be able to find anything to write about and that doesn’t mean this blog is worthless. Still I do enjoy blogging and when I’ve got a topic I’m passionate about I feel it shows and it’s posts like that that keep me coming back every day in the hopes I’ll hit on one of those topics.

Ever since that realisation I’ve been making great strides with the Lobaco iPhone application. Last weekend was probably my most productive ever with 4 core features being implemented and many improvements made thanks to some open source libraries I hadn’t come across before. Now it feels like I’ve hit one of those points where my progress as an iPhone developer is accelerating and my formerly hacker style approach is now becoming more standardized and new features are just rolling off my fingers. I’ve still got a couple months of development effort ahead of me before I’ll be releasing the iPhone application to beta testers but now its only a matter of time rather than the impossible mountain it used to be.

I guess this is why the majority of start ups are founded with more than just a single person. It’s so easy to get lost in your own world when you’re trying to bring an idea into reality and having someone there beside you really helps to keep you in the game and focused on the goal. Whilst I haven’t found anyone (yet, but I’m still looking!) who’s willing to go on this startup journey with me my group of close friends have acted as the sounding board and grounding rod that’s gotten me this far into the project. The next few months are going to be the make or break time for Lobaco but with the progress I’ve made in just the past couple weeks I have a much renewed level of confidence, and a desire to succeed that is yet to be satiated.

Linkbaiting, Trolls and Other Secrets to Blogging Success.

I try to keep resemblance of what could be likened to journalistic integrity on this blog. I usually only write about things that I believe I have something worthy to say on the topic and I think it shows when I’ve forced out a post just to satisfy my obsessive-compulsive side. Still the temptation is always there to take the latest hot headline in one of my areas of interest and just parrot the popular sentiment as it’s an almost guaranteed way to drive people to this site. Sometimes I’m lucky enough that these two worlds collide and I get to write about something I like that brings people to my blog. One example of this was my reaction to the iPad which, whilst I knew was going to be all over the press, was an honest reaction to the product’s announcement and saw quite a few people coming here to get whatever details they could on Apple’s latest toy.

In the professional blogging world things aren’t quite so freeform.

You see, despite efforts to the contrary, the best way to make money off your online content is advertising. Depending on who you’re dealing with these can be cost per thousand impressions (CPM), cost per click (CPC) or some other variety. No matter what kind of advertising you end up slathering all over your content the amount you make will still be directly proportional to the number of users that you receive on your site. The best ways to do this usually involve breaking a story (although that doesn’t last that long in our Internet world), writing on the topic de’jeur or playing on people’s loyalties by taking a controversial stance on a subject. Take a look at any blogging site and you’ll see a combination of all of these, usually right there on the front page. All of this is done in aid of driving users and their respective advertising revenue to the site.

As always this post was inspired by an example of such behaviour that I saw on the Internet. Currently one of the hot topics amongst the tech crowd is the issue of the iPhone 4′s antenna which can be shorted out if held in a certain way. I’ve steered clear of the topic mostly because I don’t have anything useful to say on the matter and it’s already been beaten to death in the headlines over the past couple weeks. To give you an idea of just how absurd this whole situation is getting take a gander at this post over at TechCrunch:

But the thing is, that trust that my mom gives to Consumer Reports was hard earned over decades of obsessive use. She trusts Consumer Reports. And if I read it I might trust it too. If they rated stuff on shininess I’d definitely subscribe. Or if they rated robots.

But suddenly Consumer Reports is crazy for the link bait. This iPhone 4 antenna problemhas them going absolutely batshit crazy, and nearly every day they’re firing off a new set of recommendations, or demands, that conflict with the old recommendations and demands.

Ironically¹ Arrington is also guilty of the same things that he criticises Consumer Reports of doing. The post is a classic traffic driver attempt: he’s taken a rather controversial stance on something (no one else has criticized Consumer Reports to my knowledge), he’s talking about one of the hottest topics today and for what it’s worth he’s breaking the story. The post is just aching for Consumer Reports to post a response back to his claims and should they actually do that he’s got another in to write yet another trolltastic article.

For me since my blog is primarily personal and nets me zero in the ways of revenue I don’t usually have any desire to write those kinds of articles. That’s not to say I haven’t, in fact I’ve done quite a few of them. However I never really felt that good about them afterwards and talking it over with my fellow bloggers they agreed they weren’t really of the standard they’d come to expect from me. I am human however so there are times when my stance on something will go against the grain of what’s currently socially acceptable but those posts will (hopefully) contain reasoned, logically constructed arguments so at least if you don’t agree with me you understand how I came to my conclusions.

You could write this whole tirade off as someone who’s just languishing in the dark recesses of the Internet casting an evil eye to anyone who’s got a whiff of success. The Australian blood that runs through me will always want to cut the tall poppies down but realistically it all comes back to my desire to give a little something to those who read my writings. Whilst I know that not everyone cares about why people write things for all to see I feel that knowing someone’s motivations helps me greatly in understanding their content and, should they attempt to convince me of their viewpoint, acknowledge any biases they have lest I take them on as my own.

¹It gets even more ironic if you consider that this post could be construed as falling prey to the same ideas I’m criticising. I knew that when writing this, just so you know ;)