Staying organized

In the end, it’s all about how thoughts are assembled. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, but only if you put them together properly.

So… where the hell did that come from?

I’ve been meaning to write about writing for several days now. This is the first time in more than six years (seven, actually, now that I get to counting) that I’ve made a point of writing every day. I hope it lasts.

Much to Simon’s well-deserved chagrin, I didn’t even write daily when I was assembling the copy for HTML+CSS:TGP.

There’s a lot to talk about here: practice, perfection, audience, ego, fear.

Mark me down as one of those who believes that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, it does not make a sound — in the figurative sense, at least.

In the past week, I:

I’ve also been posting Tweets at a rate more than seven times my previous average, since I started writing here (though my habit of preferring replies and retweets to original content hasn’t changed).

A related detail is that yesterday’s entry took no less out of me than the others — not because it was emotionally draining to write, but instead because it took a lot of concentration to put forth twenty-six of my beliefs on a single topic, with an emphasis on brevity.

Human language is ultimately compiled, not interpreted. Some people have better compilers than others. Also, when I speak for a belief, I fucking mean it, so my words are chosen with care.

The most interesting (and ironic) bit in my opinion is that I don’t consider myself a writer by vocation… yet here I am, promising myself to write everyday in public.

Practice

To the extent that I can be considered a good writer, I came to it by some other path than accident. My father’s a recently retired American History professor with a book of his own to his credit. Before entering graduate school, he was a career print and broadcast journalist. My mother was a technical writer, at the peak of her career. My stepparents between them hold three advanced degrees; one was a tech writer, the other taught a good share of composition classes, what with the Ph.D. in English Literature.

I was brought up to writing well, though it hardly burns in my blood.

I’m forced by temperament to do it right in lieu of writing well in the strictest sense. That begs the question of why I bother…

The simplest answer is that I cannot put to rest the conviction that I have something to say. Given the Internet and my obvious possession of technique, writing lots only seems natural.

Lately, though, I find myself writing in the channel of my stream of consciousness. That’s remarkable for two reasons: first, because I never saw the point to that before; and second, because it’s only been in the past few months that I’ve been able to focus my stream of consciousness into a single channel.

Dump enough onto my to-do list and the “stream” becomes a “delta” again. This is one of many reasons why I can’t stand multitasking.

I guess I’m instinctively trying to teach myself to think differently than in the past. “Well” can come later.

Perfection

I earned my O’Reilly contract not long after Thanksgiving 2008, but it was almost January before I started writing. Part of the delay was owed to the fact that I was trying to deliver a particularly awful project. The rest — and as much to the point, most — of the delayed start was owed to my nerves.

I read JavaScript: The Good Parts, and scanned it twice more. I considered my own ideas for what needed to be written. Thanks to my work on the Opera Web Standards Curriculum, Simon and I had already done one round of outlining before I was even invited to propose.

I struggled. First and most importantly, markup is not code. HTML’s architecture offers little in the way of elegance, and the few shortcuts it offers are bad to use. The same judgement can be applied fairly to CSS.

I couldn’t write a book about cool whizzy shit; Christopher Schmitt already did that. I couldn’t write a concise guide to the two languages; O’Reilly’s Pocket Reference, Nutshell, and Head First titles already do that.

That left me filling in the gaps and leaning hard on at least the best fraction of best practice. My goal, which I couldn’t articulate in as many words at the time, was to create an analogue to Horton & Lynch, as applied to markup and stylesheets.

Worse still, I started out with a goal of 60–75,000 words. I knew that was ambitious. As it turned out, that was too ambitious. In the end I tilted at windmills, wondering for weeks what combination of structure and economy would fulfill all the goals I had set out in my proposal. In the meantime I got tons of good advice about how to write documentation, very little of which seemed applicable to the proposal O’Reilly accepted.

Sometime in March of last year I resigned myself to a certain inevitable quantity of Suck and started writing in spite of myself.

As treatments for the symptoms of ohwhatthehellosis go, I’m pretty proud of the book… but a little disappointed in myself.

Ego

I choose my words carefully, as a rule — and I have an awful lot of words to choose from.

As previously mentioned, I’m a fan of John Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe.

My speaking style tends to be deliberate and not always economical. A stream of consciousness that cuts multiple channels makes that lack of economy more or less inevitable.

Finally I’ve studied two languages other than English in considerable detail. The syntax and rules of those languages leak into my copy, from time to time.

Sometimes my copy collapses on itself in a heap, and even I can see it. I’m not trying to be clever, or make like I’m smarter than you. I’ve consulted and taken to heart Strunk & White, and “Politics and the English Language” — on some days, better than others. On the not-better days the thoughts I’m trying to share burst out of my psyche at a ridiculously high rate of compression, and the writing reflects that.

I routinely envy others for their accessible style and their storytelling skills, even as they envy me for my ability to turn the most unlikely combinations of words into cadences that not only make sense, but make the reader think.

I am categorically proud of what I can accomplish when I’m trying to get a rise out of people, though.

Fear

That constant reach for the right words, and the visible evidence of my influences, leaves me open to charges of pomposity and sugarcoating — charges I’m rarely able to refute.

What I fear most as a writer is leaving the impression of being impressed with myself. Occasionally I do impress myself, but rarely because I’m trying to.

My fears take scope beyond the impression that I leave on people. I find myself sometimes kept up at night by the prospect of being cut down because I reached too far and succeeded, or because I barged into someone’s sense of entitlement without meaning to.

Goodness knows that I don’t typically go looking for trouble. Trouble does a terrific job of finding me.

As a writer who can (and does) take a microscope to things, I know that those outcomes are sometimes inevitable.

At other times, though, I’m not at all trying to get a reaction… I’m just sharing what’s on my mind for the sake of sharing. At other times I’m on a project and sincerely trying to do the best work that I can.

When you draw the ire of others’ insecurities in those cases, there’s no reasoning with your attacker. All you can do is duck, or run away. I’ve never cared for running away, and ducking gets you only a fraction closer to stopping.

I would give a lot for the privilege of just doing what I do well without ever being called upon to gird myself for a battle over the consequences.

Music

Rammstein, “Sehnsucht”
@allmusic
English translation of lyrics [Don’t ask… I said these were topical, but I never swore they’d be topical to you.]

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Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb —by Ben Henick, 5 July 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic