Category Archives: blogging

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

Drawing thoughts on index cards

I’ve got quite a backlog of posts I want to publish, but I’ll squeeze this one in first. I want to think about how I can make the most of this new old (2011!) index card habit, and whether I should reconsider that voluntary bottleneck of publishing one post a day.

For the past two weeks, I’ve drawn at least five index cards each day. (You can find them on Flickr.) Each card explores a single thought. I like the way this lets me briefly capture what I’m curious about. I’ve included many of them in blog posts, grouping several thoughts into a larger chunk that’s easier to link to.

Still, at the present rate, my monthly review for January will link to well over 150 sketches. Perhaps I’ll change the monthly review section to list only the sketches that haven’t made it into blog posts yet. I’ve been keeping a digital equivalent of the roughly-sorted piles of index cards on my desk. It helps me see growing clusters of ideas and choose ones I want to develop with additional sketches or summarize into blog posts.

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory -- index card #writing

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory – index card #writing

Also, at the present rate of writing 1-3 blog posts a day (except for Thursdays, when I focus on consulting, and the weekends, when I focus on household life), I will keep accumulating scheduled posts. At some point, this will become unwieldy. It doesn’t make sense to schedule posts a year in advance. Even a backlog of three months seems too disconnected.

I can spend less time writing, but I’ve firmly wired it into the way I learn, so that’s hard. Alternatively, I could spend more time writing, developing thoughts over more time and packing denser experiences into a post. This approach might work.

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory -- index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory – index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

I can also get ideas out in other ways. My blog is the main archive I trust, but I can give myself permission to share one-off sketches on Twitter. For example, this sketch about keeping your drink safe from cats: it’s not quite a blog post and I don’t think I’ll develop the thought further, but it might be okay to share it on its own.

So, if I write blog posts for the thoughts that are already developed and tweets for the one-offs that won’t be developed further, that leaves the ideas that are waiting to be developed. They wait because I’m still figuring things out, or because they aren’t quite connected to other thoughts, or because my attention has moved on to other things. In Toyota Production System terms, they are muda – waste because of waiting or possible over-production.

I want to do better. What are some ways I can improve at this?

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards -- index card #thinking #drawing

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards – index card #thinking #drawing

 

2015-01-13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively -- index card #drawing

2015.01.13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively – index card #drawing

One way to reduce waste is to reduce quantity. Is five a good number for index cards, or should I reduce it to three? I think five works well for me. It forces me to dig deeper into a topic or to capture some of the other thoughts I have floating around.

Another way to reduce the waste in this process is to be more focused. If I think about and articulating 2-3 key questions for the week, that might guide most of my index cards. But then interesting ideas come up during the week, and I draw lots of cards for those as well. I turn many of my index cards into blog posts on the same day, so within each day, there’s focus. If I try to use any “extra” index cards to build on a previously-drawn thought, that helps me connect.

A third way is to reduce my attachment and let things go. Perhaps I might decide that after I make a monthly index of unblogged cards, I’ll clear that index and archive the physical cards. That way, each month starts fresh, but I still have the ability to go back and look for those roughly-categorized cards in case I have an idea that’s strongly connected to that. I don’t have to worry about visualizing this archive, tracking my statistics, using all the dangling threads, or getting to 100% use.

So that can help me deal with index cards, but what about blog posts? The benefits of limiting my blog to one post a day are:

  • I occasionally add to or revise a scheduled post, especially with feedback from sharing drafts
  • I can schedule different kinds of posts for a week, turning my sprint-type learning into a variety that helps readers
  • People don’t get as overwhelmed (although daily posts are already more frequent than most other blogs do, and I’m pleasantly boggled that this is the most frequent option chosen by people subscribing to the mailing list)

The downsides are:

  • If I write something useful, whoever searches for it while it’s in hidden draft mode won’t come across it, but I guess that’s almost the same as if I hadn’t written it at all
  • It delays the feedback cycle
  • Sometimes posts get out of date

One option is to go back to publishing two posts during the weekend: a weekly review, and maybe another thinking-out-loud/reflection post, since that’s the one that has the most surplus.

Another option is to post two times a day. I’m a little less keen on that, although it might be doable if I can keep my main archive but split off specific, lower-traffic, topic-focused views that people can subscribe to.

A third option is to write longer posts. I find my constraints on chunk size to be helpful, so maybe not.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll publish two posts during weekends, and then revisit this when I find myself scheduling three months out… =) Suggestions?

Making personal blogs useful for other people too

When people ask my advice on starting a blog, I encourage them to start a personal one. I don’t mean that they should focus on writing about what they had for lunch or ranting about something that frustrates them, although they can, if they want to. I mean that it’s okay to let their blog reflect them – the quirks of their interests and personality, the little things about them that make them different. I think it’s because I hate reading those generic articles of passed-on advice that could have been written by anyone (and indeed, are often churned out a dozen at a time by low-paid freelancers). Our biases show in our advice.

On this blog, I tend to lean very firmly on the side of personal reflections – things I haven’t quite figured out enough to clearly explain. When you know something, you can explain it in a way that makes sense, and people see that logic and immediately get that you get it. This is why a well-structured course or book is a thing of beauty. It straightens out the path of learning and helps you get to your goal faster.

When you’re still making sense of something, you go in stops and starts. You wander down cul-de-sacs and dawdle along trails. You circle around something, trying to see it from different angles. This is me when I write, following the butterfly of a question somewhere. Perhaps with more editing and more planning, I can hide all of it and present you with just the polished end. But that goes against what I want to encourage.

When someone writes a tutorial with the reader in mind – like drawing a map for someone else to follow – you need to do very little to adapt it to your situation. You can see yourself in it, and you can see how to apply what you want to learn. On the other hand, personal reflections require more translation. It’s like the difference between reading a guidebook that someone has written for tourists and a travel journal with observations that sometimes slip into shorthand. You take the guidebook when you go places; you read the journal if you want the feel of someone else’s feel of a place.

There’s a middle ground here between guidebook and travel journal: a travelogue, written for yourself but also with an eye to other people reading it. In a travelogue, you might take a little more time to explain why a place matters to you instead of simply jotting down a few cryptic references to things that only you know. You might try a little harder to capture the local flavour. You might point out things that perhaps you’re not personally interested in but that other people might find interesting.

I think that’s what I’d like this blog to grow into over the years and years ahead. I’d like to write a travelogue of life. Far away from the “Top 10 Things to See in __“-type lists, but more than just a photo album of snapshots or a scrapbook of tickets and brochures. Something in the middle.

And I think that feeling one gets when you read a good account–not “Oh, that sounds exotic,” or “I wish I could go,” but rather something that hovers between a new appreciation for unfamiliar things and the familiarity of recognizing home in a strange place–that might be something good to learn how to evoke in readers (you and my future, forgetful self).

Coming back from this extended metaphor – on this blog, the kinds of things that seem to have evoked that kind of a response are:

  • Sketchnotes and other visual summaries/thoughts – interesting and easy to share
  • Emacs tips and other technical tidbits – useful
  • Decisions, reasons, experiments, reflections – sometimes they lead to things like “I feel like that too!” “Mm, that’s interesting.” “Have you considered…?”

So here are some things I might try in order to help this personal blog be more useful to other people (not just me):

  • Harvest more from notes, and organize them better.
    • Make skimming easier by creating more structure with summaries, paragraphs, lists, and formatting. If people can skim faster, that saves them time and lets them focus on what’s more relevant to them.
    • Think of other people more when writing; translate “I” to “you” occasionally so that other people don’t have to
  • Do more research and summarize the results. Bringing in other people’s experiences and insights can help me learn faster and it also gives me more to share with others.
  • Try more experiments. This is like going more places. I don’t think I’ll ever be patient enough to hold off writing until the end of the journey; I’m more of a write-along-the-way sort of person. But here’s a structure that can make it better:
    • Initial post: Share the plans and invite people along
    • Middle post: Share preliminary observations and progress, link back to initial post, connect with any others who’ve joined
    • Conclusion: summarize findings, link back to previous posts and to co-adventurers

If you have a personal blog, would any of these ideas work for you as well? Tell me how it’s going!

Building a better time machine

I’ve written before about how a blog is like a time machine, reflecting on my growth as a speaker or looking back over the past decade. It’s wonderful having all these notes. I often find myself referring to things from years ago – many of the technical posts are still useful, surprisingly – and then I bump into other memories nearby.

What can I do now to build a better time machine for me to use in another ten years or more? How can I tweak what I’m sharing and how I’m sharing it so that I can make the most of it? Let me think about how this has worked in the past, so that I can build on what’s been working well.

People like the tech posts, the workflow posts, the reflection posts where they recognize something they’ve been thinking about themselves. So those are all good. I also like point-in-time descriptions to help me remember what it was like. Maybe I’ll take those process journal entries and copy them in periodically so that they’re available somewhere.

I wonder: what other people have learned about writing for their futures? Here’s a snippet from Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014):

p98. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, [Joan] Didion describes what her notebook isn’t. It isn’t “an accurate factual record” because our recollection of an event might be vastly different from someone else’.s It isn’t to “dutifully record a day’s events” because that task inevitably becomes boring, and such a record conveys little or no meaning. Nor should we necessarily expect that we might one day open our notebooks and find “a forgotten account” of an event we can pluck for our work.

Instead, Didion believes that the notebook’s value lies in its record of “How it felt to be me” at a particular time. This, she says, is the notebook’s truth. Although we might imagine using it to fix our impressions of others, instead, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” of the notebook. Part of a writer’s education is “to keep on noding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Reading our notebooks helps us to keep in touch with those past selves, and a record of “How it felt to be me” can be extraordinarily useful in writing memoir, creating fictional characacters, or writing poetry.

p100. Didion remarks on the fact that we change over time but that we forget the people we were: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” she says. Without a notebook record, these selves are lost to us. For a writer, “keeping in touch” with our past selves is helpful. … As Didion reminds us, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

So, maybe the occasional snapshot of “How it felt to be me,” a way to remember that there are selves to remember. Otherwise the time blurs.

From that essay of Joan Didion:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

I think that might be part of it, a little bit of that worry (not a lot, but it’s there, lurking in the background) that I might forget (no, will!) large chunks of my life, because even last month is a little fuzzy without notes and last year gets condensed into a few highlights. But no, that isn’t quite it either, since I don’t really hang on to the memories tightly even with my notes and my archive; I don’t reread, I don’t memorize.

Ah. I think this is it: my blog lets my past selves connect with other people who are looking for this stuff here and now (or in the future, as the case may be). So even if I am a different self–focused on other projects, learning about other interests–those past selves are there to nod at other people and share a little of what we’ve learned along the way. Mostly I leave things as snippets and blog posts, but on occasion, I consolidate things into summaries and documents – a clearer guide, a past self updated with a little present knowledge.

Hmm…

Thinking about word counts and chunks

I was talking to Frank Chen about blogging, and he mentioned that he’s experimenting with word count goals. That made me realize that I don’t pay much attention to word count when I write, and that I tend to write shorter posts. I think in terms of chunks of ideas. I write each post so that it covers one idea, either something I want to share or something I want to learn. Sometimes I cover a little more ground, if I can chunk the sub-ideas enough to hold them in my brain at the same time. Sketches help me a lot when it comes to developing thoughts further.

I rarely write larger posts that bring lots of things together. I guess it’s because I tend to write about:

  • things I’ve just learned: publishing small chunks helps me get my notes out faster
  • things I’m figuring out: nibbling away at questions helps me make sense of them
  • answers to specific questions: small chunks and clear titles makes it easier for me to find things and share links later

What are some examples of longer posts and resources I’ve worked on?

  • There’s How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs, which I published as a four-part weekly series and also as a single file.
  • There’s the No Excuses Guide to Blogging, which I published as a PDF/EPUB/MOBI. I linked the source blog posts into a series so that people coming across the posts in the archives can still navigate between them.
  • I post presentations like The Shy Connector as slides and a full blog post. That said, I usually try to keep my presentations to about 10-15 minutes anyway, so the resulting posts are not enormous.
  • Interviews or videos with transcripts can get really long because I talk quickly. For example, this Emacs Chat with John Wiegley is pretty long. I’ve experimented with breaking transcripts up into logical segments, but keeping the entire transcript together seems to make more sense to me.

What would it be like to experiment with longer posts that cover more ground? Based on the blogs I like reading, I think it might mean writing more thorough guides like the ones on Mastering Emacs – things that people would bookmark and refer to a few times.

Organized guides help beginners a lot because they don’t get lost trying to figure out the next step. They can keep scrolling down. On the flip side, it might take a bit more work to make long guides friendlier for intermediate and advanced users: a table of contents, links to alternative paths or related content, closer and more coherent discussion…

Hmm. I feel a little odd about drafting a long resource (takes time to write and takes time to read), and deep-linking into part of a blog post can be a little difficult.

I think I like working with short chunks that I can link to or assemble into different pieces. Maybe I’ll spend a little more time planning outlines and series of related posts so that I can link posts together and fill in the gaps. For now, I’ll leave the ultimate-guide-writing to other people who are better at linear organization (or to future Sacha when she writes books).

Onward to better writing and sharing!

Publishing WordPress thumbnail images using Emacs and Org2Blog

I often include large images in my blog posts since I use sketches as another way to think out loud. I’d gotten used to using the WordPress web interface to drag and drop them into the relevant section of the page. I write most text in Emacs/Org Mode/Org2Blog because of the better outlining and writing tools, and then I used sacha/org-copy-region-as-html (which you can grab from my Emacs configuration) to copy the HTML markup and paste it into WordPress. Of course, I use Emacs for source-code heavy posts that make the most of its syntax formatting support.

Someone asked me recently about how to post and update blog posts with images through Org2blog, and if I had any recommendations for workflow. I’d dropped Windows Live Writer since it was flaking out on me and the WordPress web interface had improved a lot, but before recommending just using WordPress to add images, I was curious about whether I could improve my blogging workflow by digging into Org Mode and Org2Blog further.

It turns out (like it usually does in the Emacs world) that someone had already solved the problem, and I just didn’t have the updated version. Although the upstream version of Org2Blog didn’t yet have the thumbnail code, searching for “org2blog wordpress thumbnail” led me to cpbotha’s Github issue and pull request. Punchagan’s version had some changes that were a little bit ahead of cpbotha’s, so I dusted off my ancient org2blog repository, cloned it onto my computer, and issued the following commands:

git remote add upstream https://github.com/punchagan/org2blog
git pull upstream master
git remote add cpbotha https://github.com/cpbotha/org2blog.git
git pull cpbotha image-thumbnail

and tested it out on a blog post I’d already drafted in Org. It took me a little while to remember that the file URLs didn’t like ~, so I specified a relative path to the image instead. But then it all worked, yay! A quick git push later, and my Github repository was up to date again.

So now I’m back to running a Git version of org2blog instead of the one that I had installed using the built-in packaging system. The way I make it work is that I have this near the beginning of my Emacs configuration:

;; This sets up the load path so that we can override it
(package-initialize nil)
;; Override the packages with the git version of Org and other packages
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/contrib/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/code/org2blog")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/Dropbox/2014/presentations/org-reveal")
;; Load the rest of the packages
(package-initialize t)
(setq package-enable-at-startup nil)

This allows me to mostly use the packages and to satisfy dependencies, but override some of the load paths as needed.

Hope that helps someone else!