Category Archives: writing

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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!

Questionnaires from people

As part of blog series or e-book compilations, people sometimes ask me to answer questionnaires they’ve put together. Sometimes they mention the size of their audience. Sometimes, they focus on our shared interests.

On one hand, it’s good that other people are putting together resources, and sometimes these things lead to interesting new conversations. On the other hand, grist for another’s mill, and I generally don’t enjoy reading short, too-standard answers.

So if I’m going to do stuff like that, I want to focus on the things I like. I never promise to write answers, and I don’t commit to a specific date. I mull over the questions and cherrypick the ones I find interesting. Not very generous of me, I suppose, but it keeps me happy. <laugh>

People are usually curious about the past: how one got started, what was helpful, what would you change. I tend to focus more on present and near-future, since that helps me a lot, and I’m not quite ready to hold my life up as an example that other people should be inspired by or follow. It’s good to take notes along the way, though, since it’s hard to reconstruct from memories afterwards.

So I’m okay with describing things and I can see the value of having a gallery of different approaches… What’s the core of this, then? Maybe I’m not keen on the Q-and-short-A format. Might as well be a sketch so that I can practise that. Might as well try to wring out ideas for the future, notes to self – which don’t make as much sense outside the context of my blog, I guess.

Hmm. I think there might be something there. In the context of my blog, it’s clearer that life is a work in progress, and people can come across updates. I can link to things back and forth, and it’s easier for me to keep track of comments.

I like it when people link to or excerpt my blog posts, since most of the time, bloggers make it easy to get back to the context. They put more of themselves into the post, too, sharing what they liked or what they think. It’s different from having a short bio at the end.

Oh! Maybe that’s something else that’s playing into this… I tend to feel meh about most of the guest posts I read, the generic-ish articles with short bios written for link-building and audience-building purposes. We might be a small tribe, but it’s okay for us to grow slowly through remarkable ideas rather than from exposure.

So I’ll still take people’s questions under advisement, but I’ll reflect on those questions on my own schedule and to the extent that I want to, and I’ll share those reflections on my blog. If people want to excerpt/link back, they’re welcome to do so. Let’s try that out…

Tweaking the way I write

Through writing, I want to:

  • Learn more effectively and efficiently by taking notes and chunking my thoughts
  • Understand and be able to articulate what I’m thinking
  • Keep notes for future reflection and time travel
  • Connect with people who have similar interests
  • Help other people save time

I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing this so far, although it would be even better if I could write more efficiently and effectively. What would that look like, and how could I move towards that?

I pick up a lot of information from reading and from trying things out. If I spend more time reviewing notes and experimenting with concepts, that will help me get more out of the time that I spend reading. Wouldn’t be neat if my personal stash of quotes (my digital commonplace books) linked each note with a blog post reflecting on what I found interesting about it, how I’ve applied it, and what it’s related to? I think that would be handy.

Sometimes I find myself particularly interested in an idea, and writing is easy. Other times, the spark isn’t quite there, or the kindling is scattered. I have a massive outline/list of things to write about. Sometimes it seems a little odd writing about stuff, though. Lackluster? But maybe giving myself different recipes for blog posts can help (a personal story, a book quote, etc.). I can also look at it as practice. I have years and years to write, and I can learn a lot when I practise deliberately and dispassionately.

For reflection and review, I can write regular snapshots of what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to figure out. These usually give me enough anchors to remember more.

To make it easier to connect with other people, I can ask people if they blog, and I can post more of my personal stories on my blog.

I’ve been writing more selfishly rather than focusing on saving people time, but I’m sure that balance will shift at some point too. I tend to find it easy to blog helpful things when I’m immersed in projects or in answering people’s questions, so it’s probably just a matter of focusing on open source again.

As I write more, I’ll get faster, and I might even get clearer. :) I can build on what I’ve previously written. I’ll get a better sense of what I like and don’t like in writing, and I’ll experiment with the influences of other writers.

So let’s say that it takes me about an hour or two to follow a thought and write it down. I’m not really looking for speed here. I don’t need to be able to crank one out in fifteen minutes. It might be good to be able to work in small chunks (headline, outline, snippets) to take advantage of the moments that come up during a day. It would also be good to be able to work coherently – to build up to more complex thoughts, to untangle harder questions. That’s probably what better writing looks like for me. As for beauty form and flow, I can probably pick that up through analysis and practice, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that people can think (and share) complex thoughts despite being inelegant writers. (Almost impenetrable, even!)

How do I want to change how I write? Well, I can use my phone more, writing instead of reading when I have a free moment on the go. If I feel a little blah when writing at my computer, I can open my book notes and expound on a passage. I can also pick something from my outline and sketch out the next level, tell a story, or look for ways to test it in life (and add a reminder to come back and write about the results). I can embrace the way that many of my blog posts are more like “here’s where I am, there’s where I’d like to go, here’s what I’m going to try” rather than fonts of wisdom. Hey, maybe it will be amusing (or even useful) looking back, forty years from now. We’ll see!

Writing incomplete thoughts

Writing helps me make myself. In a quiet, considered moment, I can think through things and figure out how I’d like to respond or act. Most of the time, I don’t end up referring to my old blog posts; writing is itself enough to help. Sometimes I do link back so that I can trace the development of a thought, build on what I’ve written, or share that moment in time with someone else who’s figuring out similar things.

Sometimes I have all these little thoughts that don’t quite gel into a single post. I’m still attached to the idea of having some kind of question, some kind of realization, or at least a little progress in a post. Sometimes I have two or more threads and I feel there’s some kind of connection between them, but I can’t quite articulate it coherently. I’m getting better at writing regardless, but I keep the notes until they make a little more sense. I’ve been saving those snippets in an ever-growing outline, but maybe I should just post things. After all, present-Sacha has found the time machine of a blog archive to be unexpectedly interesting reading, so maybe future-Sacha will be able to make sense of all this. As Steve Jobs said (in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford), “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Today I thought about chronos and kairos, clock-time and personal-time. I thought about Aristotle’s golden means and the vices that my nature tends towards. I thought about our almost-daily habit of watching movies borrowed from the library, and what we did before this became our routine; and similarly, what were those long-ago weekends like? Maybe I should write more about everyday life so that future-Sacha can see the changes.

Here is what our lives are like at the moment. Mondays and Wednesdays are quiet days at home. I skim a stack of books, taking notes on a few. Because my consulting client needs a little extra help, I usually interrupt my reading and writing with an hour or two of work, responding to e-mail and dealing with quick, important requests. Tuesdays and Thursdays are more focused on consulting. On Tuesday evenings, I go to Hacklab to cook and hang out. Fridays I go out, meet friends, and experiment with a change of scene. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do laundry, groceries, cooking, and chores; the other weekend day is for outside errands or other forms of relaxation, although sometimes W- uses it to catch up on work.

I spend a lot more time reading and writing than I did when I worked full-time. (From about 5 hours a week to about 19 hours!) I enjoy it immensely. I’m beginning to feel more of a sense of the authors I encounter through their works, both ancient and modern; their voices, their ideas, the conversations that thread their way through the books I read.

There’s always that need to combine learning, doing, and sharing. Book-learning isn’t enough; I have to try things in real life. Doing something is good, but sharing what I’m learning from it is even better. My writing this year is a lot more self-focused than it was last year, but in the grand scheme of things, a little exploration should be all right. (Who knows, it might even be useful.)

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

Thinking about how virtual assistants can help me with learning and writing

I’ve been challenging my assumptions about what I have to do myself and what could be better with help. It would be a waste of time and talent to limit virtual assistants to just data entry or transcription. People can do so much, and they can learn even more.

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

Writing is one of those tricky tasks. I can’t stand generic link-building, keyword-stuffing articles. You know, the ones bashed out by SEO robots or humans doing a reasonable simulation thereof. Hasty writers hodgepodge snippets from various places. They may change words just enough to avoid plagiarism, but how can they add anything to the conversation? They don’t have the experience you have. They can’t tell the stories you can. They have a surface understanding of your field.

Still, I’m curious. Can I outsource part of my writing without feeling like I’m breaking the promises of my blog? Can I use people’s strengths instead of bumping into the weaknesses of outsourcing?

I have a personal blog, not a corporate one. I have no problems filling every day with things I’m learning. People find my writing readable. I don’t need help… but maybe I can learn how to make the most of it anyway.

For example, I’ve started making myself delegate web research tasks. This is tough. I keep thinking, “It’ll take me five to fifteen minutes to do this research myself.” I read at a blistering speed, and the research process helps me reformulate questions. It’s faster. I don’t have to wait.

But it turns out that delegating research means I have to be clear about what I’m looking for and how important it is to me. I can learn from other people’s search keywords and summaries. And each little bit of knowledge leaves its traces on two people: the assistant and me. Before, I was the only one who learned from any research I didn’t capture as blog posts. With delegation, the two of us learn, and the summary becomes something I can share.

Example web research tasks:

So web research is one thing that might be worth delegating, even if I think I can do it faster myself.

What about drafting and writing? One of the challenges of writing is empathizing with people who are new. When I write while I’m learning, this is easy. I struggle with the same things people struggle with. But what about the things that people ask me about, the things that I already take for granted? This is where other people’s questions and words can help.

I’ve assigned people to write about a topic I’ve outlined or sketched. I like the way that my outline becomes something both recognizable and different. Here are a couple of examples:

I really like the way people go beyond what I might think of doing or asking on my own. For example, this Trello tutorial is funnier than I probably would have made, and I like it.

What’s beyond that? Maybe more conversation. Speaking can be faster than writing. I struggle with speaking because it feels so unstructured. I’m not used to dictation yet. Maybe I’ll grow into that, in time.

I’ve been practising through interviews and transcripts, but not a lot of people host shows. Maybe I can ask my assistants to interview me about topics. That way, we’ll get a recording out of it as well (for people who prefer to listen or watch). They may ask follow-up questions that I wouldn’t have come up with.

Writing through other people also helps me learn more about my individual style. When I edit their work and give them feedback, I get a better sense of how I say or organize things. Maybe the differences will inspire me to pick up tips from them, too.

$20-30 seems a lot for a blog post that I can write myself, especially if I also invest time to outline and revise it. Still, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of learning from other people’s perspectives. I like the way that I can assign topics of mutual interest, so that both my assistant and I grow through writing. It’s worth exploring.

What would wild success look like? During this delegation experiment, I think it would be great to get to the point where I can make a list of questions I’m curious about. Assistants dig into those questions further. They interview me and other people along the way. I review their drafts, experiment with the ideas, and enrich the drafts with stories and results. We all learn.

I think some of the promises of my blog are: I will post things that I care about. I hope some of them will be useful for you. I won’t clutter your feed reader or inbox with bland, impersonal articles that you could find everywhere else. I won’t resort to clickbait headlines. I’ll share what I’m learning.

Maybe delegation is compatible with those promises. We’ll see. Here are two posts I’ve written with some help:

What do you think? Can there be an authentic way of blogging with other people’s help?