Book Report: Letting Go of the Words

I'm a professional technical writer and I recommend this book about writing: Letting Go of the Words. I theoretically train engineers so that they can write clearly. This book would help those people--will help those people. I'm going recommend it. (Brief pause to log on to work and recommend the book on my internal blog-equivalent... Ah, thank you for your patience.) I don't tend to recommend writing books to engineers. Just The Elements of Style sometimes, but that book doesn't address the problems most of these geniuses have when writing.

I work with a bunch of web programmers. They might be confused by some chapters of this book, chapters which talk more about usability issues than about word choice. Protip: some of the same goofs that can make a web page unusable can make a web page's words unreadable.

But there are chapters about word choice, too. And about keeping your audience in mind, and figuring out what they're trying to do, and helping them to do that.

Of course, plenty of this stuff is controversial--amongst technical writers, who are detail-oriented folks who tend to bicker over minutiae. Maybe I like this book because I largely agree with its point of view. I'm sure that some of my colleagues would consider it harmful. (OMG a quick overview blurb before the three paragraphs of background material necessary to truly understand that blurb!!?! Yeah, I'll burn in hell for that by some standards--but maybe I'll let folks know whether it's worth their time slogging through those three paragraphs, spare some of those people the trouble.) Maybe I should ask other writers what books they recommend, make sure I'm listening to other points of view. But it took me so long to find a book that I'd recommend, I just kinda assumed none of them had a book that they recommended. I learned my craft in the school of hard knocks, didn't everyone?

Anyhow, I'm excited. So yay.

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Book Report: Giant Robot 53

In this most recent issue of Giant Robot, James Jarvis says takes a lot of obsessiveness to make things minimal.
If he decides to give up the art business, he could be a technical writer.

The article about the Hong Kong Noodle Co. was pretty good, too.

Because the process was automated in the '70s, all of the machinery is at least 30 years old. ... Those particular machines' identifying plates are rubbed clean from use, and it's impossible to read their manufacturer or model numbers.

Speaking of old things, I composed this entry on the 27th, but am trying to figure out how to use the time-delayed posting feature to delay publishing until the 28th. We'll see how that turns out.

[ Edited To Add: "We'll see how that turns out" I failed to delay the publish. Me=FAIL ]

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2007: Year in Review

Here is a summary of my 2007 blog posts, generated via Markov Chain:


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Site Update: Mini-feed on Home Page

I continue to putter around with the computer. I did some programming this morning, and now this site's home page has a little mini-feed with links to a few recent articles on this blog. Not wildly exciting, but it prompted me to configure some... Oh, you're falling asleep, aren't you?


If you're going to act that way... Check out the Richter Scales singing "Here Comes Another Bubble" if you haven't already. It's exciting.

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Book Report: The Starfish and the Spider

Yesterday, I was on my way to the comic book store when I saw Professor Karp. That is to say, I saw that computer science NP-Completeness guy. (Note to non-computer geeks: NP-Completeness is A Big Deal. Karp is a Big Deal.) Immediately, I felt shallow. Why was I on my way to the comic book store instead of hunched over a laptop, thinking deep thoughts about algorithmic complexity?

Now as I sit down to type this, I remember historical precedent. Back when I was a student, I took a computer science theory class from Karp. He was kind of intimidating. This was partly because he's that, you know, NP-Completeness guy. It was also because--maybe he was nearsighted?--he had this way of kind of leaning, of looming over you as he talked to you.

So I can still remember the rush of embarrassment when Karp began a lecture by holding up a copy of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip collection (Yukon Ho? I forget which one) and asked who had forgotten and left it behind after the previous lecture. "Oh, me me me!" I said. I learned a valuable lesson that day: if you're willing to embarrass yourself in front of your peers, then you might be rewarded. You might not need to buy Jimmy a replacement copy of that comic book you lost track of a few days ago.

So here it is almost twenty years later, and Professor Karp can see that I'm still reading comic books like a shallow undergrad. Maybe. He might be nearsighted--that would explain the leaning thing. Maybe he didn't recognize me.

Oh, I'm getting sidetracked, aren't I? What was my point? Oh right. Priorities and comic books.

Comic books can be pretty rewarding. There are worse things. You can read books that discuss Social Phenomena so that you can pick up some jargon to sling around with other people who read the same book. But I'm not sure that's any less shallow than comic books.

Anyhow, you already know I read shallow things, so I guess I can admit to you that I read that book The Starfish and the Spider about leaderless networks. I didn't get much out of it. Did you read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" a few years ago when everyone was reading "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"? Have you spent time in any communities and seen emergent... I guess I'm saying that you've probably already picked up some chatter about leaderless networks and this book might just be telling you things you already know.

Some organizations spread by defining a "franchise-able" set of behaviors that can spread. For example: AA, Apache tribes, P2P file-sharing networks.

Some organizations are centralized.

Centralized organizations can sometimes accomplish more because they have direction.

Distributed organizations can sometimes accomplish more because the "legs" don't need to coordinate with "headquarters".

It's hard to squash out a distributed organization because you can't just behead it.

If you looked at those sentences above and said "I already know that. I don't need to slog through 200 pages about that", then go ahead and skip this book.

OK, I got one thing out of this book: I learned how to conquer the Apache tribes. Give each shaman control over a gift of cattle. Once a shaman has real power and doesn't need to convince people through cogent argument, then any jerk can become a leader, and society falls apart. I got the impression I could have learned this from a book they mention--Michael Nevins' "The Apache Indians: In Search of the Missing Tribe". And maybe I would have learned more instead of just hearing a bunch of stuff I hear every day.

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Book Report: The Tipping Point

My intern just got back from attending Lunch 2.0, chatting with web industry folks. Last night, I went to Triple Rock brewery for a little Geoworks reunion, finding out what my ex-coworkers are up to these days. This is not goofing off. This is "networking." They can both involve greasy food, but "networking" can also spread around ideas and knowledge and stuff. See, that's the difference between just going to a bar and going to a bar to spread memes: one is at a tippling point; the other passes the tipping point. Sorry. I am waiting for a long computer batch job to finish. I have nothing better to do with my time than to patch together a contrived segue for talking about The Tipping Point.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote this book about how ideas spread. He claims that three types of people spread memes: socially connected people; informative people; persuasive people. He writes about coolhunters. He talks about trends. I didn't get much out of this book, probably because I'd already heard its ideas relayed elsewhere. But it was the only thing in the Orange County airport bookstore that I thought I could stand to read.

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Book Report: The Railway Man

The good news is that Gene Wolfe has a new book coming out with "Pirate" in the title: Pirate Freedom. The bad news is that book isn't scheduled to emerge until November, months after the pirate-themed BATH3 game. So I guess I can't use it as the basis for a Beale cipher, forcing each team to buy copies of the book and support one of my favorite authors, the guy who wrote Shadow of the Torturer. Speaking of torture, how about a book report?

Torture is wrong, and yet it is also stupid and useless. If you notice someone forgetting this, you might encourage them to read The Railway Man, the autobiography of Eric Lomax. He was a prisoner of war during WWII. He was tortured, but it didn't help his torturers.

If you already realize that torture is useless, this book probably won't help so much. But it is short and has some jokes in it, so you might pick it up anyhow. When you're done, you can say that you read an Important Book and impress all of your friends who listen to public radio.

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Book Report: The Language Instinct (the first third)

I am back from Chicago. (I went to Chicago! It was fun! I got to hang out with my cousin Betsy!) I'm still catching up on mail. I'm still downloading my mail. My main computer is still on a dial-up line. I guess while I wait for that to finish, I can use this DSL-enabled laptop to post a book report about Pinker's Language Instinct, or at least on the fraction that I slogged through before I gave up.

I didn't get much out of this book. It's kinda old. Because it reports on then-ongoing research by many people, many of its ideas had percolated out into the world before it was written. For me, this book dredged up memories of AI classes back in the late 80s, quibbles over knowledge representation.

This book contains many claims. Some I agreed with, some I didn't agree with, some... I wasn't sure what I thought. Some of these claims had interesting evidence behind them, studies that observed how children pick up language. Unfortunately, these were the claims that I already agreed with. So I read about the experiments, which were interesting. Then I read about the musings inspired by those experiments, which were less interesting. And all this was in support of something that I already agreed with. But when there were claims that I disagreed with, or where I would have liked some help making up my mind--there were no studies, only musing.

Well, maybe there were more-informative studies presented later in the book. I only made it through a third before I decided I was wasting my time. Still, the book is well-written. If I was just getting started studying language or AI or cognitive science or whatever the kids are calling it these days, I would want to read this book.

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Book Report: the Birth of Plenty

Most books are boring. Most books about economics are boring. But a few stand out, are interesting. Some reviewers fooled me into thinking The Birth of Plenty would be interesting. Those reviewers were wrong.

This book claims that the following four things are necessary and sufficient to for a prosperous civlization, and that the emergence of these brought Western civilization into a time of plenty around 1820:

  • property rights
  • the scientific method
  • loans
  • rapid transportation and communication

I only made it about 100 pages into the book. I don't think he said anything that would persuade doubters, nor anything that would dissuade believers. Folks already inclined to agree with these points of view can have a fun time nodding their heads and saying "See, I told you so. And now this book agrees with me. So it must be true."

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Book Report: How to Hack a Party Line

The "New Economy" wasn't just a snake-oil story to extract venture capital money from gullible investors. It was also a snake-oil story to convince newly-wealthy tech CEOs to give lots of money to Political Action Committees. This book tells the story of Wade Randlett, TechNet, and the 2000 Gore campaign, and how they conned dozens of Silicon Valley luminaries into donating large piles of money to the Democratic Party.

This book should make everyone angry. Democrats can be angry that these bozos tried to hijack their party. Republicans can be angry that so much sweet, sweet cash went to their opposition. Silicon Valley types can be angry that so much time was wasted on politicos.

This book didn't just make me angry, and it didn't just inform me about politics. It also helped me to understand the power structure of Silicon Valley. Up until a couple of years ago, I'd worked in the East Bay. It's not much like the Valley. After reading this book, I begin to understand the power of John Doerr and Kleiner Perkins--when it seems like a chorus of Valley companies is piping up about some issue, KP might be behind them, pulling the strings. Or at least that was the case, back in 2000.

Sara Miles wrote this book. I should find out if she's written others.

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Book Report: Dealers of Lightning

Sometimes, it's good to be wrong. For example, I claim to be pretty jaded. But when I saw a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier-style dog, walking along this morning carrying a rubber chicken, I was filled with joy. I would have thought I was too blasé to enjoy such a thing; I was glad to be mistaken. For another example, there's Xerox PARC.

There's plenty of Xerox PARC myths floating around and I fell for most of them. Until I read this book by Michael Hiltzik, which does a good job of squooshing the history of a far-ranging computer research lab into something resembling a narrative.

Anyhow, I'm quoting this bit from the introduction as a myth-debunking public service. But if you want the details, you should read this book.

...That Xerox proved only sporadically willing to follow them is one of the ironies of this story. The best-publicized aspect of PARC's history is that its work was ignored by its parent company while earning billions of dollars for others. To a certain extent this is true. ...

Yet this relationship is too easiy, and too often, simplified. ... Xerox was so indifferent to PARC that it "didn't even patent PARC's innovations," one leading business journal informed its readers not long before this writing--an assertion that would come as a surprise to the team of patent lawyers permanently assigned to PARC, not to mention the center's former scientists whose office walls are still decorated with complimentary plaques engraved with the cover pages of their patents... Another business journal writes authoritatively that the Alto "failed as a commercial product." In fact, the Alto was designed from the first strictly as a research prototype--no more destined for marketing as a commercial product than was, say, the Mercury space capsule.

Another great myth is that Xerox never earned any money from PARC. The truth is that its revenues from one invention alone, the laser printer, have come to billions of dollars--returning its investment in PARC many times over.

Along with all of this myth-busting, this book showed me something scary. As Xerox was ignoring plenty of computer innovation and sticking to copiers, it thought of itself as a high-tech company. Executives didn't think of themselves as manufacturers of boring office equipment. They thought they were cutting edge; they did not handle it well when other companies caught up with their copier technology. That felt familiar. Just because everyone at your company tells each other, "We're working on cutting edge stuff," you might all be pulling the wool over each others' eyes. Of those companies beating dead horses, few of them have employees who say, "We had our last great idea ten years ago." (Disclaimer: my snide remarks about faux high-tech companies are my opinion, and not those of my employer. Heck, if my employer turned cut-throat, my employer would probably be glad for the self-delusional mindset of some high-tech companies... but I digress.)

Thanks to Piaw's blog for pointing me at this book.

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