Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

On Blogs and Books

October 12, 2007

Jeff Atwood has a great blog, called “Coding Horror,” about software development. He’s been blogging continuously and very actively since 2004, which I find impressive; check out his archives.

One of his most recent posts is about the book that he’s just completed, on ASP.NET. I can’t say that I’m interested in the subject of his book, but I was interested in what he had to say about writing blogs versus writing books. Basically, he comes down heavily in favor of writing blogs:

“As I see it, for the kind of technical content we’re talking about, the online world of bits completely trumps the offline world of atoms:

  • it’s forever searchable
  • you, not your publisher, will own it
  • it’s instantly available to anyone, anywhere in the world
  • it can be cut and pasted; it can be downloaded; it can even be interactive
  • it can potentially generate ad revenue for you in perpetuity

And here’s the best part: you can always opt to create a print version of your online content, and instantly get the best of both worlds. But it only makes sense in that order. Writing a book may seem like a worthy goal, but your time will be better spent channeling the massive effort of a book into creating content online.”

He also points out that writing books is a lot harder than writing blogs:

“Writing a book is hard work. For me, writing blog entries feels completely organic, like a natural byproduct of what I already do. It’s not effortless by any means, but it’s enjoyable. I can put a little effort in, and get immediate results out after I publish the entry. The book writing process is far more restrictive. Instead of researching and writing about whatever you find interesting at any given time, you’re artificially limited to a series of chapters that fit the theme of the book. You slave away for your publisher, writing for weeks on end, and you’ll have nothing to show for it until the book appears (optimistically) six months down the road. Writing a book felt a lot like old fashioned hard work– of the indentured servitude kind.”

Charles Petzold, an experienced author of programming texts, chimes in here with more details on the declining economics of technical book-writing. Apparently a lot fewer people are buying programming books nowadays, so the financial situation for the authors of these books is getting worse. So Petzold agrees that it makes a lot more sense to write in blog format, but notes that blogs don’t usually pay very well.

Let me just give a different perspective, from someone who is more interested in academic writing than technical writing. I think that most academics don’t write books in order to make money, and that’s certainly true of the journal articles that are written. So for academics, moving from books to blogs has more of the upside and less of the downside than for other authors.

I know that I personally find writing a blog a lot more appealing than writing a book. As Atwood points out, you can write about whatever happens to appeal to you on the day you’re writing; and you get much faster feedback. Sure it’s some work, but all in all, it’s great!

Petzold has another criticism of blogs:

On the Internet, everything is in tiny pieces. The typical online article or blog entry is 500, 1000, maybe 1500 words long. Sometimes somebody will write an extended “tutorial” on a topic, possibly 3,000 words in length, maybe even 5,000.

It’s easy to convince oneself that these bite-sized chunks of prose represent the optimum level of information granularity. It is part of the utopian vision of the web that this plethora of loosely-linked pages synergistically becomes all the information we need.

This illusion is affecting the way we learn, and I fear that we’re not getting the broader, more comprehensive overview that only a book can provide. A good author will encounter an unwieldy jungle of information and cut a coherent path through it, primarily by imposing a kind of narrative over the material. This is certainly true of works of history, biography, science, mathematics, philosophy, and so forth, and it is true of programming tutorials as well.

Sometimes you see somebody attempting to construct a tutorial narrative by providing a series a successive links to different web pages, but it never really works well because it lacks an author who has spent many months (or a year or more) primarily structuring the material into a narrative form.

For example, suppose you wanted to learn about the American Civil War. You certainly have plenty of online access to Wikipedia articles, blog entries, even scholarly articles. But I suggest that assembling all the pieces into a coherent whole is something best handled by a trained professional, and that’s why reading a book such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom will give you a much better grasp of the American Civil War than hundreds of disparate articles.

If I sound elitist, it’s only because the time and difficulty required for wrapping a complex topic into a coherent narrative is often underestimated by those who have never done it. A book is not 150 successive blog entries, just like a novel isn’t 150 character sketches, descriptions, and scraps of dialog.”

As somebody who writes blog posts that typically come in at 500-1500 words, but loves to read books, I want to respond to that.

The web lets us write material in whatever form we want. I’m comfortable with the 500-1500 word post. Other people with popular blogs write 2-sentence posts linking to an article. Paul Graham writes long essays. David MacKay puts drafts of his books online.

The fact is, that you can write about whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever form you want. The most important point is that you don’t need permission to publish anymore. You don’t need a publisher; you are the publisher.

Which brings me to a related point. I find a lot of the current scientific publication process completely bizarre. Scientists write the articles, type-set the articles, review the articles, edit the articles, and then find that their own articles are not freely available online? And we write articles that are hard to understand because of space limitations? Online there are no space limitations! The entire system is lumbering on mostly as if we still were living in the early 20th century, when only a few specialized groups of people had the capability to publish, and delivering journal articles to people was necessarily expensive.

Most of the current system’s remaining justification, compared to a free system where everybody simply published their work online, and that was the end of it, is for credentialing articles by peer review and credentialing people by the number of peer-reviewed articles they’ve written. Look, I know peer review is important, but given the huge time sink of the current system, and the morale problems that it contributes to, I think that we should take a closer look at the costs and benefits, and maybe be more open to people who simply publish their work online (see, for example, Perelman’s papers proving the Poincare conjecture, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal).

So if you feel the urge, publish yourself online in whatever format suits you. Just try to make the content worthwhile for somebody else in the world, and don’t worry about the rest. [End of rant.]

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WordPress.com

September 21, 2007

When I tell my friends about this blog, they often want to know more about how it’s constructed. So I thought I’d talk a bit about the wordpress.com software that I use, and some tips I can pass on after seven weeks of using it.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between wordpress.org and wordpress.com. WordPress.org is an open-source project for the wordpress blogging software; you can download it, and then set it up on your own web-server (it typically costs $7/month to set things up with a web-hosting company) and you’ll have full control over everything in your blog. WordPress.com is an easier alternative; they’ll host your web-site for you for free, but you don’t get absolutely complete control over what you can do. You can learn more details about the differences here.

I chose to use wordpress.com, because their features were basically what I wanted, but I wanted to use my own domain name (nerdwisdom.com) instead of the default nerdwisdom.wordpress.com. That extra feature costs $15/year; for that price, wordpress.com pays for your registration and handles redirection transparently. I recommend this option, because it means that if you ever want to change the way you do things later (e.g. switch to wordpress.org or some other service, which is not so hard because wordpress.com lets you “export” you entire blog as an XML file) you won’t have to change the url for your blog.

A nice bonus that happened when I paid for this option was that wordpress.com walked me through the process of setting up a Google Apps account for nerdwisdom.com. This is quite nice; I actively use Google’s Page Creator application, and there are other useful features and applications including Gmail accounts with the nerdwisdom.com domain.

Building your blog on wordpress.com is done through a web browser; you won’t need to download anything, and you can work on multiple computers with multiple operating systems. I recommend that you use the Firefox browser, it is better supported than the others. You write up your posts using an editor that can display either a WYSIWYG interface or your HTML code; it’s pretty easy to use if you have any experience with HTML, and I’d guess it’s not too bad even without any such experience. WordPress.com comes with a whole lot of different “themes” for changing the look of your blog, but I’m pretty happy with the default theme.

You can buy some “upgrades” with wordpress.com that give you some more control over your stylesheet and let you store more than 50 MB of data. At the rate I’m going, I’ll need to spend $20/year for the extra storage once I’ve done this for a couple years.

There are a few important restrictions with wordpress.com. Probably the most important is that you may not run advertisements (wordpress.com says this may change in the future). If you want to run ads you probably want to either use Google’s blogger.com service or wordpress.org or maybe typepad.com. You can also run advertisements on wordpress.com (and get other benefits) if you are a “VIP” blog, but to get that service you need to pay $300/month and have in the neighborhood of 15,000+ page-views/day, which is a lot.

I experimented just a little with blogger.com, and it seemed quite clunky to me in comparison with wordpress.com, but maybe that was just because I was already used to wordpress.com. My impression from what I have read is that wordpress.com is the more powerful system. I don’t have any experience with typepad.com at all. Apparently, blogger.com and typepad.com were the first entries into this field, but wordpress.com has now surpassed typepad.com in popularity, and is the second most used blogging software, and gaining on blogger.com.

Another restriction of wordpress.com is that it will not host Javascript widgets or Java applets. I wanted to put up a Java applet for my post on simulating the Ising model in NetLogo, so I put it on a page hosted by Google Pages instead, and just linked to the page.

One nice feature of wordpress.com is that they will put your posts on their front page if they think that they are high quality. I have no idea what algorithm they’re using to make that decision, but my posts are showing up pretty often, which drives some extra traffic my way. Speaking of traffic, you can access pages which give you a lot of information about how much traffic you’re getting and where it’s coming from.

Another nice thing about wordpress.com is their FAQs and forums. I use the FAQs a lot; nearly every time I have had a question, it’s been answered there.

Now a couple of tips for people already using wordpress.com. I found that Windows and Mac OS X browsers were using different fonts for my pages (the Mac OS X fonts were smaller than I liked), but you can fix this by using the HTML code “<font size=”2”> …. </font> in all your posts. I am also a big fan of the text widgets that let you put all sorts of things in your side-bars, because you can include HTML code.

You should also make sure to turn off the very annoying Snap preview feature, which is on by default.

If you’re interested, it’s easy as pie to set up an account and give it a whirl. I’m happy with the choice I made.

Gateway High School, 1981

August 13, 2007


paulgraham_1960_3304843.gif

Paul Graham has a great web-site full of thought-provoking essays. Some of them were collected into his fascinating book “Hackers and Painters.”

One of those essays, “Gateway High School, 1981” talks about our high school, which I in fact graduated from in 1981. The picture above is from that essay; it’s the Chess Club picture from the 1981 Gateway High School yearbook. I’m the one at the bottom left seated at the chess board; Paul is standing at the top left.

If you read Paul’s description, or read his famous essay about “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” my high school sounds very grim, but I really didn’t experience it the same way. I honestly had a pretty good time in high school; maybe that’s why I’m the one who’s smiling in the picture above. I even loved rooting for the football teams (both the Steelers and the Gators), and trace my football fanaticism to those years, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were a dynasty.

When I arrived at Harvard in 1981, I was at first a little intimidated by some of the other students who went to better high schools, but I soon realized that I was easily well-enough prepared. And I was hungry to learn.

Nowadays, I’m most concerned that high school students are so driven to perform in order to be accepted into the elite universities, and that many high school teachers drive the students so hard with homework, that by the time they get to college, the students can have had the natural desire to learn drummed out of them.

ChessVibes

August 10, 2007


persconfkramnik.jpg

ChessVibes is a great chess web-site/blog with lots of interesting content. A highlight from the past year is their coverage of the Wijk aan Zee tournament held in January 2007, where most of the strongest players in the world played. They have videos taken from the post-game press conferences; in each video, the winner explains his victory for some 20-30 minutes.

Here are links to a couple of the best videos:

Kramnik (the world champion) explains his victory over Anand (the highest rated player today).

Svidler (ranked #12 in the world, and one of the most entertaining of the world elite) wins against former world champion Topalov after Topalov cracks in a better position.

If you like these, you can easily find lots more (with Anand, Topalov, Aronian, etc. explaining their wins) from that tournament.

Fake Steve Jobs

August 2, 2007

If you don’t know about this blog, you should really check it out. It’s a very funny take on the software and computer industry, and you can even occasionally learn some interesting technical things while reading it. A good place to start is with this post. Apparently there’s some mystery about who actually writes this blog. (Edit: sadly, not anymore…)

I’m building this site using WordPress.com

July 31, 2007

I’m using the online software created by WordPress.com to build this site. I can’t really say whether it is better than other possibilities like blogger.com or typepad.com, but so far I’m quite happy. I don’t have any previous experience with blogging software, but it seems quite easy for a novice to use.

I paid $15 to register the nerdwisdom.com domain through wordpress.com, and they are actually hosting everything. (If you want, you can have your site at an address like example.wordpress.com for free, but I thought it would be nicer to actually own the nerdwisdom.com domain and put my site there).

Update: See this post for my experience after 7 weeks of blogging.