Writing hacks: desist

The book progresses, but not quickly enough. I’ll have to reach to meet my deadline. My biggest challenge from a time perspective is trying to find relatively fresh, fun ways of looking at topics, which have been discussed to death online and in other books. Especially since I’m not known to be either a great photographer or graphics artist.

No, this isn’t fishing for compliments, or reassurances. I have no wish to be a great photographer or a great graphics artist. I enjoy the world of web graphics because, unlike my programming, I’m not dependent on any of it for a living. I’m free to try new things, to tinker around on my own, and just generally have a lot of fun. That’s actually the whole point of the book: having fun.

We don’t seem to have fun with our use of web graphics, and I include photography in this. We’re all too damn earnest. We’re passionate about everything we do, and there’s few things that will destroy fun and a sense of personal exploration more than being both earnest and passionate. I’m rather hoping my book will stand out because it is neither earnest nor passionate on the topic of web graphics.

Oh my, I sound like Jeff Atwood and his don’t buy my book refrain, don’t I?

In his latest, Atwood–after having gone through one book writing process and looking back on the whole thing like the wise old gray beard that he is–writes how tech books are nothing more than dead trees. Don’t buy them, don’t write them, he exclaims.

I particularly liked the part where he states how anyone can be an author:

Even if books make no financial sense, perhaps the ancillary benefits can make the effort worthwhile. I won’t lie: you’ll get a little thrill the first time you ego-search Amazon and see your book in the results. There is a certain prestige factor associated with being published; people are impressed by authors. To me, these are ultimately empty accolades. Anybody can write a book. The bar to publishing a book is nonexistent; with sufficient desire, any would-be author can get published. Just because you’ve published doesn’t mean your book is worth reading. It doesn’t mean your book matters. It just means your book exists. Far from being impressive, that’s barely meaningful at all.

Just to be sure that he hasn’t convinced you enough that all book writers are hacks Atwood re-emphasizes:

In short, do not write a book. You’ll put in mountains of effort for precious little reward, tangible or intangible. In the end, all you will have to show for it is an out-of-print dead tree tombstone. The only people who will be impressed by that are the clueless and the irrelevant.

There is some truth in what Atwood writes. A lot of books don’t earn out their advances in order to get post-publication royalties. Unless you’re one of the few to have a huge best seller in the tech business, you’re not going to make any serious money; you’re barely going to break even with the hourly rate paid babysitters.

Some truth, too, with Atwood’s note about people no longer being impressed with book authors. Too many of us weblog–the old saw about familiarity breeding puppies, or some such thing. He even goes so far as to ensure you’re careful not to exhibit any respect for book authors by stating that those pitiful few who might give respect to authors are both irrelevant and clueless.

Marketing’s the thing, now. Marketing and attention. Don’t have to take my word for it: look at that the so-called Techmeme ‘leaderboard’ and you’ll quickly find that no amount of hard work, quality, or interest can compete with middle aged men having petty temper tantrums because they’re not getting their share of the lollies.

Books that are how-tos, help, or guides just don’t hack it today. Many of the better selling so-called ‘tech’ books don’t offer any practical advice. Most are formed from rants, both for and against, the technology many of the authors don’t even understand. Books have become more clan entry than helpful guide; you share your affiliations by the reviews you write.

Why do those of us who write tech books continue, then? That is the question, isn’t it?

One must, however, take Atwood’s rant with a little salt. After all what better way to generate noise about a book on a subject where too many books exist than to write something controversial at the same time you begin to promote the book. It’s just unfortunate that Atwood has chosen to promote his work by throwing those of us who have written tech books–for whatever reason–under the bus.



Allan Moult (Cobbers) passed on to me a link to this terrific Humboldt squid photo at National Geographic. The photo is mislabeled at the site–most likely because the Humboldt is sometimes called a ‘giant squid’. However, this doesn’t detract from what is a terrific photo.

National Geographic provides desktop versions of most of its photos, including its popular underwater collection, as well as several older, excellent black & whites, such as this Greek monastry photo.

Greek Monastry photo from National Geographic

Speaking of excellent black and whites, the Shorpy Vintage Photos site publishes older black & white (and color) photos, most in the public domain. You can access a larger image at the site, the original found or submitted photo, or have the site organizers make a quality print. It features over three pages of one of my favorite photographers, Walker Evans.

The backstory associated with the photos and the comments add to the overall site enjoyment. For instance, one photo features a young boy selling newspapers in 1908. He is wearing a cap with “Celery Coke” across it. In comments, the young man’s great-grandson stops by, as well as an interesting discussion about Celery Coke.

Celery flavored Coke. How healthy sounding.


Lessig re-focused

I had missed Lawrence Lessig’s announcement of his re-focused effort earlier in the year. However, I’m not terribly surprised to hear that Lessig has shifted his focus, from IP and the Creative Commons to ‘fighting corruption’. Even before the iCommons Summit, one could see that the Creative Commons effort had reached a plateau, neither advancing or retreating in any appreciable amount. In today’s world, Creative Commons is old–time for something new.

This isn’t being critical of Lessig. It’s just facing the fact that there isn’t much that he can do related to IP that he hasn’t already done. For a man with his energy level, it would be like spinning in place.

It’s a little difficult to figure out what Lessig is doing in the next phase of his activist life. He writes that he is combating ‘corruption’, and that he sees the reason that the IP battle hasn’t advanced significantly is because of big-money interests:

The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a “corruption” of the political process. I don’t mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean “corruption” in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can’t even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

I don’t disagree with Lessig at all in this regard. In fact, I stated that one of the problems associated with the Fair Arbitration Act is the fact that there are a lot is a lot of money being expended to fight this act–by banks, the housing industry, HMOs, computer and telco companies–in fact, any company wanting to bypass the legal system in order to ‘buy’ justice.

The biggest problem I have is that Lessig sees that the evil inherent in our society is based on money: the money corporations want, the money paid to CEOs for maximizing profits regardless of impact, the money given to buy political influence. It’s a simple view; a view that’s already been touted by Alan Greenspan, of all people, who stated recently that if the dividing line between the haves and have nots continues at the pace it is, the country is facing a potential revolt (which, according to Greenspan, would be bad for business).

Corruption in our society, however, goes beyond the moneyed interests, and the acts of buying and being bought. It goes directly to our inability to focus on any event for any length of time; to the new push button activism that brings us Green companies, Pink products, and Panties for Peace; to the Outrage of the Week, with News at 9.

Halliburton and Disney are corrupters? Well, so is Techmeme, Technorati, and outside of weblogging, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Attention is just as much a corrupter as money. How many of us have been frustrated trying to drive ‘attention’ to something we think is important, only to meet with dead silence, until and unless we can get one of the big attention owners to deign drop a word or two about the issue? Will Mr. Lessig, then, begin his battle at home–among the attention brokers that surround him? Whom he calls friends, and compatriots?

I find it unlikely. According to the interview with Lessig that Norm Jenson just linked, Lessig believes the solution is to use the Internet to expose such ‘corruptions’ in the government. This is also highlighted in Lessig’s first lecture on the topic, which Aaron Swartz summarized as follows:

We need to free people from dependency. But this
is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never
endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much
invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of
independence. People need to start saying that independence is
important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who
act as dependents. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s
acting as dependents. Projects funded by the Sunlight Foundation can
be used to identify politicians who decide in response to campaign
contributions and the Internet can work together to identify these
people and shame them.

Succinctly: Attract attention, in order to use the attention to punish those who seek attention, in order to hold a position that generates even more attention.

One commenter, Chris, wrote in part:

Money is just a way of keeping score. Corruption as a f($) is an oversimplifcation.

Race, ethnicity, religion, educational background, family/friend relationships, socio-economic class, etc. are all factors that determine the amount of access to politicians, leaders of industry, etc. Money just happens to be a simplifying currency.

Instead of money, Professor Lessig, you had educational prestige and press notoriety that got you access to politicians to discuss copyright issues. Those are much more nobler assets than a suitase of money, but they can also be bought through money, time and sweat.

About his plans, Lessig wrote:

And so as I said at the top (in my “bottom line”), I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues: Namely, these. “Corruption” as I’ve defined it elsewhere will be the focus of my work. For at least the next 10 years, it is the problem I will try to help solve.

I do this with no illusions. I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist when this 10 year term is over. But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try. That’s true in this case.

Nor do I believe I have any magic bullet. Indeed, I am beginner. A significant chunk of the next ten years will be spent reading and studying the work of others. My hope is to build upon their work; I don’t pretend to come with a revolution pre-baked.

Instead, what I come with is a desire to devote as much energy to these issues of “corruption” as I’ve devoted to the issues of network and IP sanity. This is a shift not to an easier project, but a different project. It is a decision to give up my work in a place some consider me an expert to begin work in a place where I am nothing more than a beginner.

A noble sentiment, and here I am, doing the equivalent of telling the retiree at her retirement party, “Congratulations! I hope you don’t drop dead next week.” This is a little late, but I sincerely wish Mr. Lessig luck in his new avocation. I’m sure that he’ll bring much attention to the issue of corruption.