Begone bloggy eye candy

What really slowed down those monks in the middle ages as they were hand-copying (= manu+script) the old books were the darned pictures. There weren’t many, of course, but the few were elaborate. Without the images, the monks, tipsy or not, would have blogged a lot more. I mean, copied.

Gutenberg made everything easier but again the problem was the darned pictures. Mankind dealt with that capacity constraint by not including much in the way of visuals in the media for a few centuries. The “press” (as in moveable type) became almost entirely textual.

Text has always been good for word guys and word gals. I can’t imagine that either Tolstoy or Nietzsche or Joyce or Goethe felt that they were held back in their creativity because they didn’t have Instagram, or because their text margins didn’t contain widgets, or because there was no sharing button.

In the early days of blogging, circa 2000, online publishing was similarly textual. At some point that changed, and I can’t even remember quite when. Now you’ve got to dress up even the most banal thought with some snazzy eye candy. Since I started this blog in 2008, even the WordPress themes (ie, layout templates) have changed so that what is being optimized is the eye candy, not the text.

I suck at providing eye candy. My idea of photography is to whip out my old iPhone when I’m at a press conference to take a grainy shot of somebody interesting, more as a memento to myself than as material for anybody else.

That’s one reason (aside from inertia and lethargy) that I have all but stopped blogging this year. I’ve got plenty of thoughts. I could write them down quickly and without effort. But then I feel I have to fiddle around for another half an hour to get the eye candy, because without eye candy a blog looks stupid, doesn’t it?

Enough. Yesterday, I put on my Rambo headband and gave the finger to eye candy. Gone is my old Wordpress theme (Linen). I have been using it for a couple of years, but it offered too much for me¹, and I offered it nothing (visually speaking) back. We had to break up.

Instead, you are now gazing at a new theme, Syntax. I found it after about 30 seconds of due diligence, so it may not last either. But it seems to promise uncluttered, simple and unapologetically textual visuals.

Maybe that’ll get me blogging again more frequently. There are bloggers out there who are confident enough in their writing to eschew eye candy. Here is one in German, here is one in English. (The latter seems to treat his retro look as the eye candy.)

So henceforth, expect no eye candy here. Just words of wisdom or, failing that, words.


¹This reminds me of a classic quote I once used in a technology article for The Economist. Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese folk-craft philosopher of the 1930s, once wrote that

man is most free when his tools are proportionate to his needs.

Make your charty blog posts chartier

The Hannibal Blog is not really a charty blog. It’s more mappy and wordy and facey. But I know some of you guys do have charty blogs. And for you there is something new and potentially cool: the Data Collective.

It’s a nonprofit, currently in “alpha” (ie, not yet fully released), that wants to improve public discourse by making it less truthy and more fact-based. The idea, as one of the creators, David Joerg, explained it to me, is

  1. that you make interactive, rather than static, charts on your blog,
  2. that readers can click on the underlying data and play around with it,
  3. that anybody can share the chart, as you might share a YouTube video, so that it can go viral.

As David emailed me,

The linkage to underlying data is especially nice because it allows curious readers to play with the data in new ways — making their own charts, verifying a chart’s correctness, pointing out alternative / better data sources, and so on.

And David has an offer:

We are in a private alpha at this point, which means that if you or a friend would like some charts, we’ll happily take your data or your research requests and make a bespoke chart. Later on, we’ll make a website where you can make your own charts.

The benefits of a blogging holiday

Without even having planned it, I have just taken a one-month blogging holiday. By which I mean: a holiday from blogging, not a holiday spent blogging. And what a healthy thing that turned out to be. I recommend it.

That the hiatus occurred during the dog days of August was pure coincidence. It was neither heat nor languor (in excess of the usual dose) that kept me from logging on. Instead, it was that larger category of reasons which we might call “life happens”. When life does happen offline, it’s sometimes best to stay there (ie, offline).

Only twice in the past month was I tempted to break this online fast by posting:

Once, when I read something that so outraged and offended and mystified me that I at once unsheathed my blogging sword to slice and stab and slay. This resulted in a long draft saved in my WordPress account that will probably never see the light of day. For I showed it to a family member or two, and these confidants — though agreeing with, and liking, my polemic — asked sensibly whether I needed to pick this particular battle just now, just so, or indeed at all. No, I didn’t, I realized. After all, picking one’s battles well is the secret to strategy as opposed to tactics (which, in a way, is the thesis of my book in one nugget.) So this particular battle will not be fought. (Except perhaps posthumously, as Twain might say.)

The second instance when I was tempted, I produced another draft, less controversial and quite entertaining. But I now felt that it was — in comparison to the polemic just left unpublished — banal. Why bother? Back to life.

So here I am again. The break allowed me to reflect where I want to take this blog in the coming months.

Recall: I started the blog rather prematurely three years ago, to write about my book. My editor subsequently urged me rather passionately not to divulge much from the book before publication. That left my blog without a purpose. So I began goofing off intellectually, with threads on:

and so forth. None of those had much to do with my book at all. I was just amusing myself.

So, in a couple of months, I’d like to return to this blog’s original purpose: as a journal in support of, and about, the stories in my book.

In the meantime, I might just tie up a few of the loose “threads” from the past three years. And I might just indulge myself with one new one.

(That’s because, for the past year or so, my new hobby has been to study the brain — human and animal, male and female, old and young, happy and depressed, criminal and healthy, et cetera. So the new thread would be about brain science and its implications for life, justice, love and everything else.)

But then, at the latest in December, it’s all book, all the time, for any of you who will still be around for the fun.

Quoth the Happiness Engineer

What sort of company has a “happiness engineer”?

Automattic does. (That’s the company that gives us WordPress, and thus this blog.)

His name is Hew, as I just discovered.

To wit: Those of you who have signed up to receive my posts by email did not, for some strange reason, receive the previous two posts. And, naturally, I had no way of even telling you.

(You didn’t miss much. At most this.)

So I asked WordPress Support. After a few days of radio silence, Hew replied:

We had a glitch in our email system for a couple of days around your posts that interfered with sending out emails. We fixed it on 9/30, so you should be good to go on your next post. 🙂

For good measure (Automattic seems to be a company that takes our happiness seriously), I also received a second, separate, reply from somebody else:

Thank you for reporting this issue. We found a small bug in our configuration that prevented the emails from going out correctly around the time you published your last post. It did not affect all blog subscriptions, but your post could have been affected. Unfortunately, those emails cannot be resent. Going forward–the problem has been fully resolved. Your posts should flow again as expected.

So there you are. As soon as I push “publish” I will find out whether this post reaches you. And then we’ll move on with regular blogging.

And those of you who have your own WordPress blogs, beware: Your posts last week might not have reached your subscribers either.

To: Subscribers by email

It appears that those of you who are getting my posts by email did not get the last one.

(That means, of course, that you might not be getting this one either — in which case, you won’t even be able to read this post to know about it. Hmm. How postmodern.)

I asked WordPress Support about this, but they have no answer. Anyway, just letting you know. Perhaps it was a one-off.

Why I am shrinking this blog

I told you in the previous post that, for the first time, I deleted a post (it no longer matters what the post was about) because I came to the conclusion that it was badly written by my standards.

Upon further reflection, that made me realize that I have to “shrink” this blog. Now I’ll explain what I meant by that. (And yes, I savor the irony that I will talking about a “shrinking” a blog in a 2,000-word blog post.)

I) What I consider “badly written”

I write so much that the mechanics — syntax, grammar, flow — are rarely bad anymore. But that’s not what writing is about.

Ultimately, words deserve to be spoken or written only if they communicate what the speaker or writer wants to communicate. And that very much includes not only the substance denoted but also the tone, voice and other bundles of connotation.

We all know that perfect control over the meaning(s) of words, especially written ones, is impossible. That is why Socrates refused ever to write, and always only spoke. Just think of our ongoing debate about the words (and punctuation) in a phrase written 219 years ago:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Did the writer intend that only “a Militia”, and “a well regulated” one at that, was to have the right to bear arms? Or that “the people”, collectively and individually, should have that right, although it might also be, you know, nice if a Militia were around? Who knows?

This conundrum — that writers lose control over their words as soon as they make contact with any audience — led people like Jacques Derrida to suggest that we stop even pretending that we can control meaning: Words mean whatever anybody wants them to mean, so get over it.

I don’t subscribe to that. A good writer should have some control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse. Naturally, horses sometimes go berserk, as do words. But that’s when it’s time to kill a blog post.

That the now-deleted post had to be dispatched became clear not when it led to vigorous debate (as many posts here on The Hannibal Blog do), but when the comments looked to me, the writer, as utter non-sequiturs. I looked at some of them and could only say: “Huh?” How did the commenter read this meaning into this post?

This is when I remembered my Second Secret to Good Writing, which is empathy. Don’t blame your audience. Re-examine your words.

My words had not just evoked an unintended response, but in a few individual cases the opposite of the response intended. That should not happen to a good writer.

And so I decided that the words had to die.

II) Why might this have happened?

1) The issue of quantity

Less than a month ago, I wondered whether there was “a Laffer Curve” of writing — in other words, a point beyond which increasing quantity (of words written) decreases quality.

I was pondering that question because, over the past couple of years, the number of words I produce, and am expected to produce, has inexorably been increasing.

When I started at The Economist in 1997, we were expected to write articles for the weekly (print) issue. And that was it. (Quite enough, I thought.)

I first recall internal discussions about “blogs” in 2006. I might have had something to do with that, because I wrote a Special Report in 2006 about “the new media.” In it, I said that all the new media (including blogs) would collectively transform society, which they clearly have done. But I never said that individual news organizations had to add blogs.

But blogs we began having, even at The Economist. For a while we didn’t really take them seriously. But now we do. And we have more and more of them. And we are expected to “feed” them. So, in addition to the articles we write, we write blog posts.

We also do podcasts, and those often take a surprisingly long time (the logistics, not the actual talk time). And we do video pieces. Those take even more time to set up.

To take this week as an example, I produced two articles, two blog posts and one podcast … in four days (because on Friday I allegedly started a holiday.)

Our heritage, our “print DNA”, means that we will always put the utmost effort into the print-issue articles. So that’s still where the research, fact-checking, deliberation, travel, background reading, interviewing goes. (And real-life logistics have an annoying habit of not aligning perfectly with The Economist’s Greenwich-mean-time deadlines.)

But that doesn’t actually leave all that much time to produce all that other stuff.

Then add a personal blog in support of a forthcoming book, such as The Hannibal Blog.

Yup, now this amounts to a lot of words. Some of those words will not be redacted, honed, polished, and stress-tested as much as they should be. This must mean, from time to time, that some words are less than optimal.

Conclusion: Don’t produce more, perhaps less.

2) The issue of audience expectations

I recall an internal discussion once where the theory was put forth that the web audience is sophisticated. In other words, readers of blogs (whether on The Economist’s web site or WordPress) know that the medium is more intimate, conversational, relaxed, aphoristic and subjective. Blogs are essentially personal diaries, except public and social.

Readers, goes the theory, do not expect a blog post to be balanced, polished and fact-checked. They can discriminate between a blog post and an article.

Not only that, but they like to have that less formal window into the writer’s soul, they like hearing about what happened to him on the way to this-or-that, what he was thinking when so-and-so said something-or-other. It’s like knowing somebody by email and then seeing a handwritten note from him: the handwriting, with its imperfections, says something. Or like meeting a public figure and getting a peek behind the scenes.

Well, that’s the theory. The reality is that audiences get confused. Many readers/listeners/viewers merely see the brand, and do not discriminate among media. The brand could be The Economist or, at micro scale, The Hannibal Blog. But what if the human beings behind the brands straddle their boundaries? When is the writer allowed to speak personally, and when is he expected to be a journalist upholding a 160-year-old brand?

This is not a new issue. Correspondents of The Economist have always gone to dinner parties (OK, rarely) and often moderate panels at conferences, for example. When we’re chatting with our table neighbor, are we allowed to kid around and speak our minds? How about when we’re on a podium?

Blogging (and all its descendants, such as tweeting) is a genie that is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. I’m simply flagging a new tension. And a new need to make explicit to audiences what they should expect in which context.

Here on The Hannibal Blog, by the way, you get me, just me, my quirky, personal musings, which represent nothing else.

Conclusion: Don’t assume that readers let you speak “off-the-record”, be circumspect. If in doubt, say less.

3) The issue of scope

You may have heard people described as coconuts or oranges. Coconuts mix everything together inside, oranges come in neat sections.

Well, most people are coconuts, especially at The Economist. We have many interests, strange hobbies, and what’s interesting is what you get when you mix it all up. One of my favorite colleagues is simultaneously a connoisseur in the subjects of sailing tall boats, all matters Mongolian, Tango and bird watching, and that is only the beginning of a long list.

Should he stick to his beat in writing articles? Should he have a blog for each interest? On The Economist’s web site or on his own? Is it alright if he mixes it all together, the way it is mixed in his own soul?

In my case, for example, I started this blog about two years ago, intending to make it purely about the book I was writing. This was naive. I soon realized that the process of publishing a book takes a lot longer than the writing of it (and I now expect the book to be out next year). So what do you do in the mean time?

I was advised not to publish excerpts, because that would give the book away. So I began blogging about other stuff. All those other interests. Pretty soon, that included the whole dang coconut, even The Economist.

And again, it’s possible that some of you got confused.

I now face the interesting development that The Economist is constantly, almost every week, making available to me new “coconut straws”. Just one example: This summer we started yet another blog, called Johnson. It is about Language. I have not contributed to it yet, but it so happens that Language is one the big threads on The Hannibal Blog. Obviously, I have to rethink that. My future language posts should probably go to Johnson, not The Hannibal Blog.

Conclusion: Reduce this blog’s scope; become an orange; write about fewer and better defined topics. No politics.

4) The issue of fear

When you write you make yourself vulnerable. When you write on a personal blog you are even more vulnerable. Who knows what weirdos show up alongside the intended audience? Who knows who does what with your words?

That can lead to fear, and fear leads to the worst writing. And bad writing, for a writer, equals failure.

The most important prerequisite for being a good writer is therefore an ability to overcome fear and find courage. You must say something interesting, which invariably means that somebody somewhere could take offense (even when the topic might at first blush seem innocuous — no topic stays innocuous if it gets a large enough audience.) And you must say it clearly, which is to say simply and thus strongly.

This gets into one of the big topics in my book, the tension between tactics and strategy. Writing well (ie, with courage and risk) about many topics is like a country fighting a war on many fronts. You will eventually lose. Writing more timidly or carefully about all these topics is like fighting less fiercely on all those fronts. You will — again — eventually lose. So you must choose your topics (your fronts) strategically.

Conclusion: Again, write about fewer topics in each medium, such as this blog.

III) Postscript

I want to end by giving a little shout-out to two bloggers who, in their very different ways, have explicitly or implicitly addressed some of the issues above.

1) “Phil”

First, there is “Phil”. I don’t know what his real name is and I don’t need to know. He has several blogs, indeed he seems to keep switching blogs and starting new ones, to my ongoing confusion. His current “main” blog seems to be here.

Phil once observed, either in a comment here or in a post on his own blog, a phenomenon: Time and again, Phil finds an interesting new blogger, a strong and idiosyncratic voice, and follows that voice. After a while, that blog becomes popular. And then, as its audience grows, the blog becomes … bad.

(Phil, if you can provide the URL to your observation, I would like to link to it.)

So I speculate: Perhaps Phil, by starting new blogs all the time, is conflicted as we all are about gaining an audience. An audience gathers, and he runs away to start a new one. Because he understands, as we all do, that audiences are a threat as a well as a blessing.

2) “Man of Roma”

The other blogger who deserves a shout-out here is Man of Roma. He is a bon vivant and connoisseur of classical wisdom. And this summer he did something very civilized: He simply left (his blog, that is) and enjoyed himself, knowing that the audience that matters, which includes me, will be there whenever he returns.

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The Laffer curve of writing quality

You’ve probably heard of the Laffer Curve. Economist Arthur Laffer allegedly sketched it on a napkin during a 1974 meeting in Washington that included Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

It is a thought experiment intended to show that if you raise the tax rate beyond a certain point you actually end up collecting less tax revenue. (At a tax rate of 100%, for instance, nobody would bother earning income at all anymore.)

Well, the curve just popped into my head as I was contemplating something completely different: The quality of my writing — or of anybody’s writing.

Look at Laffer’s curve above and replace Government Revenue on the Y axis with Writing Quality, and Tax Rate on the X axis with Words Written.

Up to the peak

In general, I have noticed that my writing in the past always improved when I wrote more.

So, at The Economist for example, I noticed ‘being on a roll’ every time I finished a Special Report (those 12,000-word inserts). Then, when I wrote my book in my spare time, I again noticed that all my writing seemed to improve. When I added this blog, my writing seemed to get better again. And so forth.

Why might this be the case?

Perhaps because when you write too little (which applies to most people), you are too timid with your words, too diffident that you actually have something to say. As you write, you discover that you do have something to say, and the words come more easily and fluidly.

Or perhaps you feel less less uptight about your words as you write more of them, and you become looser as a result. Who knows?

So far, the advice for most writers and bloggers would therefore seem to be:

Write more.

Down from the peak

But of late, I’ve also been wondering whether one can write too much.

At The Economist, for example, we’ve been adding all these blogs, not to mention the “multimedia” content. So now we’re expected to “feed” those as well.

Internally, we’ve resolved that readers come to blogs with different expectations of polishedness (as opposed to quality, which should stay high). It’s OK to shoot from the hip.

Still, I wonder about the Laffer Curve. When do I start writing so much and so often that my writing gets worse?

Writing = Vita interrupta

That’s my silly word play on Coitus Interruptus. What I’m trying to say that writing is always and necessarily the second step in a process.

The first step must be:

  • thinking,
  • reporting,
  • experiencing
  • living

Then you interrupt that first step and write about it. But if you write too much, you cannibalize the thinking, reporting, experiencing and living, do you not?

Perhaps then it’s time to

write less.

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Wordpress: Plato’s Academy Today

Some of you may have noticed that my thread on Socrates was going strong all through the summer and then, seemingly, stopped. Something similar, you might have thought, occurred with my thread on America.

Well, no, the two threads did not stop. They went into overdrive, albeit in a different form. Indeed, they became a story–what we call a “Christmas Special”–in the new holiday issue of The Economist.

It is called “Socrates in America: Arguing to death“. Please think and smirk as you read it (which also, of course, goes for almost anything you read on The Hannibal Blog).

(A similar, though less pronounced, process led to my other piece in that issue, a sort of polemic against direct democracy. That idea occurred to me after amusing myself, here on The Hannibal Blog, in my thread on freedom, with posts such as this one on James Madison.)

Thank you!

But what am I saying! Nonsense. It was not I, amusing myself. It was we, amusing ourselves.

And that is the point of this post. It is, first, to say Thank You to you, who come here to comment, to teach me, challenge me, tease me.

Those of you who have been readers for a while will see yourselves in my story in The Economist. Cheri will recognize, in the ninth paragraph, the gem that she herself sent to me. Jag will spot, further down, his pun on the Greek word idiotes. Mr Crotchety, who offends the gods by not having his own blog, will see his own worldview–irreverent, humorous, incisive–throughout the piece, since he trained me well in it. Phillip S Phogg, with his deep erudition, subtly worn; Solid Gold Creativity, with her sensitivity and philosophy; Thomas StazykThecriticalline and the Village Gossip, with their almost poetic thought processes;  Peter G, with his outrageous wit; Steve Block with his precision mind; Douglas with his forging inquiry; …. the list goes on and on and on.

Those of you who come sporadically, such as Vincent and Kempton; those of you have come recently, such as Man of Roma, Susan and Dafna; those of you who disappear for a while and resurface months later; and the many, many more who don’t comment at all but just read: all of you have enriched this blog and my mind and my writing.

You are all now co-authors of stories in The Economist and of a book in the making.

Academy 2.0

Which leads me to another insight: Socrates was wrong about one thing, as he himself would gladly concede if he were given a WordPress account: the written word is not inimical to good conversation; text is not necessarily dumb and dead.

What we do here is dialectic, defined as good conversations. What we have here is the Academy that Socrates’ student Plato founded in Athens. Where they ambled in circles and joked and teased and inquired and contested and thought, we do the same thing here on our blogs, minus the ambling.

And there is something new and special about these conversations. I have debated in many settings–the famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist in 25 St. James’s Square, London, being a notable one.

When you practice dialectic in those settings, in the flesh, you are always aware who is speaking as well as what is being said. Often this adds an impurity into the mental flow. Are we paying more attention to somebody of higher status or rank, less to somebody who is new? Are we distracted by a twitch, a snort, a sniffle? A curve, accentuated by a fabric, reminiscent of a …

Here there is none of that. With one single exception, I have met none of you in person. (And is that not amazing?) Here, the only thing that matters is what, not who.

Put differently, here in this modern and more pure academy, we all feel safe:

  • safe to contradict ourselves,
  • safe to take intellectual risks,
  • safe to fail and advance,
  • safe from embarrassment.

We exist on our blogs, between which we skip and link and flit like thoughts across neurons, through our words and associations, our minds and thoughts alone.

Here, we are each equal with Socrates.

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250 words is the soul of wit

Polonius

Polonius

From time to time, I recall Matt Mullenweg’s casual aside that the

average number of words per post is almost always exactly 250.

That number is so small! My average post is perhaps 600 or 800 words long. Perhaps it’s habit: that is the length of most articles in The Economist.

Still, the fact that the average is so stable fascinates me–just as the remarkably stable number of members in the social groupings of primates fascinates me. It suggests that perhaps there is an optimal length for this medium (ie, blogging).

Readers of blogs don’t expect essays. They expect short, bite-sized nibbles, somewhere between the thought fragments on Twitter and the polished articles in a magazine.

Or perhaps 250 words is simply what fits onto one screen on most laptops and browsers, and blog readers don’t expect to have to scroll down.

In any event, I (who have written a 110,000-word book and think nothing of reading 500-page books) have discovered that I find it difficult to get through long blog posts. They tire me out. And I have noticed the irony that when I last opined on length, as opposed to depth, in writing, it took me 1,008 words to praise… brevity!

Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet, did it better, of course:

brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.

So I’ll try to keep my posts shorter. This one, as you may have guessed, is exactly 250 words long.

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