Writing, thinking and why you should use Twitter

I recently came across an article on writing ambitiously titled “The secret about writing that no one has the balls to tell you“. It’s a pretty decent article and I suggest you go read it, but the main point can be summarized as below:

If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

It seems like a pretty ballsy statement to make and like all such statements that don’t necessarily agree with your mental model of the world, they can be rather hard to accept. Though I agreed with the writer’s general train of thought, it took me a few seconds to decide whether or not I agreed with this particular piece of insight. And the answer turned out to be yes, with reservations. I agree that if you’ve never written something deep and meaningful then the chances are pretty good that your thinking hasn’t been really deep or meaningful either. But at the same time, just because you haven’t written anything powerful doesn’t mean that you haven’t written anything at all. After all there are millions of college papers being turned out every year, most of which are probably pretty bad. It’s very possible to write pages of complete and utter drivel. And thus we get to Twitter.

If your writing is a good reflection of your thoughts, then Twittering is like applying a chisel to a block of marble. Twitter, and more specifically the 140-character limit, forces you to condense your writing to it’s bare minimal essence. It forces you edit your thoughts until you get to the very core, mercilessly cutting away all the flab. A friend of mine remarked a few days that he really liked my Facebook status updates because I managed to pack so many interesting trains of thought into so small a space. At the time I didn’t mention that it was mainly because my Facebook status is a reflection of my tweets and Twitter’s limit forces brevity. It’s only now that I realize that the limit has actually helped me make my thinking sharper and cleaner.

It’s easy to think that there’s something inherent about Twitter and its limit that will make you a better writer. We’re all looking for silver bullets in one way or another. But from what I’ve seen from Twitter, especially from a number of writers on Twitter, it’s very easy to miss the point completely. One mistake that I see a lot of people making is splitting their message across multiple tweets, in essence ignoring the limit. That is completely self-defeating. You can only practice brevity and clarity if you follow the rules that enforce them. Readers also see the Tweets in reverse chronological order meaning that they will have to read your message backward, not a very good way to make a point. If slightly longer messages (200-500 characters) are your thing, then get a Tumblelog.

The Internet has made a lot of people very unhappy. One of the common complaints that I receive is that it has drastically reduced our attention spans. I’m not entirely convinced that this is true, especially since everyday I read a growing number of reasonably lengthy blog posts (700-1000 words) and many of them have pretty long comment chains attached to them. But even if it is true, I’m all for making an opportunity out of a disaster. It’s true that it will be a great disaster if we lose the ability to read, comprehend and argue long essays, but we can at least make the best of our situation by trying to cut our thoughts to the minimum that is necessary to express the thought without any actual conceptual loss. I like to think of it as a parallel to modern mathematical notion. It may seem strange and impossibly brief to the untrained, but for professional mathematicians the notation lets them express complex mathematical ideas and thoughts in a compact, communicable form. And life goes on.

This is not to say that all human knowledge and thought can or should be compressed to 140 character chunks. And perhaps more importantly, much of what needs to be said is in non-textual forms (the reason I also keep a media-centric Tumblelog). I don’t want Twitter to become the predominant method of communication and I think people who abandon longer forms to go all-Twitter are making a mistake. But I do want the core idea to be more broadly acknowledged and accepted. And the best phrasing of that core idea is to be found in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (fittingly enough):

Omit needless words.

And you should follow me on Twitter here.

Google vs The Phone Companies

I don’t like phones. At all. For a number of different reasons. I don’t like them for both social and technological reasons. Socially, I’m a fan of asynchronous communication. I like having my communication go to into an inbox where I can decide when I want to deal with it and how. Phones make me immediately respond to an incoming call often disrupting whatever it is I am doing at the time. For about a year since I came to the US I didn’t have a cell phone and I was quite happy about it. I do have a phone now, but I only give my number out to friends so that we can coordinate simple things like meal times. I prefer email or face to face meetings for anything that is more important.

Technologically I think phone services just suck. I hate voicemail because it takes a lot of time and pushing buttons to get to the message I want. It’s even worse if I use voicemail for my landline because then I completely forget to check voicemail for weeks at a time, often with uncomfortable results. If I could stop using phones completely, I would be very happy.

Given my dislike of phones, I was very interested by Google’s growing offensive against the phone companies. It started with Google acquiring GrandCentral and turning it into Google Voice. It’s a very interesting service that positions itself between you and any actual phone service you might have. You get a Google Voice number and distribute to that to all your friends and family. Then based on who is calling or when, Google Voice can route the call to a physical phone that you specify. What’s even more interesting is that it gives you a unified voicemail and contacts service and a really nice Web interface that lets you handle voicemail like email and do cool things like automated transcription.

Even if this was all that Google Voice did, it would be great. For a while I considered getting a Skype number and using that with Voice to do all telephony over my computer, using my cell phone only when I was out and about and absolutely needed to take a call. And since I can also use Google Voice with an existing number, I could have tied the landline in my dorm room to it if I really wanted to. However recent developments have put that plan on hold.

First, Google also bought Gizmo5, a VoIP service similar to Skype. Secondly, it seems like they will be releasing unlocked Android phones that users can pair with any service provider. Putting all these together, let’s see if we can come up with a Google-centric phone strategy. First off you get a Google Voice number like you would now. But in addition to using your real physical phones, you can also tied it to your Google-ified Gizmo5 VoIP account (which I think will become part and parcel of Voice). Now whenever you are at a computer, people you know can call a phone number, but you can answer on your computer. If you’re someone on the move, you get an unlocked phone from Google with a data plan and a minimal calling plan. You then have the option of actually using your service minutes through Voice, or using the Gizmo5 VoIP (which I assume will be released soon) and using only the data service. And if you’re in a Wifi area, you can just go over Wifi and save even more.

Now, this isn’t say that this is exactly what they’ll do, but it is what seems most obvious. I really hope they do come out with something like this and soon. The unlocked Google phones are supposed to be out in January 2010 and I wouldn’t be surprised if a revamped Gizmo5/Google Voice combo was announced at the same time.

I’m still really tempted to get a Skype number and pair it with a Voice account. In fact, if Gizmo5 isn’t reopened by the time I get back to school in late January, I will go ahead and do that. The good thing is that since I’ll have a Google Voice “frontend” I can move to whatever new thing Google comes out with without having to care about giving people new numbers. And that is why Google Voice is so awesome !

Sunday Selection 2009-12-13

It’s cold and rainy and icy outside, but luckily I’m nice and warm in a room with three computers and serving up yet another Sunday Selection. Here goes:

Reading

Technically Speaking: An interview with Jason Fried This isn’t my usual technical fare, but Jason Fried is one of my favorite technology entrepreneurs. He runs 37signals a company that makes some really cool webapps, spawned Ruby on Rails and actually makes a fair amount of cash without any VC funding. If you’re interested in making money from technology, this is a must read.

We need: A programmable Twitter client In the past year or two, Twitter has really taken the web by storm and the increasing number of clients attest to its popularity. This piece gives a look at how we can turn Twitter into a more programmable service even if the core Twitter service doesn’t support it.

Media

Information R/Evolution This is a pretty amazing and really well put together video about how information technology has changed from the days of library and paper to the current world wide web.

Software

Google Chrome for OS X It may not have all the features of Firefox and it doesn’t support extensions yet, but it’s still a browser that can hold its own. And there’s something about the user interface that makes it fit right into the OS X desktop. I don’t use it full time, but it’s growing on me.

A partial solution to the format problem

One of my pet peeves is the format problem: there are too many mutually incompatible formats out there for you to choose from if you have some data you want to store and present to a large group of people. Since I don’t use sound or video (or even images) that much, the subset of this problem that I’m concerned with relates to text data.

The problem goes something like this: suppose I have a large-ish chunk of text that I want to send out to a lot of people, how should I do it? First off, we’re going to assume that we will be composing the text electronically on a computer, but we will have to hand it out both electronically and in print. Second, our goal is to have as few distinct copies of the text as possible so that we don’t have to go about editing a bunch of different files if we make a change. For the electronic copies, the end viewers should not have to install any special software to see what we send them.

The most common solution that the average computer user would use is to make a Word document. Like it or not, Word is a mostly universal format for exchanging documents. The chances that someone does not have Word installed is really quite slim. However, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good. Considering that I’m a Linux and Open Source enthusiast (and so are a lot of the people I communicate with) I can’t depend on them having Word and I feel slightly guilty about using something proprietary. Also, even if Word was free there are excellent arguments to made against using word processors in general and I agree with them.

Personally, I haven’t used Word for serious document creation for about 3 years now. However, the alternatives aren’t very easy to come up with. It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve finally come to a system that I can use full time. The main realization for me was that I create two main types of text documents: ones that will printed and given out to professors and other students, and electronic documents that I put on the web and I will not print myself. For a long time, I wanted a way to be able to do both in a single shot: I wanted a format where I could create good looking webpages as well as pretty print output. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found anything that is quite so easy to use.

Instead I’ve settled for two partial solutions. For printing, the good news is that Latex is really the state of the art when it comes to preparing good looking print documents. I’ve never made documents in Word that looked as carefully put together as a Latex document. Sure there’s a learning curve, but it’s one that I’ll happily live with in exchange for great looking documents.

Technically Latex can be converted to HTML. But I’ve never done this because I’ve never really run a website in pure HTML In the old days, I used Dreamweaver and as I started blogging I used Blogger and now WordPress. It’s only recently that I started to keep a small site static in HTML. In the process of making this site, I’ve realized that the set of writings I print and distribute and the ones I put online, are mostly independent of each other. On my website for example I have a page about my computers. That’s something I can’t see myself printing to give to someone else. At the same time, I’ve done a lot of writing this semester that I haven’t put online because they are in a state of flux and I’m not ready to share them with the world at large yet.

it doesn’t make sense me to write a lot of Latex source for something that I could write using a plain-text markup and then convert to HTML. Also the advanced typesetting used by Latex is lost in webpages. Lately I’ve started using Markdown to write my webpages in plain text and then generate HTML which I can insert into templates. This is a very simple solution where the source is easy to read and create but the output looks good and is simple to generate.

What I’ve settled on is to use both Latex and Markdown/HTML, but independently of each other. Things that need to get printed, such as papers and later my theses, will be typeset in Latex where I’m guaranteed to have good looking output. Anything else that I put online (such as my site) will be Markdown  automatically converted to HTML.

Of course, this isn’t a complete solution at all. One the one hand, some of the things I write in Latex, I might want to put online someday. Then there are things like this blog that are neither Markdown nor Latex and that is something I haven’t talked about yet. But it’s a good start and it’s something that I find fairly comfortable using right now.

I’m leaving Google Tasks

Over the last few days I’ve had a significant shift in how I view my personal productivity and time management. My new way of looking at personal work habits is something that will take a separate article (and will probably go in the Essays section of my website) but one of the major outcomes of that is that I now need slightly different tools to manage my time properly. I’ve never been a fan of big complicated time management systems or programs; even full blown GTD is overkill for me. I like simple tools and for a long time I used Google Tasks, but I suddenly realized yesterday that Google Tasks didn’t cut it anymore. Here’s why.

Google Tasks is a very simple application. It lets you create tasks and subtasks, put in descriptions, add due dates and not much else. There is no taggin or organization into projects (though you can multiple lists) and as far as a I could tell, no reminders either. The people actively using Tasks use it especially because it is a lean, no-frills tool. That was also why I used it. I tried multiple lists, but found myself never actually switching to the other lists. So I stuck to using just one big list, organized into ad-hoc large projects under which I placed all the smaller, discrete tasks. However, I came to realize that while Google Tasks isn’t a bad application by any means, it is a bit too simple for my needs.

Before I go on, I need to say a little about my new system. I realized that strictly scheduling blocks of time for tasks simply doesn’t work for me, especially if it’s for stuff I don’t enjoy doing. I’ll procrastinate until the time passes and it’s time to do something I want to do. As you can imagine, this isn’t productive at all. For my new system, I’m borrowing a popular computer science concept: the priority queue. Instead of scheduling and blocking, I just keep a list of things I need to do, ordered by priority. I then work on things on that list, starting with the higher priorities and working my way down (but not necessarily in strict order). This way I get things done, but avoid the stress and guilt that comes from trying to stick to a schedule but not being able to quite make it. It’s worked quite well so far.

If I’m to use technology to help me, then I need a priority queue to store all my tasks. I also want to add some kind of tag data so that I can separate tasks into groups of similar tasks (and potentially knock them all off together, even if they aren’t near each other in priority). Unfortunately, Google Tasks fails on both counts. There is no concept of priorities and though I can manually reorder tasks, that can get tedious if there are lots of tasks of different priorities mixed together. There is also no way to tag or group tasks. Creating subtasks is possible, but that then rules out reordering them on priority. From past experience, I know I forget even high priority tasks just because they are grouped with other tasks that happen to be at the bottom of my list.

So after a good few months, I’ve decided it’s time to bid adieu to Google Tasks and search for something that is a bit more powerful. I wanted something web based because though I move around computers a lot, I’m always near an internet connection. My friend tycho garen suggested using Emacs Org-mode with Emacs by connecting to my server via SSH. While that’s certainly a possibility, it’s something that I’ll put off for experimenting with till a later date (and I’m not always on a machine with a SSH terminal). In the future, if I find myself on a Linux or even OS X machine for extended periods of time, that’s definitely something I’ll try out.

But for the time being, I’m moving back to Remember the Milk: a web service that I’ve used on and off at various times in the past. Remember the Milk isn’t perfect but it’s good enough to get the job done, as long as I exercise some caution. For starters, there are both lists and tags. A task can only be in one list at a time but can have multiple tags. Previously I used a number of different lists: one for academics, one for coding, one for writing etc and used tags for individual projects under those broad headings. But this time I’m simplifying. I only have two lists: one for tasks that will be done right now and in the near future and another one for things that I would like to record, but have no timeline for. Everything else is sorted by tags. As for the actual priority queue, RTM offers three priority settings and automatically reorder tasks according to priority. I would really like more priority levels or manual reordering, but it’s good enough to start with. I’ll see if I find it too limiting after a few weeks.

RTM’s interface is really well thought out, giving easy access to all the important features. I particularly like the smart add bar and the nice large tag cloud off by the side which will make it a snap to view my individual projects. I wish there was a way to complete a task with one click, but thanks to some awesome keyboard shortcuts, that’s not much of a problem. Even though I’ve already been using it for a evening, I can find myself really getting used to it. RTM has a bunch of other features (including integration with other services) that I’ll be looking into as well (especially adding via Twitter) but since I plan on keeping things simple, I probably won’t be playing around too much.

As an ending note, I’d like to address the idea of switching services. I know that as power users, we’re often early adopters and love trying out stuff. Shiny toys are fun to play with. But constantly switching to something new means that you spend more time learning new tricks rather than putting those tricks to work. At the same time, if some tool really isn’t working with your workflow you shouldn’t hesitate to move to something better. It’s not easy to find a balance between moving around and settling down. I think that evaluating how things are working every few months (once a semester if you’re a student) is probably a good way to keep the balance right (in addition to keeping an eye on how productive you actually are).