Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

What do you do to break a creative block?

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging for a while now. Unfortunately a combination of graduate student life and not wanting to spend even more time than I already do in front of a computer has made me put that off. At the same time, I’ve been having some bursts of activity on Quora. I think Quora is an interesting site and serves a a good purpose, but I’m not very happy about its Walled Garden policies and I would like the information I put in to be more generally available (at least the stuff that doesn’t involve the more obscure points of Tolkien’s legendarium). So for today at least I’m going to report an answer I wrote up while i was waiting for my experiments to finish.

The post asked about overcoming creative block, in particular writer’s block. The poster said that time was sometimes, but not always a factor and that s/he had been writing quite prolifically before. (The previous sentence made me realize that English desperately needs a gender-neutral third-person pronoun that isn’t ‘it’.) Given my blogging predicament, I avoid this uncannily relevant. Anyways, without further ado:

Personally I’ve found that what helps is a combination of three things: good routine, new experiences and boredom.

First, routine.  If you’re having trouble getting time to write, or trouble sitting down to write even when you have time, a strict routine can definitely help. As Somerset Maugham supposedly said : “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Find a quiet space, free of people and distractions, grab some coffee (or tea, or just water), turn off the Internet and your phone and just write. Write anything. It doesn’t have to be in your preferred genre or what you’re trying to write. It can be an essay, a journal entry, a letter to friend (or an enemy). The point is just to get into the habit of writing. Once you’re comfortable with sitting down for some time each day and just writing something you can move on to what you actually want to write.

Second, experiences. If you’re going to be a serious writer then it helps to have things to write about. While it’s definitely possible to create interesting by isolating yourself in a cabin in the woods (see Walden by Henry David Thoreau), I think it’s a safer bet (and far more interesting) to gather lots of interesting experiences and ideas and weave them together in interesting ways. Travel new places and keep your eyes, do things you thought you’d never do, talk to people you normally don’t interact with, eat foods that look strange and unfamiliar, look up random topics on Wikipedia, explore a new subject each month. The more ideas you have in your head, the easier it will be to have things to recombine and use as a basis for interesting writing.

Third, boredom. As a complement to the above, as you’re gathering experiences you need to have the time and energy to put them together. Spend a Saturday on the couch (or the hammock if you have one) with the TV off and without any people around. Stand in the checkout line and just stand. Get bored sometimes, don’t rush the mindless things like doing the dishes and vacuuming. You need to put interesting things in your head but you also have to give yourself the chance to let them interact and recombine. This part is often hard to do because you feel like you should be doing something productive, but I believe this stage of just letting ideas percolate and react is crucial to any creative activity.

Finally, to make the most of the above: carry a notebook and pen always. It doesn’t have to be a fancy Moleskine or anything of the sort. It just needs to be something where you can record interesting experiences and ideas and look back on them later.

Good luck and good writing.

To Share is Human

Last week I wrote about my break from writing and how I’d spent it doing a good amount of reading. I noted how I’d stumbled across a particularly interesting (and good quality) “curation” site called Brain Pickings which collects interesting reading material (and some videos) from around various books and around the web. As a tangent to that, I’ve been seeing an increasing tendency to make reading (which by itself is a solitary activity) more “social”. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago I found an interesting little service called Findings that lets you clip little snippets of text on the web and present in a quotation format with a proper citation. Though I don’t know how Findings can hope to make money (or how long they’ll stay up without a revenue stream) but they’re an interesting little service. Amazon’s Kindle devices and apps allow you to highlight passages from Kindle books and share them. So does the excellent Readmill app which I use to read free ePub books on my iPad.

The recent rise of social media is almost entirely built around the idea of sharing. I suppose it’s not really surprising. To share is human, we want to tell our stories and be heard. We want to tell people what we’re interested in, what we like and what we don’t like and we want to find people with similar interests so that we can share experiences. In some ways I suppose we share for the same reasons we live in families and communities: connecting with other human beings is a natural thing to do (though not for everyone and certainly not all the time). Sharing is one way of connecting.

Sharing may be a fundamentally human quality, but so is individuality. (There’s a Star Trek reference in there somewhere.) And that means that there are some things that we do not want to be shared, or at least not shared with the world at large. That’s why we have curtains and doors with locks on them. There are some experiences that should be limited to a single human being at a time (or we have agreed that should be the case). We value this notion of individuality and privacy highly enough that we have laws to explicitly protect it (though Mark Zuckerberg might want us to believe differently).

Personally, I’m on the more open side of the spectrum. My Twitter stream and Facebook account is probably more active than I’d care to admit. But I have my boundaries. I don’t post pictures online (partially that’s because I don’t really take many pictures) and I’m also somewhat skeptical about the whole “social reading” thing (see, all stuff about social reading services had a point after all). I believe that thinking, actual deep thinking, is best done alone or at most in small groups. Reading and writing are both forms of exchanging thoughts. To write well you must collect your own thoughts, organize them into a narrative and put them down in a coherent structure. To read well you must be in a position to absorb thoughts from a series of symbols, you must interpret them in the framework of your own experiences and judge which of those thoughts are to be accepted and incorporated and which are to be checked or discarded. Mandy Brown’s article on Ways of Reading is instructive, but like all such things, your mileage may vary.

While I like the idea of sharing quotations, writing book reviews and talking about books and the ideas behind them, all of those are secondary activities to the act of actually reading. They are preferably done at a later time, possibly in a different place. Now I’m certainly not one to tell you how you should go about reading. For one thing, I’m no Luddite, I love the Internet and all that has allowed. I think that sharing is by and large a good thing. Also, if I am to suggest that reading is a solitary activity then I probably have little right to tell you how to go about it. However, perhaps it’s best to keep in mind why we’re reading in the first place. Sometimes we read for information, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to escape and sometimes to connect over particular books, authors and genres. I wonder if perhaps the rise of “social reading” might be the beginnings of a re-imagining of Ye Olde Book Club, but in a distributed, ad-hoc fashion. Maybe that’s a good thing, or maybe it’s just different. We shall see. But whatever you do please keep reading.

And if you’re not in a committed relationship, consider dating a girl who reads.

Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Follow your passion is dangerous advice.”

Cal Newport’s newest book opens with an interesting and controversial piece of advice. That’s perhaps not surprising given how interesting Cal Newport himself is. He’s a new professor at Georgetown University and a Computer Science PhD out of MIT. He’s also the author of a popular blog and a number of books on student life, acheivement and productivity. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is his most recent creation and this book might just change the way you look at your career and your life in general.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself. If you follow this blog regularly (and I hope you do) you’ll know that I’m a second year graduate student at Cornell University’s Computer Science program. I’m no longer a “new” graduate student but I’m certainly not a veteran of the research trenches yet. I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve been grappling with some of the issues that come with the territory. In particular I’ve been thinking about what sort of projects I should be pursuing, what to do about projects I’m interested in but not 100% excited about and how to balance getting published with working on fun stuff (the two don’t always overlap). Newport’s new book has given me some good perspective on these matters.

The central thesis of this book is that the common wisdom of “follow your passion” is dangerously flawed. We shouldn’t be waiting for our dream job or our life purpose to fall into our laps. Instead we should be building “career capital” – valuable skills and expertise that we can exchange for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting.

The book opens by digging into the idea that passion is a basis for a remarkable life and bringing forth evidence that passion is rarer and less useful than we are led to believe. Newport then goes on to show that the alternative to passion is to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Concretely this translates to cultivating skills that are rare and valuable and that will let you negotiate your work and working conditions on your own terms. Newport cites studies that show that the actual determinant of career satisfaction is not “passion” but a trio of competence, control and relationships. The jobs we like are the ones that require skills, give us control over our work and life and bring us into contact with good coworkers. Finally we are shown how we can go about generating the career capital that we need in order to get these things in our work lives. In particular the book talks about deliberate practice, making small but continuous improvements in your skills and doing work that will make others sit up and notice.

Throughout the book Newport shares stories of both people who have followed the “passion hypothesis” and his proposed “career craftsman philosophy”. The examples are carefully examined and include a large group of people including venture capitalists, developers, farmers and professors. Instead of simply providing them as proof, Newport walks us through how his experiences with these people changed his own views on the matter and brought him to his current ideas on what makes a remarkable career.

While I’m generally skeptical of self-help books and books that claim to help you “follow your path”, this one is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newport’s examples (and their discussion) are “scientific” but they are thorough and well researched. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the exact path will be different from person to person and that he is still figuring things out.

Personally, I found this book very helpful. It put to rest any worries I had about working on the “wrong” project. I’m still very much in the stage of my career where I’m earning career capital and most projects will be full of chances to learn and prove myself. But that doesn’t mean I should sign up for any project that walks in the door. The best projects are the ones that force me to learn something new and don’t require huge up front investments of time and energy (with little chance of results). As this book shows, excellent careers aren’t just by-products of luck, nor is it enough to just follow your interests. The best careers are crafted and take large investments of energy and effort over long periods of time. It helps that I love my job, but I don’t need to worry about picking the perfect project and being passionate about it, as long as I’m learning and gaining capital, I’m good (and getting better).

If you’re just starting out in a career, looking to switch or just want to give your career a jumpstart this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s never too late (or too early) to start improving. You don’t need to have a life mission set in stone before you get started either. Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is better life advice than “follow your passion”. Thanks to this book it’s probably easier to implement too.