The Bytebaker is changing

The Bytebaker is a good few years old now and through most of that time it’s been a purely technology oriented blog. The readership has grown steadily, but I don’t take tons of readers and the ones that I do get are generally concentrated on a few posts (which are mostly Python related). Of late I’ve been giving some thought to what direction I want to take this blog in the near future.

There is a part of me that wants to keep The Bytebaker purely technology related. On one level it makes sense: it’s one website and it should have a concrete theme so that people who come here regularly know what to expect and find. But on the other hand, it’s written by one person — me, and I have more than one interest. I love music and movies and I’m trying to get back into reading regularly and I have thoughts about them that I would really like to share sometimes. But a lot of the time I either don’t share at all or it gets fragmented between here, my Tumblr blog or my static website. I’ve come to learn that maintaining multiple websites, like maintaining multiple computers, is hard and not something to be taken lightly.

With that in mind I thought it was a good idea to take a few steps and think about what I wanted to do with the Bytebaker and my other blogs and websites. In some ways I’ve been thinking about the path taken by Marco Arment and John Gruber. Their websites are technology-oriented, but also reflects their own personalities too. I think it’s a good format and something that would work well for me, because as I said, I think a lot about tech but it’s not all I think about.

However, I don’t want to just have a blog, at least not right now. I want to keep a plain static website for a number of reasons. I want a place where I can point people to if they want to know just about me, not my writing or thoughts. It’s a place to show off my projects and my writing which don’t fall nicely into a blog format. This involves papers I write for classes and things like short stories and poems that I’ve written. The blog is a great format, but it doesn’t fit everything. Since I plan on being an academic for a few more years, I also want someplace to put papers I’ve publish and things (like a resume) that would only be of interest to a small audience. I also want to keep experimenting with CSS and HTML5 without breaking my blog and a static site is the easiest way to do that.

Luckily I don’t have to decide between the two: I can have both. I already have a blog with a decent readership right here and I have a static site which is already a showcase of my projects and other writing. And the tumblelog I won’t miss much. For the time being I’m happy with just merging the Bytebaker with my tumblelog and getting a bit looser in the type of things I allow here. I’m going to rethink the categories here to reflect that. I’m changing the theme to the brighter, spacier DePo Square which is very well suited to the things I have in mind. No I’m not actually moving anything over because I don’t think there is anything really of that importance there right now. As for the website, I’m keeping it the way it is since I don’t have the time to rethink it right now. But in the end I want to be something like Professor Karl Stolley or Scott Chacon’s website: an overview of who I am with excerpts of my online activities.

I’m hoping that this change will bring with it shorter, more rapid posts offer a wider range of subjects (though probably still dealing with tech). Personally I hope it’ll remove the blocks I feel when I want to post something but don’t know where. It’s been a while since I’ve had a single unified blog and I’m rather excited to see how things turn out.

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Revamping the ByteBaker series

Not too long ago I started writing series of posts on The ByteBaker. I started two of them: Powerful Python and Sunday Selections.

PythonPowerful Python was a series of posts about the Python programming languages and how its features make it easier for programmers to write code. As it stands now there are four posts in this series:

Python is the language that I’m most familiar with and have written the most code in. Over the last month or so I’ve been writing Python day in day out and really exercising my Python chops (as well as getting acquainted with features like generators and decorators).  Over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing more posts exploring Python and adding them to the Powerful Python series. If you regularly write code in Python or just have a passing interest, this is something you’re going to like.

The second series that I had was Sunday Selections. I try to post two to three times a week, but I didn’t want to leave the weekends completely bare. I also wanted to spend my weekends doing other things (preferably away from the computer). So I started a series where every Sunday I would post links (with brief intros) to interesting things that I had found the week before. I’ll admit that I haven’t been very stable with the post schedule, partly because I kept forgetting or losing what I had found and really didn’t want to go hunting around the intertubes for whatever it is that I liked.

Over the past few months I’ve become much better at holding onto things I find online. Using Diigo for bookmarks and Tumblr for “scrapbooking” the web I’ve been managing to keep a good record of all the wonderful stuff I’ve found (and there is a lot of it). So I’m bringing back Sunday Selections as well (starting this Sunday) so stay tuned for a steady flow of Internet-y goodness.

I’m really looking forward to writing series posts again. I feel like my writing can sometimes get either monotonous or spread all over the place without any focus. I’m hoping that the series (especially the Powerful Python series) will provide a good path for me to write articles that are coherent and progress along a definite line. Stay tuned.

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.

I got a tumblelog

I got a tumblelog. Domain wise it’s part of my static site at Basu::shr. Behind the scenes it’s a basic Tumblr weblog with a nice looking theme and little else. I already have a proper weblog (this one) and a static website. I also have Twitter and Identi.ca accounts and I have a Friendfeed which pulls in updates from lots of different services that I use. So why yet another weblog?

The answer is that the web, especially the so-called Web 2.0 has been becoming more UNIX-like as time goes on. There are lots of different webapps out there, and the best ones focus on doing one thing and doing it well. It’s up to others to pull these webapps together via their APIs in a manner similar to the way UNIX shell scripts work. While this is in general a good thing, it can be a hassle for someone like me who would like to keep together all his/her online activity.

For a while I really wished there was One Great Webapp to Rule Them All. It would be this one great system into which I could put all my status updates, my pictures, videos, links, conversations and it would automatically send them out to whichever specific webapp they needed to go to. And much to my delight I found one just like that: Posterous. You send an email to Posterous containing whatever you want to post and Posterous can be setup to direct to a number of different webapps. This is a really cool thing, using email as a web equivalent of UNIX pipes. I tried it for a few days, and while I was happy for to start with, I came to realize some interesting things.

The first thing that I realized was email for all it’s flexibility and usefulness, it can be a bit tedious for some activities. If all you want to do is send out a 140 character update or post a video, it’s just a bit too much to switch to a mail client, copy/paste a link or type a message, select a recipient and then hit ‘Send’. Secondly, for conversation oriented media like Twitter, sending out your message is only half the problem and it makes no sense to use one tool to send out a message (email) and another to see incoming messages (another app or webapp). Add in the fact there are lots of small applications or browser extensions that do a really good job of putting on an easy-to-use layer on top of web services and email starts to lose its silver lining.

However, the greater realization I had was I that I didn’t necessarily wanted all my online activity pulled into one place. For example, this blog is about technology and my experiences with it and it’s not something that my liberal arts friends particularly care about. On the other hand, readers coming to this site to read about my adventures with programming languages probably don’t want to know all that much about what how the dining hall food is today or how tired I am after my creative writing class (things that go into my Twitter stream). I wouldn’t want to mix those two because the result would simply be a mess. I also don’t want to add things like cool videos, art or articles I find to either of these two unless I do want to blog about it (in which case I will write a post about it) or I really want my friends to know about it (in which case I’ll twitter it). By yesterday morning I decided that I still wanted to have an online, accessible record of stuff I found interesting (if anyone else really wanted to see) but I didn’t want to just dump it into the other streams.

Thus came about the tumblelog. I could have just stuck to my Posterous but I like Tumblr better, in part because of the gorgeous themes (which I hear can be used with Posterous, but I couldn’t find an easy way to do it) but also because it seems that Tumblr, especially the bookmarklet, processes excerpts from websites in a smarter way than Posterous. And I already had a Tumblr account that I started a few months ago, but I really didn’t use till now.

The way things stand now, here is how I currently use my multiple web services:

  • The ByteBaker for long-form tech-oriented articles
  • Twitter and Identi.ca for really short observations, ideas and messages
  • Basu::Shr::Weblog as a tumblelog for recording interesting things I find online, mostly videos and images
  • Diigo for interesting links that I want to keep a record of, but don’t care to actively share
  • Friendfeed to pull together everything about (plus a few others) for anyone who’s interested

Considering that this isn’t the first time that I’ve done this dance, I won’t be too surprised if I changed this setup again soon. At the current moment, the services and the tools around seem stable and useful and I’ve been able to use them with very little mental overhead (which is very important for me). Only time will tell if this works out, but I hope it does. On a related note, I’ve also started decoupling Facebook from my online presence because I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with their “Walled Garden” approach, but that’s a matter for another article.