Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: writing (page 1 of 3)

Ecto is dying, long live… what, exactly?

For years I’ve used Ecto, and loved it. However, for the last few months I’ve had problems with it: it’s crashing or hanging up constantly, and that’s getting in my way.

So what should I switch to? I tried Mars Edit a long time ago, and have the vague memory that it was all right. I’ve installed the ScribeFire extension, and will play with that a bit (though I’n not seeing an ability to set categories, which may be a deal-breaker). But I liked having a stand-alone blog editor for offline writing, and would like to find another one.

Friday night

I’ve been working this week on the first of the long contemplative computing essays, and so far I think it’s gone pretty well. The kids left on Monday, so I really got into it starting on Tuesday; fortunately, having written pretty regularly on the blog, I had a lot of raw material to start with– about 15,000 words, much of it extracts from other people’s work, of course, but still better than starting from zero.

This week my wife and I decided to try working more like locals. Thursday night we went to our local pub, the Issac Newton, had dinner, then another drink while we kept working.

Isaac Newton pub
the isaac newton, via flickr

I generally don’t drink much, and usually the relationship between alcohol and inspiration is not a very stable one for me– I get sleepy rather than creative– but this time it worked.

Friday we were going to go to evensong at King’s, but it was cancelled, so we went to the Eagle instead.

Drinks at the Eagle
drinks at the eagle, via flickr

Despite it being a brilliantly cerebral place during the day, Friday night is not exactly the right time to pull out the laptops and write over a couple pints, so we repaired to Yo! Sushi for dinner.

Yo! Sushi!
sushi travelator! food of the future! via flickr

After that, it was over to Clowns of Cambridge for coffee.

Dessert and writing at Clowns
double double lattes, via flickr

Altogether, it was quite productive for me. I’m still working on the piece, but it feels like it’s coming together well.

I know at the end of this I’m going to think to myself, why couldn’t I have written this thing in half the time? I always think that with a piece I’m happy with: if the flow is logical, the argument makes sense, I wonder why I couldn’t just write that at the beginning, and forget about all those dead ends and intermediate drafts and Baroque phraseologies that I created and then discarded on my way to something simple and direct.

Dessert and writing at Clowns
revisions of the article, via flickr

Of course, I’ve been doing this long enough to know I can’t really get to the simple, direct statement without going through all the complicated stuff. Maybe other people can, but that’s not how I work, or how my writing brain works. For me, writing is an exercise in obliquity, a roundabout process to generate something simple.

An extra busy day

Turns out a second article of mine, on the role of paper spaces in collaborative and creative work, appeared in today’s issue of the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping. The long weekend pushed several publication dates back, so things are showing up all at once.

One more article and I get a set of steak knives.

[To the tune of Clorofila, “Cantamar ’72,” from the album The Tijuana Sessions Vol.1 (a 3-star song, imo).]

Busy week

This has turned into a rather busy week: in addition to scheduling several interviews for a new project, I’ve been dealing with the last edits to my long-developing piece on cubesats, which appears headed for the February issue of Scientific American. Incredible.

Edits to the cubesats article
working on the edits, via flickr

I’ve had a great time working with my co-author (I need to collaborate on more articles– it really is a good experience), but still it’ll be really nice to have that piece out. I suspect there could be an interesting short book in here.

I recently had an epiphany about writing. My academic training hammered into me the idea that ideas need time to mature, that more time in the tumbler of your mind would only improve the brilliance your argument, and that books should be long and take years and years to write. In order to guarantee that your work is well-regarded and stands the test of time, you need to write carefully and deliberately.

But what if that’s backward in an important respect? What if importance and timelessness– that elusive quality that gives ideas a life far beyond the author’s– aren’t things that authors can really control, but are constructed almost entirely after the fact, but readers and reviewers and respondents?

This morning's coffee
coffee at Cafe Zoë, via flickr

That suggests that you should write a lot, in order to give your ideas a better chance of surviving the Darwinian competition between ideas: like salmon, only a few will make it to adulthood, so your strategy should be one of fruitfulness rather than intentional profundity. You should get books out quickly while the ideas are still timely– and thus, ironically, make them more likely to be regarded by readers and critics as timeless. Put out the best work possible in Prolific Mode rather than Thorough Mode, and just accept that only some of it will survive.

I don’t know if I can actually pull that off, and I know lots of writers will consider this completely pedestrian an insight, but I think it’s worth a try.

[To the tune of Tzimon Barto, “Preludes: Prelude No. 8 in F sharp minor (Molto agitato),” from the album Chopin: Preludes & Nocturnes (a ^r-star song, imo).]

How to write about Other Places

When I’m not working on my current project (I suspect that “WTF Do Clients Really Do With Scenarios?” won’t make the cut at a peer-reviewed journal, so I need to start thinking of a different name, or a version with less cursing), I’m starting to deal with logistics for the trip to Cambridge. Indeed, I’m beginning to suspect that I’ll need as many months to complete the paperwork as I’ll actually spend doing research. But it’ll be worth it.

I’m also starting to wonder how I should write about the trip. Of course there’s no question that I’ll at least keep the blog going, and maybe try to wring some piece of travel writing out of the trip (something about journeying through high-tech England? scientific England? frankly, it’ll be whatever the assignment editor wants), but I don’t want to sound like a typical American mystified by, but ultimately won over by the cultivated charms and sophistication of Europe; I suppose James Watson’s Double Helix is as good a model as any for writing about doing research in Cambridge… but there are probably other literary stereotypes I want to be aware of and avoid. I was made sensitive about this by a fabulous series of four short essays (inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa“) about How to Write About Pakistan, of which this one (by Daniyal Mueenuddin) is my favorite:

Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.

When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand….

It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.

[To the tune of Blue Man Group, “White Rabbit (Feat Esthero),” from the album The Complex (a 2-star song, imo).]

The manliness of the pocket notebook

My wife sent me a link to these articles last month, and I’m only now getting around to sharing them. The Art of Manliness posted an article on pocket notebooks:

the pocket notebook has a long, important, and manly history. Pocket notebooks were part of the arsenal of a long list of great men from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Edison (we’re working on an in-depth post of how these men used their notebooks for the future). The repositories of eminent men’s personal effects nearly always includes a pocket notebook full of their ideas and musings….

It’s a manly tradition that ought to be continued today. Along with a pocket knife and handkerchief, a notebook should reside in the pocket of every man.

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. You may get a business idea, an insight into something you or a loved one has been struggling with, or hear a quote you wish to record. Even though you feel sure in the moment that you’ll be able to remember these thoughts when you get home, every one of us has experienced the agony of realizing later that an idea is utterly gone from our minds and that no amount of mental gymnastics can bring it back.

There was also a great followup describing the pocket notebooks of twenty famous men.

It occurs to me that the personal papers of scientists and engineers I’ve worked with almost always include a box of pocket notebooks. I always skipped over those, assuming that they would never be of any real interest. Stupid me.

“Words are like cockroaches”

Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker suggests “if you want to write, get threatened:”

I’ve been writing for a living for around 15 years now and whatever method I practise remains a mystery. It’s random. Some days I’ll rapidly thump out an article in a steady daze, scarcely aware of my own breath. Other times it’s like slowly dragging individual letters of the alphabet from a mire of cold glue. The difference, I think, is the degree of self-awareness. When you’re consciously trying to write, the words just don’t come out. Every sentence is a creaking struggle, and staring out the window with a vague sense of desperation rapidly becomes a coping strategy. To function efficiently as a writer, 95% of your brain has to teleport off into nowhere, taking its neuroses with it, leaving the confident, playful 5% alone to operate the controls. To put it another way: words are like cockroaches; only once the lights are off do they feel free to scuttle around on the kitchen floor. I’m sure I could think of a more terrible analogy than that given another 100,000 years.

Rules for writing fiction

The Guardian has advice from 14 authors about how to write. My favorite is Roddy Doyle’s:

Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Helen Dunmore’s “A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk” is also sound.

But Richard Ford’s “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea” takes the cake.

Futures 2.0 is out!

So my article on the future of futures (the serious version, not the parody) has actually been published. Ironically, because of the limitations of the Stanford library’s subscription, I can’t see it.


However, I’m sure I’ll get the reprints soon. For those who have access to the journal, the official version is here.

I also notice that my former IFTF colleague Jody Ranck co-authored an article in the same issue on health foresight.

Four secrets of innovation

My latest piece, “Four Secrets of Innovation,” appears in this month’s U.S. State Department-sponsored eJournalUSA. Naturally it starts with one of my usual historical references:

In today’s innovation-obsessed, knowledge-intensive global economy, it might come as a surprise that for most of their long histories, science and business have had almost nothing to do with each other. Had you suggested to a silversmith working in ancient China, a captain plying the spice trade during the Age of Exploration, or a Quaker brewer in 18th-century Philadelphia that science could improve commerce, he would have looked at you as if you were crazy. Even today, describing the relationship between science and business — and figuring out how science and industrial policy can be designed to work to the benefit of both parties — is a challenge….

So we seem to be entering a new age in which science is more important for innovation than ever, but is more unpredictable and harder to benefit from. In an age that values innovation, companies and countries have a harder time than ever encouraging and profiting from science.

But does that mean that science policy is now impossible? Certainly not, and successful regions and countries have learned several secrets.

So what are the four secrets? Go read it and find out.

[To the tune of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Rich Woman,” from the album Raising Sand (I give it 3 stars).]
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