Assisted Editing

I learned about artbollocks-mode.el from Sacha Chua's post, and it's pretty freaking amazing.

Basically, it does some processing of your writing--while you work--to highlight passive sentences and affected jargon. [1] And that's all. There are some functions for generating statistics about your writing, but I find I don't use that functionality often. You can enable it all of the time, or just turn it on when you're doing editing.

After a few weeks, I've noticed a marked improvement in the quality of my output. I leave it on all the time, but I'm pretty good at resisting the urge to edit while I'm writing. Or at least I'm pretty good at picking up again after going back to tweak a wording. In general it's hard to keep more than a few things in an editing pass at any time.

It turns out that the instant feedback on passive sentences, even though it's not perfect, is great for improving the quality of my content the first time out. And it's even better for doing editing work. It's harder to ignore a passive sentence when the editor is highlighting you see a screen full of them for you.

It's of course important to be able to ignore its suggestions from time to time, and it's no harder to ignore than "flyspell-mode" (the on-the-fly spell checker in emacs.)

[1]This is perhaps the clumsiest part of the default distribution, as jargon is terribly specific to the kind of writing you're doing, and it turns out that one of the "art critic"/post-modern words (i.e. "node") is a word that I end up using (acceptably, I think) in a technical context when describing a clustered system. And there's a difference between a technical lexicon and a jargon, and regular expressions aren't terribly sensitive to this, so the actual list of words that you need to call yourself out on, varies a bit from person to person. But once you customize it, it's great.

Longer Forms

A friend asked me a question (several weeks ago by publication) on a technical topic and I spent most of the next few days writing a missive on database administration strategy. That seemed like a normal response. I was delighted to find that: I liked the voice, I enjoyed writing the longer document, and there are a dozen or so other related topics that I wanted to explore. So, apparently, I'm writing a book. This is exactly what I need: more projects. Not.

But it's a good thing: I find the writing inspiring and invigorating. I have a perspective and collection of knowledge that hasn't been collected and presented in a single place. I like long form writing. The larger piece might also be a good contribution to my portfolio (such as it is.)

I think this kind of writing suits my attention span.

This has left me without a lot of spare time for blogging, and (as I'm prone to do every so often,) rethinking the future of my efforts on and as a blogger. This is boring for all of you, but I'll give some higher level stuff here and we can follow up in comments:

  • Blogging is fun, and even though I've not been posting regularly, I'm always writing blog posts. Sometimes I find myself writing posts in emails to friends, but I'm never really going to stop writing blog posts.

  • The general explosion of blog publishing that we saw a few years ago has declined. Audience fragmentation happened, readership got entrenched. I feel like I weathered the storm pretty well and I'm really happy with the site and readers I have, but I'm also pretty confident that blogging isn't going to be the means by which I "level up." [1]

  • eBooks have finally happened. For the last decade most people have been saying that ebooks are great for reference material (given search-ability,) and for providing an introduction to a text that people will eventually buy in a paper edition. That may be true, but I think it's changing rapidly, and with kindles and tablets and smart-phones, I think eBooks have effectively won, such as it is.

    In another ten years, perhaps, we'll just call them books.

  • I'm pretty clear that keeping a blog, and perhaps most of the writing I do in my spare time is for my own enjoyment and betterment and helps to develop a personal portfolio and account of my work. I have no (real) interest in using my writing on or any other side that I maintain, as a way of supporting myself to any greater or lesser extent.

I want to be in the business of writing things and working with technology and ideas and people, not the business of publishing. While the line is not always clear between "writing projects that you publish yourself online," and "new media publisher," I want to stay away from the later as much as possible.

So I think this means that most of my "tychoish," writing time will go to writing this book project, and to fiction, and once my blog post backlog is fully depleted (heh,) most of my postings will either be announcements/progress-reports or a bunch of shorter more off-the-cuff notes.

Here's hoping at least.

[1]I can't really believe that I just used "level up" in this context.

Representation and Race Futurism

I had an item on my list of blog posts to write for a couple of years to write something reflecting on "RaceFail," and finally a gave up, because I didn't want to write a book, I didn't know what to say, and I was more interested in the actual discourse itself than finding the "side of right," in a conversation that was both way too simple and way too complex all at once.

So rather than reboot the conversation, which has ended in some senses and continues on in others, I want to start writing a bit here about race and representation in fiction, but also discussing the way that conversations transpire online. Here's part one. I'll figure out some way to index them all together once they're posted and assembled.

I wrote this scene a while back where a character who grew up on a small [1] outpost visits a space ship. Given relativistic space travel, from the character's perspective, the crew of the space ship are 750 years old or so, despite being in their subjective early forties. That means the character's 31st-great-grandparents (roughly) were cousins of the people he's looking at.

He notices a few things: the people on the ship are all taller than he is and also taller than everyone from the outpost. He also notices that there's more more skin tone variation amongst the people on the ship than there is among the people in the outpost.

There are a bunches of problems with this story. Including the fact that its not finished and that there are parts of the execution that I think need a lot work. But this part, I quite like. For this story (and I think in general,) I've drawn the following conclusion:

  • Race is temporally constrained. We understand racial difference and our own racial experiences in terms of our current reality. This changes.
  • The aspects of race which are the result of lineage (skin color, bone structure,) are likely to change over time as lineages continue. We can assume that these kinds of changes will be pronounced in smaller populations over longer periods of time.

To a large extent the tension between the "outpost people" and the "ship people" is the core of the conflict in this story. I've been thinking in this story about the impact of colonialism (and race as a result) on societies and political outlook. It's almost certainly not perfect, but I enjoy the possibilities, the story has its moments, and I'm finding the theory building productive.

I'm circling around a point: in-story diversity, particularly, diversity that reflects late 20th/early 21st century notions of difference alone cannot further thought race and racism. In other words, diversity is not criticism. There are many ways to productively further the discussion of difference in (genre) fiction, lets not stop with representation.

I'll be writing more about this in the future. Comments are very welcome!

[1]Under a billion people.

Cyberpunk Sunset

I'm not sure where I picked up the link to this post on the current state of cyberpunk, but I find myself returning to it frequently and becoming incredibly frustrated with the presentation.

In essence the author argues that while the originators of the cyberpunk genre (i.e. Gibson and Sterling, the "White Men") have pronounced cyberpunk "over," the genre is in fact quite vibrant and a prime location for non-mainstream ("other") voices and per perspectives. Also, somehow, the author argues that by denying that cyberpunk continues to be relevant and active we're impinging the diversity that's actively occurring in the space.

My thoughts are pretty simple:

  • This is old news. People have been pronouncing cyberpunk dead since 1992 or thereabouts. And they've largely been right. Cyberpunk died, because the technological horizon 1980s (e.g. BBSs) developed in a particular way. In someways the cyberpunks got it right (there is a digital reality, there are digital natives, and unique digital social conventions.) In many ways no one got it right: more people are using the internet per-capita than anyone thought in 1984 and no one predicted that the internet would be as commercial as it is.

    In light of this the kinds of things that the people active in technology and in cyberpunk are thinking about and addressing have changed a lot. In many ways, Cory Doctorow is a pretty fitting heir to the cyberpunk lineage, but I think it's also true that the cyberpunk tradition has shifted it's focus into other issues and ideas.

    That interest in the present and the near future has always been a significant defining characteristic of cyberpunk, at least as relevant as the DIY and outsider aspect. In this respect, cyberpunk's critique was accepted and quite transformative for the genre.

    At the same time, the "hackers," and "cyberpunks," grew out of academia (e.g. Free Software) and not the punk movement.

  • The cyberpunks, even when (white) men were the front men for the (sub)genre, have always been outsiders. In the 80s were the "Young Turks" of the science fiction world. Samuel Delany's Nova is often cited a key cyberpunk-precursor, and there are some pretty important precursors in Stars in My Pocket, Dhalgren, and The Einstein Intervention.

  • I want to be sure to not forget about Melissa Scott while we're at it. Trouble and her Friends is a great example of using cyberpunk to explore subcultures and experiences of people (queers, PoC, etc.) on the margins. While Trouble is almost on the late end for "original" cyberpunk I think it counts. The blogger seems to think that only queers and PoC and others have only recently taken up cyberpunk, and that seems particularly shortsighted, and not particularly true.

  • One of the most troubling aspects of the argument is the assumption that if "cyberpunk" is over than no one can write cyberpunk anymore and that to declare such would be to silence all of the would be *punks.

    This is absurd.

    Not only is this not true, but it's also not how literature works. I'm also pretty sure that this is not consistent with the origins of cyberpunk, or the way the genre memes play out.

    What I think happened when cyberpunk stopped being on the cutting edge and we realized that a critique of the present required different science fictional method (I think that resurgence in "New Space Opera" in the 90s is part of this, as well as a hard-SF turn in the form of Beggers in Spain and a turn toward alternate histories.) As a result, what's happening cyberpunk has become something closer to fantasy.

    The division (and implications) of the difference between "fantasy" and/or "super soft science fiction" and the science fiction mainstream is at play and probably out side of the scope of this post.

So I'm not that sure where we're left? Am I missing something? Lets hear it out in comments!

Constraints for Mobile Software

This post is mostly just an overview of Epistle by Matteo Villa, which is--to my mind--the best Android note taking application ever. By the time you read this I will have an Android Tablet, but it's still in transit while you read this and that's a topic that dissevers it's own post.

Epistle is a simple notes application with two features that sealed the deal:

1. It knows markdown, and by default provides a compiled rich text view of notes before providing a simple notes editing interface. While syntax highlighting would be nice, we'll take what we can get.

2. It's a nice, simple application. There's nothing clever or fancy going on. This simplicity means that the interface is clean and it just edits text.

For those on the other side there's Paragraft that seems similar. While in my heart of hearts I'm probably still holding out for the tablet equivalent [1] of emacs. In the mean time, I think developing a text editing application that provide a number of paradigmatic text editing features and advances for the touch screen would be an incredibly welcome development.

In the end there's much work to be done, and the tools are good enough to get started.

[1]I want to be clear to say equivalent and not replacement, because while I'd like to be able to use emacs and have that kind of slipstream writing experience on an embeded device, what I really want is something that is flexible and can be customized and lets me do all the work that I need to do, without hopping between programs, without breaking focus, that makes inputting and manipulating text a joy. And an application that we can trust (i.e. open source, by a reputable developer,) in a format we can trust (i.e. plain text.) Doesn't need to be emacs and doesn't need lisp, but I wouldn't complain about the lisp.

Teaching Writing Skills

All of my friends who have taught composition are appalled when they hear me say that I want to teach writing. But it's true: I would be interested in having the opportunity to give people the kind of writing education that I never got to have. I've even collected a few of these ideas on a very rough "pedagogy" page. This post, by contrast, will be a list of "things I wish I could have learned before I got a job writing."

  • How to write in long form. The skils and process for writing something that's a hundred pages is fundamentally different from the process for writing pieces that are a few hundred words or a few pages. Project management, planning, and organization are totally different skills.
  • Working with editors. In school, the editing process is very conversational. Editors, comment and ask you to make changes if agree with their judgment. Writers need to learn how to gather requirements, write the best possible content, and then hand it over to an editor who will modify the text without comment. Not only is it important to learn how to "get over this," but also in how to learn from this kind of editing
  • How to revise work. While I've learned to avoid making a number of mistakes to which I'm particularly prone, and spot those errors when the slip through, it's really the process of applying for jobs that has taught me how to revise my own writing. Revision is probably the hardest writing skill, and I think there are probably better ways to teach revision than some sort of idealized "drafting process."
  • How to write at volume, even when you're not feeling inspired. We're pretty good at teaching people to write when they're inspired or have done a lot of research. But writing Writing needs to be as instinctive as speech and the kind of thing that you don't need to be inspired to be able to do. Not because anyone writes that much, but it's a comfort thing.
  • How to document things. Which is to say, how to record a practice, wprocedure, or interface, to tell people (and your future self,) how to do something. I had to figure this out on my own, and I think people would be much better writers for being 10% worse at writing essays and 10% better at writing processes.

That would do it! I've included some work in this direction in the pedagogy page, but comments, are always valuable.

Writing Software Beyond Emacs

The ideal writing application is emacs, at least for me. In the absence of emacs (as on a tablet,) I've been thinking about what features I actually need in a writing application. While I've grown to admire the power of a full Lisp machine in my text editor, I accept that it's not, strictly speaking required. Here's a first stab at the list of requirements. Feel free to comment or submit a patch to this page.

  • Simple, primarily full screen editing.
  • The ability edit very large files, 100kbs should present no issue.
  • Some sort of syntax highlight during the editing process, preferably support for LaTeX, Markdown, and org-mode.
  • Word count generation for the entire files and for current selections.
  • Auto-save as crash protection.
  • Undo/Redo last typing action.

Nice to have (but not crucial) features:

  • The ability to edit one file and reference another (or potentially edit) at the same time. Bonus points for being able to switch between to parts of a single file at once.
  • The ability to hide or collapse some sections of a file.
  • Optional spell checking.
  • Parenthetical and double-quote matching.
  • Soft and hard line/word wrapping.

Other than that I don't think there's anything that I really need to have to get writing done 90% of the time. How about you?

Org Mode and Mobile Writing

This post is adapted from a post I made to the org-mode email list a few weeks ago. I proposed an application to compliment MobileOrg for writing. Where MobileOrg collects the core bits of org-mode's task planning functionality in a form that makes sense for smart phone users, the parts of org-mode functionality that people use to for writing and organizing the content of larger form projects isn't particularly accessible.

I spend (or should spend) 70% or more of my time in front of a computer writing or editing something in org-mode. Most of my org files have tens of thousands of words of blog posts, notes, drafts of articles, and so forth. While I can store that data on an android device with only minor problems using a little script that I put together, and I can capture content into my org-files using email and some nifty filters, and there are text editors that can let me edit these files: it could be better.

The proposal is simple. Can we build something like Epistle for org-mode? It might just render org-mode text to HTML, and frankly that would be enough for me. If the editing interface had an org-indent-mode equivalent, org-syntax highlighting, and even collapsing trees or org-narrow-to-subtree, that'd be kind of like heaven.

I'm not a mobile developer, so I can't promise to start making an app this instant if there's interest but if anyone's bored and thinks this might be a good idea (or knows of something that might work better for this.) I'd love to hear about it. If someone wants to start work on this, I'll do whatever I can to help make this a reality.

Onward and Upward!