Rework

I have been a fan of 37Signals since I can remember — I used to use prototype.js, learnt Rails for freelance work, and made everything I worked on look like Basecamp. But, when their book released I assumed it won’t be available in India (it was), or that it would be too expensive to buy anyway (it wasn’t).

So, when on a recent visit to the GrandWorks office I saw it lying on Sid’s desk, I borrowed it and read it in a single sitting. Here are my highlights:

Sacrifice some of your darlings for the greater good. Cut your ambition in half. You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.

When something succeeds, you know what worked-and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better. Failure is not a prerequisite for success… Success is the experience that actually counts.

The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads, they’re imagining a hundred different things.

Their approach to planning is one that I have recently adopted in my daily life, especially my side projects:

When you turn guesses into plans, you enter a danger zone. Plans let the past drive the future. They put blinders on you… Plans are inconsistent with improvisation… Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no relationship with reality is even scarier.

Mass is increased by: permanent decisions, inventory (physical and mental) long-term road maps… less mass means you’ll be able to change direction easily. The more expensive it is to make a change, the less likely you are to make it.

Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet…the decisions you make today don’t need to last forever. Decisions are temporary. Optimize for now and worry about the future later.

This year, I have been trying to be more proactive at sharing my work. The ideas in this book, and Show Your Work have greatly influenced how I think about it:

Everything has a by-product. Observant and creative minds spot these by-products and see opportunities.

So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that is valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.

Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them… Teach and you’ll form a bond you just don’t get from traditional marketing tactics… They’ll trust and respect you more.

Don’t be afraid to show your flaws. Imperfections are real and people respond to real. It’s why we like flowers that wilt, not plastic ones.

Don’t be afraid to give a little away for free – as long as you’ve got something else to sell. Be confident in what you’re offering.

Even though I’ve been late in both reading and writing about the book, it couldn’t have been at a better time — 37Signals recently announced their new book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy at Work. Looking forward to reading it when it releases in India!

Indian Government and Politics

I didn’t pay attention to Civics class in school, so it was time I revisited the syllabus and found out how the Indian government worked. This interest was triggered by the Aadhaar case, and also by my attempt to understand where the ISRO WikiProject lies in the larger Indian government system.

I decided to get Indian Government and Politics from SAGE publishing because I read somewhere that it was a textbook for UPSC exams (of which I learnt more in the book). I supplemented my reading with an entertaining YouTube series called Consti-tuition hosted by Meghnad. I even got a subscription to Newslaundry to access the bonus content.

The video series and the book covered what the constitution said, and what reality is like. This was important for me as it helped me learn where the system fails and what kind of structures are made ad-hoc to deal with it. As Dan Kaminsky points out, this part of my learning will go on for much longer, maybe forever.

It also gave me a lot of new WikiData projects ideas. The first one being to visualize the national political parties and their ideologies. I’ll be working on more as time permits. Click image below for the Wikidata query.

This book was a good first step to learn the system and it’s lies. It seems pretty complex, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but at least I’ve begun to understand something… the me in school would have understood nothing, even if he did pay attention.

Maus

I read Maus in two sittings when I was alone at home in January. If I had known that the book was about the Holocaust, and that the main character, Mr Spiegelman, would remind me so much of my Dadi, I would have avoided reading it.

I secretly laughed at Dadi’s need for order, and perfection. And not just any order, but one of her design.

I got irritated when she accumulated trash and treated it like treasure.

I felt scared when she had one of her restless nights, not able to lie down nor sit up, only feeling better after Papa put a nitroglycerin patch.

And I cried when she told me how much she still missed Baba.

Even though I have the second part of the book, I am not going to be reading it for a long time. I miss Dadi.

On Writing Well

A half read ebook doesn’t clutter your bedside table. Instead, it buries itself under an icon. A 42-by-42px icon, of an obscure app, on a broken phone, which will never be taken for repair.

Fortunately, my copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser escaped this fate. I was reminded that I was reading it while scrolling through old blog posts. I was also reminded that I used to blog about books. These reminders ended my search for an open, sync-able, and cross-platform annotation solution. I have struggled to accept WhisperSync and struggled to implement OpenAnnotations, I just want a simple and easy alternative.

So, for now, I will have a single blog post for a book, with all highlights, and notes, using the Web Annotations markup standards. I didn’t make notes while reading this book so these are my highlights:

Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight…unity of pronoun…unity of tense…unity of mood…

I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.

The above quote was in the particular context of gendered pronouns (he/she/they), but I am noting it as general advice.

We are a culture that worships the winning result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.

All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey.

I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)

When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.

We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process that vague abstractions.

The Year Without Pants

by Scott Berkun

This book is a form of participatory journalism where the author talks about his experience of being one of the first managers at Automattic (the company that runs WordPress.com) . He gives a commentary on the culture of the company as it moves from a flat to a hierarchical structure. He often contrasts it with his experience at Microsoft.

This contrast isn’t as clear as Cathedral and Bazaar. The author even points out instances where WordPress’ culture tends towards cathedral and Microsoft’s towards bazaar. The quality and quantity of work done amidst the chaos of the open source project amazes him, and he attributes this success to the people at the organization – who are passionate about their work, and to Matt Mullenweg – who grants these people autonomy, and encourages them to experiment. He also talks about how he manages his team which is distributed across the world and sometimes even across timezones.

This is the first time I’ve read about open source culture from a manager’s viewpoint. His critique for the communication tools used at Automattic resonated deeply with me. Reading it I was able to look at the Wikimedia Foundation, its work, and my place in it through a new lens.

A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar

by Robert Sewell

In preperation for my Hampi visit I decided to read a historical account of the Vijayanagar empire. My last history class was seven years ago, so this was a new first lesson.

I was excited after reading the introduction. The city seemed grand and rich in culture but I became uninterested as the book became a chronological documentation from one war to the next. I enjoyed the few breaks that were taken to talk about the architecture and the lives of the common people and wished there were more. The academic tone didn’t bother me and was I amazed when the author himself was doubtful about the certainty of some facts. He had strung together centuries of history by interpreting the chronicles of Fernão Nunes and Abd-al-Razzāq, and the scriptures that were being discovered during the time. He was clear in his distinction between facts and speculations. In contrast, Domingo Paes’ observations were direct, he wrote of what he was shown by the King, and what he was told by his fellows. He even logged details like the prices of common fruits and vegetables. It read like an out of date WikiVoyage entry.

Reading this book made me wonder about the accuracy of my school books. Or of any history books. I can never be sure if what is being written is fact, or worse, if its tainted by personal beliefs and propaganda. Amber consoled my skepticism and suggested I read What is History? by E.H. Carr. More books on my reading list, answers to all questions of life soon!

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

by Andy Hunt

This is probably the fastest I have ever read a book. In just a day it gave me a lot to try and think about.

Reinforcing some of my own thoughts, it gave me validation to try out techniques I would otherwise feel uncomfortable with. I can foresee it helping with some of the programming concepts that I have been struggling with.

Show Your Work

by Austin Kleon

This book is one of the reasons my blog exists. It encourages the reader to share their work and their process. Though it convinced me that sharing is good I still have my insecurities about writing.

While my hesitation to write in English is being aided by On Writing Well and The Elements of Style, doubts about who I am and who would want to read me will take more than books. Starting the blog was easy, but writing takes more courage than I thought it would.