Archive of Posts from August 2005

Red Cross Link

You probably already know where to go to donate to hurricane relief, but if not you can go here:

You can donate to the Red Cross here

Pastafarianism Started in Corvallis

It somehow makes sense that the high prophet of pastafarianism is from right here in Corvallis, Oregon: Corvallis man's parody is Internet 'monster'. You can read his original letter at his website.

How I Write a Hack

I was chatting with Brian Sawyer (Hacks Series editor) earlier today about writing Hacks and the process I use, and he encouraged me to share the way I work. I think it's a bit like making sausage, you don't necessarily want to know what an author uses to put something together. But hopefully sharing my process will help other tech writers, or may encourage others to share the way they work. So here's a quick look at how I write a Hack.

Everyone has their own methods and process for writing, and here are the methods I used for Yahoo! Hacks. I printed out and taped the following numbered lists to my monitor, and reading over them helped me come up with supporting material for each Hack.
Hack Template
I view a Hack as a project the reader can accomplish. The reader also needs to know why they might want to accomplish the project and have an idea of what the project should look like when they're finished. Here's my template:
  1. Why this hack is needed (story, build desire)
  2. Describe the relevant features
  3. Hack prerequisites
  4. Hack code/procedure
  5. Example of the Hack in action
  6. Brief summary (why the reader rocks!)
  7. If possible, Hack alternatives
Whenever possible I use the conventional Hack headings of The Code and Running the Code to separate parts 4 and 5. And the heading Hacking the Hack for part 7.
Hack Process
If the Hack is going to be centered on a piece of code, I like to write that first and get it working smoothly. Once the code is ready to go, parts 3, 4, and 5 are fairly easy to put together. If the Hack is more basic/explanatory, I'll often start at part 1.
Hack Motivations
Part 1 is always the hardest for me, so my other lists revolve around how to frame a Hack for a reader. I've found that William Zinsser's On Writing Well has been a big help to me, and some of these ideas are straight from the book.
Central Transaction
Zinsser talks about a central transaction for any piece of writing, and the one I came up with for Hacks is: Hacker's love affair with technology. I felt like I wanted to convey excitement about technology throughout the book, and I always kept this phrase in mind.
Telling a Story
I only wrote in first person using I once or twice in Yahoo! Hacks. I was more comfortable writing in third person. I still tried to keep the idea of telling a story in mind, and I found this list helpful:
  1. How was I drawn into the Hack?
  2. What emotional baggage did I bring?
  3. How has the Hack changed my life?
  4. Tell with humanity and warmth.
Of course not every Hack is a life-changing experience, but the Hack probably did affect me in some small way: made something more convenient, helped me see something in a different way, let me share something with my friends, etc.
Building Desire
I've found that it's not always easy to explain why someone should be interested in a particular Hack, but I think it's crucial. Here's the list of potential motivations that I tack up:
  1. aesthetic (appreciation of beauty or good taste)
  2. competitive (giving an advantage or keeping up)
  3. gregarious (enjoying the company of others)
  4. snobbish (regarding social inferiority)
  5. exhibitionist (attract attention, show-off)
  6. maternal (protect, warm and nurturing)
For Yahoo! Hacks I found that there are two basic varieties of Hack: Visualization and Productivity. Visualization Hacks let you see data in a new or unusual way and Productivity Hacks let you do something you already do more efficiently. So the motivations that I found most compatible were aesthetic for visualization hacks, and competitive for productivity hacks. Although gregarious and exhibitionist motivations worked well for community-oriented hacks. I don't use these exact words in the hack, but I might say something like, "this hack has a minimalist charm," that appeals to the aesthetic desire. Once I find how I'm going to frame the Hack by showing the reader why it's great, the words flow for me from there.
Hack Subjects
Part 2 of the template is important because it's a chance to describe the service in detail. I always assume that the reader only has a passing knowledge of whatever I'm writing about, so I like to describe the details of basic features of a service in part 2. For example, if I have a Hack that shows how to scrape a site for movie times and create a custom email with listings in their area, I first want to show someone how to get movie times the standard way through the website, along with any tips and tricks for using the site. Then I'll go into taking those features a step further with the Hack. I feel that without understanding a feature as it was intended to be used first, the Hack won't make as much sense.
Hack Summary
I'm not very good at this, but I try to add a sentence or two at the end of the Hack that taps into the motivation from the beginning of the Hack. I think it gives the Hack a sense of completeness.

That's it! Of course much of this process is tied to the conventions established in the excellent Hacks series, and I hope sharing this will encourage others to take a stab at writing for the series. You'll have to see if you can spot these methods in action when Yahoo! Hacks is out in a month or so.

Watermelon Update 3

We cracked open one of the watermelons from our garden today and it was sweet and delicious!

fresh watermelon

It was heavy too, probably around 20 lbs. We're going to let the others grow just a bit longer, but I'm ready to call our watermelon experiment a success based on this first one.

Hold Conversations

Half-baked idea of the day: mammoth call centers should let people in the hold queue talk with each other. So say you have a > ten minute wait, the system randomly pairs you with someone else who's waiting on hold. You could talk about the weather, your respective locations, or just complain about the company you're contacting. When the system is ready a gentle voice could break in and say, "A representive is ready, would you like to speak with them now or continue holding?" Seems like it would be more entertaining than hold music.

Amazon Reviewers Update

I've enjoyed reading the conversation philosophical exhibitionism going on in the Amazon Reviewers post from last Tuesday. In trying to find latent motivations for the 1,282nd book review on Amazon, I missed a bunch of overt motivations and they've been covered well in the comments. The most obvious motivation is knowledge sharing, as in, "hey, this cajun cookbook doesn't have a recipe for gumbo!" I still don't think this adequately explains thousands of reviews for a single product, because not every review is adding a new data point about the product.

Bend Trip Photos

sk and I just got back from a weekend in Bend, Oregon. It was our first time there and we had a blast. Our first night in town, we met up with Jake and his wife and heard about Bend through the years. Other highlights included visiting several Cascade Lakes for canoing and hiking, dinner at the Blacksmith, a quick hike at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, a noisy thunderstorm, and some time at the High Desert Museum. This morning we drove to the top of Pilot Butte and got a sense of how Bend is laid out, and saw a 360 degree view of the mountains around Bend.

The top highlight for me was an early morning canoe trip around glassy Elk Lake.

sk paddle break
sk paddle break

The top photographic highlight for me was Sparks Lake, and I took quite a few photos there including this shot of Mt. Bachelor and some lava formations:

mt. bachelor from sparks lake
Mt. Bachelor from Sparks Lake

We also rode the ski lift to the top of Mt. Bachelor for an overview of the Cascades. Here's a look at the Three Sisters and Sparks Lake from above:

three sisters from mt. bachelor
Three Sisters and Sparks Lake from Mt. Bachelor

I put up a gallery of 13 more Bend photos if you want to see more scenery from the trip. There's so much to explore around Bend, I feel like we've just scratched the surface. I'm already looking forward to my next trip there.

Tommy Lee Goes to College

So I'm doing better at cutting back TV now that Hell's Kitchen is over, but I had to tune into Tommy Lee Goes to College last night. The premise of this reality show is that Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee has to go to college for some reason, get into the marching band, live with a roommate, and pass some classes. The fun part is that it all takes place at my alma mater—The University of Nebraska at Lincoln. I wanted to see how UNL looked, and how the producers portrayed the school. I got an email from my Dad after the show (also a UNL alum) and he mentioned he was glad they didn't show cows and barns. Most national TV shows tend to find the one cow somewhere in the Lincoln city limits to let everyone know Nebraska is farm country, while in reality Lincoln is just like other cities its size with running water and everything. The show was typical reality-TV stuff, but I set up a Tivo season pass anyway because of the school connection. Go Big Red!

Amazon Reviewers

I had lunch with Lisa Ede today and we talked about weblogs, Amazon reviewers, podcasts, and more. I always leave our conversations with a lot to think about. She's studying citizen reviewers—those folks like you and me who offer opinions on products at Amazon or on our weblogs. She recently gave a talk called Online Citizen Book Reviews and the Circulation of Cultural Power and posted the text to her weblog—...my ISHR talk.

In her talk she asks a very interesting question:
What motivates someone to submit the 1,282nd review of The Poisonwood Bible to Amazon.com?
And I stumbled across a similar question on the Freakonomics authors' blog in a post called Why do people post reviews on amazon?:
Take the latest Harry Potter book, for instance. It has been out about a week. So far there are 1,385 reviews at amazon, and another 385 at bn.com. What's in it for reviewer 1,385?
I thought it would be fun to try to answer this question, because I think what motivates reviewer 1,385 or reviewer 1,282 is very similar to what motivates an anonymous blogger to post about what they had for lunch today. (I had a ham and cheese sandwich.) I came up with three potential motivations:

I think one motivation for reviews in general is building reputation, though it's not a great answer for reviewer 1,385. The chances a review in the middle of the stack will be read are low, so it's probably not a good strategy to post reviews to popular books if you want to bolster your Amazon reviewing identity. Also, it's no easy task to break into the Amazon Top Reviewer list, though it may be easier to gain fame/reputation with a body of offbeat reviews.

Another possible motivation—and you'll have to stick with me on this one—is that some might want to more closely tie their identity with a particular product. Because our identities are often tied up with the products we buy, music we listen to, books we read, it makes sense that some may just want to add a piece of themselves to an official page for a particular product. It's a bit like leaving an offering at a shrine for a particular deity. This is basically the concept of commodity fetishism, and I think Amazon benefits from this effect.

Another potential motivation occurred to me after reading about Jeremy Heigh's distinction between conversation and philosophical voyeurism on a kottke.org post in The present future of conversations. I think an act of philosophical exhibitionism can help people organize their thoughts or simply help them feel they're contributing to the common good. If I expose my thinking (as I'm doing now), and it sparks someone else's interest, or leads them down another path, I've contributed something to the world. And if I can explain to someone else why the Harry Potter book is good or bad, I make those thoughts more concrete in my own mind.

Lisa likened the 1,282nd review to the scene in Network where everyone throws open their windows and screams, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. And I do think there could be a social motivation that's trying to ease a feeling of isolation.

So now that I've tried to gain whuffie, paid homage to Amazon by associating my identity more closely with it, and now that I've helped myself clarify my thoughts by exposing my internal monologue—and hopefully helped others in the process—I can end this post.

Watermelon Update 2

dog and sprinkler
dog meets sprinkler

watermelons
watermelon update 2

Watermelon Update

Watermelon update...

dogs

Yahoo! Hacks

cool, Yahoo! Hacks is available for pre-order at Amazon!

Morning Hike

We took the dogs for an early morning hike today, and I snapped a few photos along the way.

path

oak

dogs

Phoebe and Sasha

Some friends from Sebastopol came up to visit this weekend, and they brought their golden retreiver, Sasha. Sasha is about four times the size of our little pups so we weren't sure how they would all get along. But Phoebe and Sasha became fast friends and lots of dog cuteness ensued.

dogs

dogs