Edited on 7 Apr 2012: To adjust an apparent focus away from an offended individual.
It is taking several months to get the blog publishing system up and running the way I would like. Meanwhile, I have been writing blog posts, as if the thing is already working, and this is one of them. You place yourself in a strange limbo when you write as if you are letting things out into the world, but knowing they will be parked. Parking allows an opportunity to vet and discard them later as you settle on how you want to present yourself. This particular post was parked for a few months, then published. But after publishing, I changed it a bit including the title.
There is a practical function this blog will have; the site hosts structured documents (starting with FilmsFolded) that will evolve over time, both in what they contain and the novelty with which they are presented. I've gone to a lot of trouble to build a custom system to support the experimental structure in and among these essays.
This blog area, possibly through an RSS feed, is how interested parties will know something has changed in the essay content; I’ll simply note a change in a blog entry and perhaps comment a bit and link to the new or changed section in the essay. So the blog area was created as a way for collaborators and readers to know what is going on.
But blogs can also be personal areas, and I would like to also write about whatever strikes me. I’ve been using the months before launch to discover things from the demand side: what stirs me to sit down and write? But I have also been looking at what others do.
I subscribe to a lot of email lists, and listen to certain podcasts. What I have chosen can be categorized as a mix of curated information, analysis (which I generally trust), and personal observations about the world. Years ago, I may have impatiently waded through the personal stuff, wanting ‘just the facts, M’am.’ But I now consider all that personal stuff part of a cloud of soft information that situates the encounter as human. This has benefits from a near term perspective; it helps me bend the choices the writers made so as to help me slant their analyses for my use. I spend a lot of time working to ensure that my world grows from my soul rather than being assembled from bits borrowed from others.
Gruber (whose 5x5 podcast is one I also invest in), for instance makes me sit through endless insipid observations about the James Bond films. He also obsesses uninterestingly about baseball. With other fellows on related podcasts, there are discussions of parenting, diet, Buddhism and managing tasks that are hard work to sort through for any useful (or even factually correct) bits. But I like the guy, and all that surrounding stuff helps me take what he says and more usefully work with it.
When I was young, a wise man advised me that mathematics is essentially a verbalscience, and I think that applies here. You need the human connection to get — to situate — the insights within. Most insights about deep mathematics are not games, but similar to insights about self. These come from interactions with others. So the personally branded blog is a sometimes workable surrogate for frequent casual dinners. (Films from certain trusted filmmakers also uses this channel.)
So Sullivan, Gruber and Bernstein have a place in the Ted universe. Sullivan’s yearning for substance in broken Catholicism (which I would otherwise dismiss), and Bernstein’s food interests open a human connection. And then there is the fourth guy, who despite the long introduction, is the example I use here to teach myself what not to do.
All four of these writers are situated in a larger familiarity.
I know Gruber in the context of the old Mac community, where we were a minority. I went weekly to a Mac User Group and yearly to one of the Mac Expos. When my ARPAnet connection migrated to the internet, I followed the then new notion of special interest websites, mostly Mac-oriented. My following of Gruber is the latest chapter in this tradition. Individual posts are improved if you know his larger notions of quality and justice.
Sullivan I know from my 40 year subscription to the New Republic, for which he once served as editor. I trusted that magazine until the last decade to curate opinions and I now use Sullivan that way. I find his posts on his faith and the gay experience somewhat annoying, but they help me register where his curation comes down, and I like where it takes us on truth and — for instance — torture.
Bernstein I know from my long history in research in structured representation, one tradition of which is hypertext research — Mark is a major player in that world. He also builds a key tool I use. That tool has a very specific philosophy, one that is attractive in many ways. So while I have no interest in what Mark is cooking to eat, it all helps me understand my tool at a deep level.
The fourth guy writes profusely, and has for a very long time. He claims to have been a central player in many important, even essential components of the information world I inhabit: outlining, desktop scripting, RSS and blogging. He has great problems when readers interpret this as broad claims of invention. Let’s just say that he was there, a key player and alert enough to be able to have some valued insights. It must be maddening to him that nothing he has done has lasted in the form he first envisioned, but that could very well be in his favor.
His blog is almost a textbook case in its mix of relatively trivial personal news and potentially useful analysis. Where I do not find Gruber, Sullivan and Bernstein annoying at all, I find this fourth guy consistently so. As a result, I monitor his blog in a different reading environment, with a different feel because I have to encounter him differently, more guardedly, than my other virtual comrades who could be friends.
Part of what I report here is personal history. He developed an outliner for the Mac that was highly regarded in its day. It affected my approach to how text and graphical conventions can be combined for next generation interfaces. He did not invent screen outlining, but if he stopped with his outliner, MORE, he still would have been an important person. (A collection of detailed studies in outlining can be found here.)
Things Going Wrong
Then he focused on the notion of interapplication scripting and created something for the (original) Mac operating system that was brilliantly conceived and well engineered. This environment, Frontier, had a formal Backus-Naur specification and a homoiconic outline-based programming environment. It reflected a notion of user-constructed application environments that considered applications as building blocks. It really was exciting, and a significant user community became involved. Because this was pre-web, the community interacted on Compuserve. The history of the idea and why it died is probably reflected well in an incidentally related post. What matters in terms of context was this fellow's manner on Compuserve.
He was pathologically thin-skinned. There was oneevent where someone gave some mild criticism of a decision that had been made and the guy inappropriately overreacted. Over the years, I have seen this personality trait penetrate his writing, maturing in blog-specific ways. There is a shell of self-importance in the web celebrity status that he will not allow to be breached.
If he and I were thrown together at a party I would look for escapes. But he did make some business decisions that profoundly and negatively affected a project of mine and I do not think he ever was evil like some of his peers. So I still read him, trivial reports of the weather on his bike rides, superficial political views and all. It does affect my own set of expected decisions about what to put here, what balance of personal and project.
Lessons for Me
This fourth man is in my world because he has views on a corner of the tech world we already share. They (his non-personal posts) are often insightful, based on his significant experience and are well written. Considered together, they present a coherent view of the world that is detailed and unique to him. And if not particularly deep, some of the personal observations are wholly palatable, like his pieces on contemporary politics.
I do not think many of them they are right, though, nor do I think that his levers will be useful for my machinery. Even though some conclusions can be shared in his world and mine, the generative logic is different. In order to convince himself of some importance, he will not allow that his perspective is limited; so he grows a whole universe of dynamics from his sun. This happens frequently with dot.com millionaires. They once happened to place themselves in a spot that rained money, so conclude that they understand everything about weather. Paul Graham, also a coherent writer who affected my technical world, is another instance of this.
So as a matter of daily experience, my encounter with his blogs have been less a matter of nourishment than entertainment. I watch many films this same way, with a distinct barrier between those with something I take and keep, and those I admire for how they goose some reward center deep in me, even if it is a way to take a break from creative work without much diversion.
Recently, as i say, I have been looking at all the on-line experiences I have for patterns I want to incorporate in my own site here. This blogger is useful here as a negative example. His personality works against me reaching his insights.
So, I’ll be clearly discriminating my personal posts from those that are project-oriented. I think it important to give readers the choice of what mix of personal and project works for them. Some expense and effort has gone into making this possible, allowing me some freedom to be a bit more open in the ‘Personal Blog’ area.
And yet, and yet, for this to matter to me, it should matter to you in some measure because you need to get a feel for me as a person in order for us to communicate about meaningful things.
I’m not sure how to address this. Some of the personal posts that I have already assembled make a direct connection to the work in some way. I have a lot of ‘infrastructure’ posts that are midway between my life and yours because they address the structure of the channel that connects us. But others are just simply personal, for example I have a rumination on my father.
One way to deal with this is feedback. I’m not sure how useful that will be. I am planning on installing comments on the FilmsFolded section, the first area of the site that I will populate with essay material. It will an experiment and I am not sure how I will deal with critical feedback. When I started actively posting IMDB comments, I got an amazing quantity of feedback, and about a third of it was ‘your an asshole fagg’ type. When these reached a few hundred and when IMDB policy shifted so that any complaint of any kind would delete my work without warning or recourse, I started a policy of making these emails (including more than a few death threats) public, along with whatever contact information I could get. (I’ve retired that now.)
My main policy here, I think, will be to write as intelligently and honesty as I can, to reveal what I think to be the important and interesting edges of what I see and who I am, and to not take myself too seriously. If I mess up on any of those dimensions, then an email to me with a reference to this post should be all that is required.
There are massive notational conventions that allow static publication of results, but real mathematicians get and share their insights by human interaction. Publication is for the record, but most of the truly beautiful math is developed first by means independent of the notation and the methods it records, and then snapped into those methods for cleanliness.
The more purely abstract the insight, the more it needs to be humanly situated; the more profound the concept you are going to inject into your being, the more careful you have to be that you understand yourself well enough to place it there carefully.
Since the original of this post appeared, I heard from this fourth guy.
What I then wrote was what I remember, that he contacted a critic's employer to get that critic fired. I remember this clearly, and the later apology. In an email, the man claims this did not happen; as the Compuserve traffic is unavailable, I have no way of verifying my memory. Possibly, I misremember and am entirely wrong; it is not important to my rumination, and I apologize to him (because he saw it as a personal attack).
The note was not about him or any event, but about what lessons I can take from the bloggers I regularly read about the balance between personal notes and more thoughtful essays. Bernstein, Gruber, Sullivan and this fourth blogger give me context to make my own choices about that balance.
The very last thing I want is for readers to find their way here to chase a personal spat. If it looks like that is happening, I'll just delete the note. As you can see, I've removed his name.