33 observations on the year 2012

The year in retrospect.
  1. Doing good work is its own reward, while sharing it leads to suffering. Most of the time nobody will notice, so it’s hard to see why anybody should bother.
  2. My ideas got a lot more attention than I expected, which has been very cool.
  3. Best case scenario for doing stuff online is that people will start knocking on your door, asking you to work for free, never offering to give anything in return. Which is fine when those people are making art, doing research, or generally working to the benefit of humankind in a self-effacing manner, but less fine when the request comes from people whose annual salaries are in the multiples of your own, or if they’re working on a startup, trying to edge their way into a multi-million dollar, early retirement payout.
  4. The cranks came out in force. Odd emails from odd people with odd opinions who think they are preaching God’s honest truth.
  5. The vast majority of those I encountered were incredibly nice and friendly, even when we disagreed.
  6. I have almost no readers but some of my work is read a lot. The number of people that will read every post of mine is miniscule. Most of the traffic comes from retweets or links. I have more than a thousand followers on twitter, but of those only about ten will click on a link to a post of mine to read it. I suspect that there is a substantial crossover between this group of readers and the group of people I like to call friends. (Although not nearly as big a crossover as you’d think.) No matter how hard I work, the best I can hope for is to catch the attention of somebody more influential who will momentarily lend me some of their traffic.
  7. A few of my blog posts did catch people’s attention, which was interesting and gratifying.
  8. There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you.
  9. Large organisations are even more dysfunctional than I expected.
  10. Writing isn’t highly regarded by anybody, even in publishing. There’s a lot of romanticism and inane adolescent fantasy about being a writer, but little to no follow-through by anybody, especially not those who call themselves writers. It seems like very few people actually enjoy writing, they just want to enjoy the fruits of popular writing (not necessarily good writing). I’ve even heard people suggest, on more than one occasion, that those who manage to get attention for their work through good writing are basically cheating. This was from people whose careers hinge on being published.
  11. The world is on the verge of another, major, economic meltdown. Happy happy, joy joy.
  12. People love to send you argumentative, angry, or otherwise negative emails. That is, if they aren’t asking you to work for free.
  13. I often don’t mind doing stuff for free, as long as I get to do and say things my way in return. Those who agreed to that have been a lot of fun to work with.
  14. Praise is generally only handed out on disposable media, like Twitter, and rarely anywhere where it counts (like blogs, reviews, or other writing), unless you pay for it. (See the repeated review-scam scandals in publishing this year.) A remarkable number of people will only say nice things to your face, in private, and never in public (related to point 3 above). The end result is that positive feedback is ephemeral while negative feedback gets preserved forever on angry blogs, comments and forums.
  15. People will always prefer you to state the obvious and spout common sense. If you say anything that requires a bit of thinking, or that would require them to learn new skills or ideas, your audience will evaporate into nothing, no matter how important those new things are. (Also see point 8 above.) You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.
  16. Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.
  17. There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.
  18. There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.
  19. Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).
  20. The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. It doesn’t matter if they agree with you or not, they will still flock to your cuss-filled rant.
  21. Communities get the discourse they deserve. When either the inane and obvious, or frothing lunacy are all that get attention, then that’s all you end up getting. Moreover, it’s your own damn fault. People may well instapaper the good stuff fully intending to read it at some point in the future (hah!), but bile is the stuff they actually read and it certainly is the only thing they respond to.
  22. The ones who do read and respond to the more thoughtful stuff are glorious angels to be treasured forever and ever. :-)
  23. I learned that praise goes a long way. Try and make sure to mention to people the parts you like about their work, even if it’s only a tiny part, even if you don’t like the rest. People don’t improve without work and they don’t work without motivation. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and not mention the crap parts. People tend to be really appreciative if you convey the praise in a non-disposable medium (which, with the data retention we’re living with these days, is anything but Twitter and Facebook).
  24. Being honest with writers is a surefire way of becoming incredibly unpopular incredibly quickly. More than a few of them are neurotic and none of them realise that critique is the only way to fix flaws. You can read as many books and blog posts on writing and language as you like, if you don’t see the flaws in your own writing you will never improve.
  25. Trying to figure out when you’re supposed to be honest to people and when you’re supposed to be diplomatic requires a higher level of telepathy than I was born with. People expect you to read their minds and are utterly unforgiving when you can’t. (I’ve known this since childhood, but it was a point hammered home several times this year.)
  26. Most people don’t know how to critique, they tend to resort to personal attacks, jabs at your family, and instantly switch to critiquing the subject instead of the writing (i.e. they focus on what you’re writing about, not on the writing). I’m actually okay with that last part.
  27. Designers, illustrators, animators, and the like, OTOH, often thrive on brutal critiques where the blood and meat on the floor reaches abattoir levels. Of course, this varies depending on where the person went to school, but a lot of art and design schools don’t believe in protecting their students’ fragile egos.
  28. Working with a good visual artist who can take and dish out harsh criticisms, and understands the problem domain the two of you are working in, is a glorious joy that isn’t often repeated.
  29. Feeling incredibly poorly, to the level of being debilitated, is a frightening experience that hammers the fear of $deity into your soul.
  30. There is also serenity in suffering when you know it isn’t a death sentence.
  31. And there is immense joy and appreciation when you’re well again (or thereabouts) and don’t have to worry about having the energy to walk to the corner shop to buy essentials such as food. There is a glee in being able to buy your bread without counting spoons.
  32. Github is amphetamine for improving your programming. Not because it’s full of code you can reuse. Not because it has enabled a new generation of development tools. (Although both of those things are important.) The magic of Github is that it makes it really really easy to find and read good code. Find a reputable project in the language you’re working in and read through the codebase, figuring out how it works as you go. Keep the language’s documentation on hand and look up anything you aren’t familiar with. Do this for long enough and you’ll begin to recognise beautiful code, clever code that’ll be difficult to maintain, and ugly code that works, just by looking at it.
  33. On the whole, it was a very good year, filled with good people.
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23 Responses to 33 observations on the year 2012

  1. Somehow all that makes me desperately miss the wonderful writers’ group I was in for a few years in the late 90s/early 00s, especially the sometimes devastating but always on-the-mark critique I got from my best friend. (Yes, my best friend…something about being so close that we didn’t need to be too delicate.) After I moved too far to go regularly — also there was some interpersonal drama in the group — I never had the same rigor about writing. :(

    • Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) says:

      Yeah, I know the feeling. I remember an online writing group I was a member of back in the day (in the nineties!, shock, gasp, horror, ::feelsold::). Never quite found another group with the right balance of camaraderie and unforgiving criticism.

  2. So much to relate to in this list! Particularly 6 and 15…thanks for this post.

  3. AA says:

    Skemmtileg og þörf lesning. Takk fyrir.

  4. aslaugasgeirs says:

    Þetta var skemmtileg lesning. Takk fyrir.

  5. quieteating says:

    A very interesting read. I can only hope that point 18 isn’t true for this post!

  6. Don Hackett says:

    A Browser link to this post brought my first contact with this site, and after reading the post and looking around the site, i think they are both excellent. Some of the post refers to stuff I missed, but most I can generalize. As a reader/commenter I find myself puzzled about how to praise without gushing, and even more how to express some criticism–A-, B+ essays, etc.

    I think I recognize the first names of both of you (siblings) from liner notes I read last night for Wagner’s Ring which referred to Icelandic source texts. I hope the names are not too heavy a load for either of you. Best wishes.

  7. Helen Curran says:

    Appreciated this very much. Thank you.

  8. Nikki says:

    Great list; I particularly liked number 22. :-)
    As for regular readers, there is just *so much* out there that it’s difficult to read it all – but I will make an effort to revisit this one.

  9. Jesse S. McDougall says:

    Great post. Thank you for it.

    In regards to #14: Praise is given in person and sent via “disposable” media because both of these methods offer the high-likelihood that the praise will be immediately met with some reward—such as a smile or smiley. The rage, anger, and vitriol is carved into more permanent media because the livid commenter can carve their words in stone and then run away to avoid seeing the backlash or withered whimpering they’ve caused. (Of course, they nearly always come back to continue the fight, but this way they have the OPTION of not getting hit back. Whereas, were they to do it via Twitter or Facebook, they’d have polluted their own account with a fight.)

    Keep up the good work. I’ve subscribed to your RSS to ensure I’m not a one-timer.

  10. Alana says:

    “There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you.”

    Excellent insight. Pathetic that human nature largely does not allow extended discussion without devolving into torrents of angry rhetoric. A lovely post…which I found on my favorite website…thebrowser.com

  11. Dan Russell says:

    Thanks. Many valid insights, and reminders of things learned – but forgotten.

  12. Mike T. says:

    Much appreciated and good lessons to remember. As somebody who loves to write but does so in obscurity, I’m grateful for the points you make. I’ll be following for sure!

  13. Celia says:

    Good, good stuff. Thanks for sharing. Thanks also for highlighting the ephemeral nature of twitter and facebook, and reminding us to praise those who have written good work in more lasting forums!

  14. Paul Helton says:

    Being retired, one begins to note, admire, appreciate and better understand a lot more about the world around us. The pettiness of the “real world,” with it’s silliness, two-faced nature (in virtually all venues) and the unfortunate struggles to appreciate the writing and views of others has caused me to miss topical, well written and thoughtful blogs like yours. I found this segment as an after thought to a video of questionable value. (I had cut it off half way through, saw the headline for this post, read it and have been smiling ever since). Your words express so many things that resonate. Thank you for that. Periods of delight like this last a long time. I will be a steady reader. (Note: I related to many points, especially #8 and #15. Nicely put.) Thanks!

  15. Thoughtful, intelligent and worthy. For what it’s worth, I’ll be sure to point the few readers I have to your post. Thank you for your candor.

  16. Barneysday says:

    Love your #10. As a published author of a book and many magazine articles, and back when books came with hard covers and dust jackets, I am constantly dismayed by those who claim to be a writer, or claim to want to be a writer, and won’t invest in even the minimal amount of time required to correctly edit their work. One pass by SpellCheck seems to do the trick for them, and with that, they believe they’ve done their job.

    If I were an editor today, I’d be dismayed at the inferior level of work being submitted.

    Loved your post. Thanks for writing.

  17. Alex Jones says:

    Read the full article. I identify with the experience of many of the points.

  18. Danny says:

    Regarding number 10. I think it was John Updike who said that unless your want to spend most of your life alone in a small room you can never be a writer.

  19. I left my local writing circle when the new chairman told us we must only say positive things about people’s work. This proved a nauseating experience as some totally crap writers, who could have done with some constructive criticism, were told their writing was wonderful. How are beginners ever meant to improve? I agree with you that it’s important to find something good to say, but as long as you begin with a positive, put the constructive criticism next (like a sandwich filling), and end on a positive, people will go away feeling they’ve got some potential, but some room for improvement, too. If they don’t think this, perhaps after having a little sulk, then they’re pig-headed.

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