Quotes on writing

A selection from my digital notes, arbitrarily culled from personal reading; citations in footnotes

Roger Ebert1:

[Sportswriter Bill Lyon] gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?” These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

R. A. Salvatore2:

My process is simple: I have an outline, I start writing, I throw away the outline and the characters take me on an adventure.

You’re doing something right if the story is pulling you instead of listening to you.

Neil Gaiman3:

On the whole, anything that gets you writing and keeps you writing is a good thing. Anything that stops you writing is a bad thing.

George R.R. Martin4:

There are days I really enjoy writing and there are days I f–king hate it. I can see it in my head and the words won’t come. I try to put it on the page and it feels stiff and wooden and it’s stupid. Writing is hard work.

On my best writing days, which don’t come very often, I lose track of all time and space. I fall into my chair in the morning, and then look up and it’s dark outside and my back hurts.


My iPhone is an escape, and it’s an escape that’s always in my pocket. It’s an escape when I’m on the metro and I don’t want to face all the weary faces. It’s an escape when I’m walking down the street and I want music to shut out the world. It’s an escape when I’m at a party and the conversation doesn’t interest me. It’s an escape when there’s a cute girl I don’t have the courage to talk to. It’s an escape when I’m standing still waiting for someone.

It’s an escape from unexpected interaction, from uncomfortable situations, from the uncontrollable world. It’s an escape from facing the world as it comes at me; from life as it is.

It’s the power of distraction, and it’s easy to abuse: every time I reach for it, it’s as likely be for escapism as for utility. I often reach for it for no reason at all: out of habit, or to escape from nothing in particular. And it’s only a slip into my pocket away, at all times. The discretion for appropriate use is my responsibility alone, especially as its use is increasingly accepted without question. It’s up to me to use it right; to enrich, not detract.

The device in my pocket is rarely more important than what’s around me. Remembering that when my mind yearns for easy distraction — for anything to avoid a moment of mental idling — is the hard part.

Considering Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy

Note: This is adapted from an essay written for Denah Johnston’s class analog before digital: punk/no wave film & music.

Sidney’s more than a mere bass player, he’s a fabulous disaster! He’s a symbol. Metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He’s a fucking star!

-The Sex Pistols’ manager in Sid and Nancy

Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986, about the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious) surfaces a perspective of a society that is dirty, wild, abusive, rude, and hopeless. Drugs control, define and ultimately ruin lives. No one is good or innocent; even the children are rioting. With a bit of time, it could very well turn into the world of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. But it felt glamorized, especially in the beginning. The story and the characters seemed exaggerated.

And yet the portrayal of junkies and drug use was unapologetically dark. Despite glamorization of some aspects, the film seemed to show a one-sided vision of punk culture: the anger, the violence, purposeful apathy, self-destructive drug use, but no community or real sense of (sub)culture. There was only the downward spiral, devoid of hope or even the consideration that not caring has its benefits (it was only shown to be destructive). So it may have been accurate, at least about elements of the culture if not the story it’s based on, but it was an incomplete, unsympathetic vision.

John Lydon (also of the Sex Pistols) has been especially outspoken in his hatred of the movie, not only because he believes it’s entirely inaccurate, but because he disagrees with the message of the movie:

The squalid New York hotel scenes were fine, except they needed to be even more squalid. All of the scenes in London with the Pistols were nonsense. None bore any sense of reality. The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good. But even he only played the stage persona as opposed to the real person. I don’t consider that Gary Oldman’s fault because he’s a bloody good actor. If only he had the opportunity to speak to someone who knew the man. I don’t think they ever had the intent to research properly in order to make a seriously accurate movie. It was all just for money, wasn’t it? To humiliate somebody’s life like that—and very successfully—was very annoying to me… It was all someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era. The bastard.

The film, like many of the period, is thus more a snapshot of a time and a place and a group of people, than a “true” story about its subjects. It intends to capture a feeling, an archetype, more than a factual account (perhaps this was not Cox’s intention; but the filmmakers did seem to be aware of it, calling Sid, through the character of the manager, a “symbol” and a “metaphor.”). This is something we saw quite frequently in class — films that capture life in an era more than they capture a single story. Even Downtown 81, based on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s real life, was as much about life in those days as telling Basquiat’s story.

Essentially, I think the film can be summed up in a scene later in the story, where Sid and Nancy sit on the bed in a hotel room, high on heroin, Sid holding Nancy as the room burns, lit by a discarded cigarette. Too apathetic to react — or simply unable — they sit and watch as the world around them burns. Sid lights another cigarette. And this is the tale the movie tells: a destructive, tragic love story, of two junkies destroying themselves, and each other, oblivious to the world around them burning, oblivious to the fact that they sparked it.

We saw the same kind of apathy, of simply not giving a f-ck (there’s really no better way to put it), from those interviewed in The Decline of Western Civilization and much of the other punk material we’ve seen. Yet Decline‘s portrayal was more nuanced, less dark and certainly less judgmental. Most of what we’ve seen was created out of appreciation or at least fascination with the culture and stories being shared. Cox, on the other hand, while certainly being interested in his subjects, harbored no sympathy or respect for them. He wanted to do the film because he was worried that someone else’s portrayal would be too sympathetic, and might represent someone he saw as a sellout and a traitor as a real punk.1 And the one-sided approach shows — but it’s also an important look at a terrible and tragic aspect of the culture that, as much as it might have been grafted onto a specific story for Cox’s exploitative means, is very real.

In one scene, an old friend starts talking to Sid and gets puked on. As Sid stumbles away, the friends shouts, “You’re gonna make someone a lot of money Sid!”

And that much, undeniably, the movie got right.

  1. From Wikipedia:

    Cox’s attitude toward his subjects was indeed unapologetically negative, writing [in X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker] that “Sid had sold out, contributed nothing of value, died an idiot.” Cox went on to say that one of the reasons he was attracted to the project was that he was afraid that if someone else made it, it would portray its subjects as “real exemplars of Punk like I am; rather than sold-out traitors to it.”


Traveling allows you to leave your world, and to enter another. But not only physical travel: that’s also often the motivation for using drugs, entertainment and the internet.

Drugs warp the world you’re in, entertainment invites you into a world created by someone else (and with games, lets you control it), and the internet not only provides endless worlds to dive into, some related to reality and some not, but it gives you control of the narrative and the experience in a way few other things do. Anonymity, virtual access to the entire world, and countless networks and communities for every use and topic mean you can find or craft exactly the world desired — and get lost in it. That’s both the wonder and the danger of a digital world with seemingly unlimited possibility.

The key, then, like any resource or tool, becomes how you use it. Like a traveler visiting a favorite location, you must accept that sooner or later, you have to go home.

The internet is simply a place

Aaron Mahnke, in an interview with Stephen Hackett:

I’m coming to realize that the internet in all its forms (my computer, my devices, even the television) is simply a place. And I can only be in one place at a time. When I’m sitting in a room with my 2 year old daughter who wants to read a book and I’m checking my phone every five minutes, I’m not in that room. So my goal is to be as fully present as I can, all the time, no matter what I’m doing.

Relevant to my post on digital travel.

How Japanese companies live long →

Kim Gittleson at BBC News takes a look at the decreasing average lifespan of top US companies, which among those listed in the S&P 500 is 15 years, down from 67 years in the 1920s. In Japan, there are still many old companies,1 and one of the factors leading to their longevity is something we can all learn from:

Professor Makoto Kanda, who has studied shinise [the Japanese word for “long-lived companies”] for decades, says that Japanese companies can survive for so long because they are small, mostly family-run, and because they focus on a central belief or credo that is not tied solely to making a profit.

  1. The article bases the decrease in average company lifespans on the top companies in the US, while providing the metric of “more than 20,000 companies that are more than 100 years old, with a handful that are more than 1,000 years old” for Japan. There’s no mention of the lifespan of Japan’s top companies, nor of the US’s total number of long-lived companies, so the article doesn’t effectively compare the two countries. 

An interview with Shaaron Murphy, film editor and teacher

The production of a modern motion picture is a massive undertaking. It’s a process that can take years, involving hundreds of people, with budgets of millions of dollars. From the producer to the grips, everyone does their separate part. And it’s the job of the editor to put it all together. The hundreds of people that have dedicated time, the millions of dollars spent, all the work poured into making a film — the core result is realized as the film is cut. And if the editing’s done right, you won’t even notice it.

Shaaron Murphy knows this well, as an editor herself. And as the director of editing in the School of Motion Pictures and Television at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco — as well as a teacher there — it’s her job not only to instruct in the “art of the cut” but to impart its importance to budding editors, directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, producers and others interested in making films. No small task, but as a student in her beginning editing class, I can say that she takes it seriously, and does it well.

I interviewed her recently on the art of editing and its importance to filmmaking — and to her personally.

Continue reading

Revolutionizing political advertising

Joel Spolsky:

The dismal corruption of congress has gotten it to the point where lobbying for legislation is out of control. As Larry Lessig has taught us, the core rottenness originates from the high cost of running political campaigns, which mostly just goes to TV stations.

A solution is for the Internet industry to start giving free advertising to political campaigns on our own new media assets… assets like YouTube that are rapidly displacing television. Imagine if every political candidate had free access (under some kind of “equal time” rule) to enough advertising inventory on the Internet to run a respectable campaign. Sure, candidates can still pay to advertise on television, but the cost of campaigning would be a lot lower if every candidate could run geo-targeted pre-roll ads on YouTube, geo-targeted links at the top of Reddit.com, even targeted campaigns on Facebook. If the Internet can donate enough inventory (and I suspect we can), we can make it possible for a candidate to get elected without raising huge war chests from donors who are going to want something in return, and we may finally get to a point where every member of congress isn’t in permanent outstretched-hand mode.

I think this is a brilliant idea. Technology companies proved that they can influence politics in their preferred direction (which, fortunately, was preferred by almost everyone) with their participation in the successful campaign against SOPA and PIPA, but many companies also have the power to revolutionize politics beyond specific issues. Online advertising is a huge industry, and if companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter were to provide a certain amount of free advertising to all candidates, it would reduce one of the biggest barriers to running a political campaign.

What any social network needs to succeed, and how to get there

The value of any social network resides in its userbase. Quora and Reddit are great because of the quality and intelligence of the discussions on them, YouTube is successful because of the amount of video uploaded to it, Twitter and Facebook are popular and ubiquitous because everyone — individual or organization — seems to have an account. Flickr was the photography favorite because of its community, and Path only works if close friends use it as well. The lack of a userbase is the reason many interesting startups have failed; sites like Digg and Myspace were superseded when users migrated to Reddit and Facebook, respectively. Why was Google+ more successful than Buzz? Sure, it was a better product. But more importantly, people actually used it (Wave was also interesting, but without mainstream adoption, it wasn’t worth the continued investment from Google).

There has to be something great about a social site for it to gain initial traction, but it is sustained, and its real value created, by those who use it.

This is essential to any new social network or service, but especially one explicitly intended to replace an existing popular network, like distributed alternatives to centralized services.

While there are exceptions, where sites come out of nowhere and grow organically, that’s not something that can be designed: it’s a matter of a great service, the right time, dedication, and usually, a fair amount of luck.

A userbase — the most important element — can’t be magically created. It has to be earned, and many great networks and services fail simply because they don’t achieve the necessary adoption. A shortcut, then, is to leverage an existing network. Build something that integrates with existing services, and eventually, it may overtake them. Maintaining compatibility creates a seamless transition.

Even behemoths like Facebook and Twitter recognize the need to integrate with existing communication networks — that’s why they work with SMS and email.

Just look at the way Spotify exploded after being tightly integrated with Facebook. Then look at Apple’s Ping, which had its planned Facebook support fall through at the last minute. iTunes is ubiquitous for music — but Ping is, at this point, a failure.

But being able to update other networks is nothing; pretty much everything can do that, whether it’s useful or not. It sure didn’t save Myspace. The real killer feature: being able to read from other networks; essentially, serving as an aggregator and a standalone network. Then you don’t have to amass a superior userbase, you just have to build a superior product, and hope that enough users will migrate for the userbase to stand on its own.

Imagine, for example, an open source, distributed alternative to Facebook, like Diaspora. Most people aren’t going to switch over, because Facebook works fine (and more importantly, their friends are already on Facebook).1 But if the new network offers something different or better, while remaining compatible with Facebook, then there’s incentive to switch. There’s the content and the larger network of Facebook, combined with whatever advantages the new network has, like a simpler design, bringing several networks together or control of one’s information (and better privacy controls, but that’s canceled out while one continues to post to Facebook). If the new network has significant advantages over Facebook (or whatever other service it aims to replace), word will spread, and more and more people will start using it. Eventually, there will be no need to use it and Facebook: the standalone network will replace aggregation as the primary appeal. While unlikely, this is entirely feasible — but only if the transition is seamless and transparent.2

It’s still important, above all, for there to be a compelling reason to switch (which effective aggregation itself can be). Maintaining compatibility with other services simply helps ease the transition. Because no matter what new fangled features or promises of privacy and control a network or service has, nothing can compare to simply having the right people using it.

That’s what Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Quora, YouTube, Path, Foursquare, Reddit, your address book and other successful networks have going for them. And it’s what, at this point, Diaspora, StatusNet, Appleseed, Myspace, Ping, Digg and other struggling (or failed) networks mostly lack.

Related: The value of dominant market share for web services and platforms

  1. I signed up for Diaspora today and connected it to Facebook. On Facebook, I try to only add people I know and have just over 200 friends, and only a single one, someone I met once at a conference, was on Diaspora. As for Twitter, where it’s mostly people I’ve never met (and more technology-focused, early adopter type people), there was no way to see which users were also on Diaspora. Even if it were a superior service, it’s useless without allowing me to connect to the people who matter. 

  2. This scenario was laid out by Eben Moglen during an informal discussion after his speech at FOSDEM in February 2011, as how a “federated” social network could replace a centralized one. “What we need to do in order to make federated social networking good, is to offer people one aggregation, of all the data that they get and give over the old centralized networks, and the new, federated systems, both,” he said. He envisioned a service that would aggregate from networks like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. “As more of your friends move, more and more of your social network data is being transmitted over secure routes, and less and less over centralized, which you never have to know, because your aggregator shows you the same view, the same friends, exchanging the same material, regardless of whether the route is secure or nonsecure,” he explained, “So people just quietly, peacefully, two at a time, move. And everything begins to leave the system, without your ever leaving your friends.” He emphasized that the technology must “make migration transparent, and basically frictionless.” 

The problem with decentralized social networks

Most distributed social networks ultimately fail (in the sense of mainstream popularity and adoption, which is how success is measured for social networks) because the majority of people don’t want a decentralized, self-hosted network.

The entire internet is a decentralized network. We’ve had personal “profiles” in the form of personal websites, where the “user” has complete control, since the beginning. Anyone can set up their own site, entirely under their control (and many people have), with connections made through links. Streams are provided by RSS, with different extensions for different types of information — Flickr or a similar site for photos, YouTube or Vimeo for videos, Twitter for short updates, etc.

Facebook’s appeal is that it’s a single, unified platform for everything. Having a personal site and an RSS reader doesn’t make Facebook useless, even if there’s nothing that can’t be shared from a self-hosted site. Recreating Facebook without the centralization (and related simplicity) is removing the very aspect that makes it so popular.

The decentralized network already exists, and yet the centralized, tightly controlled network is the most popular destination. Decentralization, control and independence aren’t the most important factors for most people, only for us open source technology geeks.

As Mandy Brown says, “If iTunes has taught us anything, it’s that easy beats free.”1 Ease of use, simplicity, good design and the quality of the userbase2 are far more important for widespread adoption than user control, privacy and philosophy.

For any distributed social network to succeed, the centrally hosted server is as important, maybe more so, than the distributed aspect. Because for most people, the ability to host a server is just another feature they won’t use.

  1. Fortunately, Diaspora seems to have the right approach. Besides integrating with networks like Facebook and Twitter, their development mantra is this: “When building a new feature, first create the simplest thing that works.” Simplicity is key to attracting users. 

  2. In a related post, I lay out how a distributed network can replace current leaders: by being compatible with the networks it aims to replace, allowing a gradual and seamless transition to occur