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Things Remembered and Things Left Unsaid

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.
-Robert Greenleaf
I've been writing this blog now for three years straight. Once a week I sit down and write about a topic that interests me, and I haven't missed a single week since I started. Sometimes that is an extremely hard schedule to meet. Through it all I've learned and remembered a few things about writing, I've struggled through several especially challenging posts, and I've appreciated everyone who's taken the time to read what I've had to say. I hope it's been insightful.

Something I've learned from all of this writing (besides the fact that it's hard and doesn't seem to get easier because I'm constantly pushing at the edge of my skill level) is that it's nearly as important to think about what to leave out as it is to think about what to include. The obvious reasons to leave things out are that those ideas aren't especially relevant to the topic at hand, or because it's impossible to address all issues related to a topic without writing an epic post. These all-inclusive posts would never end, so it's necessary to have focus in writing.

Another reason to leave things out of a post is a bit more subtle. I remember as a kid getting extremely frustrated with characters in movies or novels that seemed to be incapable of saying what needed to be said to resolve whatever conflict was going on. Parents not saying what they needed to their kids, kids not talking to their parents, friends letting misunderstandings get out of hand—why couldn't they all say what they were thinking? Part of this behavior was intentional plot devices, and part of it was normal poor communication. I get that. However, part of it also stems from communication being more complicated than simply laying it all out and having the other person listen to cold, hard reason. People want and need to come to conclusions on their own.

Writing this blog isn't exactly like relationships in a novel, of course. We're not in a major conflict that we're trying to resolve, but the desire to reach our own conclusions is the same. The best writings I've read aren't good so much because everything was explained in plain, indisputable language, but because it sparked ideas in my own mind and allowed me to fill in the gaps with compelling thoughts. It's much more engaging to read something that makes you think, and allows you to take ideas and expand on them. I find that it's a hard thing to do when writing, to say enough to paint a clear picture of the topic, but not create so much detail that the picture gets muddled and confused. It's a delicate balance.

Another aspect of writing that I'm continually aware of, and that I learned in high school is how hard but important it is to avoid Hefty Bag Words. This is an idea that has stuck with me ever since my Research and Comp class in 10th grade. I had an amazing teacher, Mrs. Hoffman, and I remember much of what she taught in that class, but nothing so much as Hefty Bag Words. The idea was that these words are used so often that they have basically lost all meaning, and should be bagged up and thrown in the trash. We were not allowed to use these words in our papers ever. Every time you used a Hefty Bag Word, you were immediately docked some number of points (5 points, if memory serves). It didn't matter one whit if the word fit well or not. If you needed to rephrase the sentence or restructure an entire paragraph to get rid of it, then that's what you had to do. Here are the ten Hefty Bag Words:
  • there
  • really
  • very
  • many
  • things/stuff
  • society
  • which
  • just
  • interesting
  • some
When Mrs. Hoffman presented the words to the class, we immediately built one of the most meaningless sentences in the English language to more easily remember them, and that's how I remember them to this day. They're even listed above in the correct order: There really are very many things about society which are just interesting to some people. The words can be rearranged somewhat, but the meaninglessness stays the same.

These are hard words to remove from your writing. I'm already guilty of using 'things' twice in the title and three times in the body of this post, not counting the times I was referring to the word itself. (It's a good thing Mrs. Hoffman isn't grading this post.) Even though I do use all of those words periodically in my writing, in the end I don't think it's entirely bad. The point is not to completely eliminate these and other mostly meaningless words from your writing, but to make the use of them count. Be as explicit as you can in your writing, and recognize when you're falling back on a vague filler word because it's easy.

So I've learned a lot over the past three years of blogging, and I've practiced writing more than at any other point in my life. It has been a worthwhile experience, and now I'm at somewhat of a transition point. Whereas at the end of the past two years of writing I found myself with more ideas for topics than I had before, this year I find my list winding down. I have a few more ideas that I can write about now, but only a handful. In addition, I have more ideas that I'd like to write about, but I haven't had the time to learn enough about them to feel competent enough to write about them. I'm also finding that I need more time to work on other projects.

Working on other projects and having extra time to read more will give me more to write about, but I have to have the time to experiment and learn first. That means I'm planning on tapering off my writing schedule a bit. Instead of writing a 2,000 word post every week, I'll shoot for once or twice per month and try to trim down the length as well. That will give me more time to learn new, um, stuff, and keep this blog somewhat, er, well, interesting. Happy Holidays, and watch out for those Hefty Bag Words.

Less Friction Generates More Waste

Last week I explored how reducing friction could increase choice, thereby actually increasing friction in the end, giving us a paradox of choice because too much choice is overwhelming. Reducing friction can have another undesirable side-effect. When things get easier, it increases the amount of waste that's generated in a system.

This outcome may seem counterintuitive because in physical systems friction generates waste as heat, and reducing friction makes the system more efficient because less energy is lost in the form of heat. More insubstantial systems like the economy or civilization as a whole don't work exactly like physical systems, though. When you look at how our civilization has progressed, we seem to generate more and more waste as we reduce the amount of friction in our lives. Will this trend continue, and how will we deal with it?

Finding Optimal Friction

In the last twenty years, the Internet and mobile devices have reduced or eliminated friction in numerous industries. Obviously the communication sector has been dramatically affected, including telecom, music, television, and publishing industries. Now anyone with an Internet connection can put their stuff up on-line for the world to see, and new players like Netflix have been able to challenge the big networks for our prime time hours.

The Internet has leveled the playing field across the communication industries, and it's now easier than ever for competing producers to get their products in front of customers. That's one way to look at the concept of friction in markets, from the perspective of producers. Another way to look at friction is from the consumer's perspective, and that friction has been dramatically reduced, as well. From having all of the world's information literally at your fingertips to being able to buy nearly anything at the click of a button and having it shipped to your door, the Internet has gone a long way in removing friction from consumers' lives.

However, not all industries or aspects of our lives have been affected equally by the Internet, and sectors like energy and transportation still have a lot of friction that could be reduced with the right advances in technology. Energy production and automobiles are ripe for a technological revolution.

Reducing friction isn't the be-all and end-all for making our lives easier, though. Reducing friction comes with its own cost, and I think we sometimes forget how high that cost can be. We can end up wasting more time and energy in a frictionless environment due to distraction and an overwhelming amount of choice. Finding the right balance means recognizing where too much friction is wasting our energy so that we can target those inefficiencies and realizing where too little friction is wasting our time so that we can avoid those time sinks. It's a constant struggle as we push forward with technology.

How to Get Better at Programming with Feedback

Feedback is a critical part of improving at any skill. Without feedback, you have no idea whether you're getting better or worse. You lose any sense of accomplishment or direction in what you're doing. Imagine trying to do something new and difficult without any kind of feedback whatsoever. You wouldn't even know when you've done something worthwhile, and you'd quickly lose any interest or motivation in the task.

Instead, with feedback you can gauge your progress. You can make changes in what you're doing more quickly and efficiently to improve your technique and tackle more difficult challenges. Feedback gives you the confidence to know when you're doing things right and to course correct when you're doing things wrong.

Programming is a challenging skill that takes years to learn and a lifetime to master. Programmers can use as much feedback as they can get to improve at this skill, so let's look at a few ways we can create good feedback loops to get better at programming.