Vincent Writes

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Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

I tend to review books like this one in several parts, because the thought-flow is so high per page that it’s simply impossible to capture everything of value. This book is particularly dense. I’m only about 20% into Becoming Steve Jobs (iBooks is not so user-friendly in telling me how far I am), but every page feels like taking a deep breath and only releasing it after the (slight criticism) overlong paragraphs finish. But there is also something else that makes it difficult to skim this book, Steve Jobs’ emotional journey is described in significant depth, which is incredibly immersive, at least to me.

That is really the insight that lead me to write this short review (which may be followed by another). We / I tended to view Apple as this great mysterious black box, something that could be speculated about because it was fun and intriguing. By my count, I’ve perhaps written dozens of times about Apple, without ever really feeling that I understood something deeper than the superficial veneer Apple was comfortable in disclosing.

This book is, to use a terrible term, a game changer. It tells us so much about the man, stuff that was perhaps revealed in news articles here and there over the last 50 years, but all combined to create a persona that we can perhaps, to the extent that it is possible, understand. Steve Jobs (pre-NeXT is revealed as a man that is far less than perfect, who put his vision far ahead of the details, who is used to employing tantrum-techniques to get his way, who managed to burn more bridges than perhaps build them.

I’ve read plenty of other good business biographies over the years (of the founders of eBay, McDonalds, Ikea, Starbucks were the ones that stood out), but this one is different in that it is only authorised after the fact. Steve Jobs, as far as I understood, could’ve picked Brent Schlender to cover his life, but perhaps didn’t because he was much too close, much too perceptive. Isaacson was chosen instead, this historical biographer of great persons like Abraham Lincoln, which is such a Jobs move, at least the Jobs you read about in this book.

The title is of course Becoming Steve Jobs, which is not really a guide to being like the man, but rather a witnessing of the transformation, evolution, descent, or ascent, depending on how you interpret this journey. The tagline reads: “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” which is quite mixed as well. It’s a testament to the unauthorised character of this biography, that it is able to show the dark sides of Jobs as well. An incredibly fascinating journey already in this short portion of Jobs’ career.

The State of Individual Websites

These last few weeks, I’ve really been thinking about one main topic to write about (I’ve also experienced two of the most severe flus in my life): the state of individual websites in an unwelcoming ecosystem. I started with thinking about the evolution of social networks, which for me are more and more becoming professional media-based, rather than friend-or connection-focussed. As I came across an article on the disappearance of the blog due to both a change in consumption and in how Google ranks websites, my thinking evolved to that level and what it meant for me.

We all represent sub-cultures that exhibit different behaviours to how we add value to our intellectual lives. My consumption pattern for media is perhaps like yours the reader (there is the likelihood of a perception bias), but it could also be completely different. As a blogger since 2004, I’ve read a lot of blogs and found ways to organise that reading through dedicated readers. The jump to podcasts was not hard, because it’s essentially the same world in audio-format (independent authors, collective players instead of readers). Social media was always more experimental for me, because of the random nature of what you would get out of it (I have a good idea what Daring Fireball will write about tomorrow, but not necessarily my brother or girlfriend). Because I already had a dedicated reading environment, I was very slow to add (semi-)professional media to social platforms, and it still feels like something I should not mix.

Nowadays, we see social platforms everywhere and the idea of a dedicated reader has been pushed into the dark, forgotten corners of the web. A new user of the Internet will more likely have heard of Twitter and Facebook, than know that Google Reader once existed, was replaced by Google Plus (a Facebook clone that has no real value), and other much smaller readers tried to take Google Reader’s place (Feedly being the most well-known).

Next comes the problem of discoverability. While searching for blogs or other ‘independent content’ was always a little tricky—Google once had a dedicated blog search as well, but that was hidden off the main page—we now operate in an era where searching for any individual content will reveal either adverts or collective results. Think about the following:

  • Search for any book: you’ll probably find Amazon as the top-result.
  • Search for any job: you’ll get as a top-result.
  • Search for a restaurant or hotel: Trip Advisor or Yelp.

This list can easily go on for any search term out there. All of the above-mentioned websites have been around for over a decade, but another trend arose within this decade, that of single-serving sites that exploit individual searches. I don’t have to visit or to know that very likely it comes with a significant amount of buy here links to dishwashers or headphones. Owners of these domains don’t need to possess any domain-specific knowledge either, they just need to repeat a specific set of keywords many times on their websites to earn its title (note to self: write a blog post that repeats the words ‘Vincent’ and ‘writes’ over and over again…). The same trend is happening in job searching as well: search for CRM jobs and you will find a search site dedicated to these jobs, the same for analysis, IT, sales, etc. etc.

The overal point is that the idea of search is no longer aimed at specificity, but has been supplanted by collections of results. The underlying thought is that search is overwhelming, we need curators, but these curators are not in it for the common good either. The Internet is a commercial place and there is little potential for blockbusters—rather it’s little pockets of money, best catered to by these mini-specialised-sites.

I feel there is a loss associated with this, but it’s hard to describe that loss in general terms. As I said, we are all sub-cultures, and each of us becomes happy in our own way. So my idea of discoverability may be less valuable to you.

The loss for me is the conversation, which would in the past come from other bloggers seeking commonalities (and traffic) by leaving a comment behind. There is this feeling of being one tree in a  very large forest, and when a branch grows, it does so quietly.

Granted, the world has changed. We all hear this phrase “In my day…,” and I’m no longer sure whether there’s even a point in reflecting because the “my days” continually seem to be replaced by new realities. The new reality of publishing a book is growing an audience before any publisher becomes interested. The same applies for venture funding (even though that is currently on a peak) and for many other areas. We each make our own luck and only the suckers stick to the traditional, passive path of expecting favours. But that too isn’t sustainable. An author with an audience doesn’t need a publisher anymore. A company can self-fund. The weirdest market is that of job searchers, who are expected to network to enter the hidden job market, but even that seems like a shot in the dark.

Traffic for a blogger has never been easy. From the beginning of time the story went that the more you give (in the form of comments and guest posts on other sites), the more you get back. This hasn’t changed, except that many blogs are becoming even more obscure than they were before. Instead, the “marketing” happens on LinkedIN and other social platforms.

I’ve always been in this space for the purpose and satisfaction of writing, and that will likely not change. But I’m more and more thinking that writing on a “blog” is about as useful to the world, as writing in a text file on my desktop is. We are cluttered with information and whether I keep the clutter to myself or throw it out into a noisy world, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. These may be the words of a tired writer (recovering from the two flus I mentioned) and should probably be ignored. They may also be true.

To be evolved…


On Publishing vs Platforms part two

When I linked to the Harvard Business Review article about hybrid Publisher-Platform strategies a few days ago, I didn’t actually say that I find the strategy a little outdated in this day and age. We have established platforms with huge audiences and we have publisher with huge qualitative content capabilities. Yes, everything changes, and yes, once upon a time we said great things about MySpace (arguably a hybrid strategy that failed) as well, but the trend is really towards platforms becoming (stable) utilities and publishers to embrace those now established mediums. Facebook’s and Twitter’s (and Google’s) ‘connect with’ buttons are everywhere, eliminating much of the friction of integrating services with those platforms (I forgot LinkedIN in this, also a big one).

Publishers are rising to the challenge, (hopefully slowly abandoning old media and) embracing publishing where people read stuff: not in glossies or old tree canvasses, but in a feed.

The missing part is targeting. Of the big three, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, only the last one is pursuing a clear value proposition: for professionals. Facebook asks me to add my CV on a regular basis (not going to happen) and Twitter is a little bit of everything and nothing. So now I have Harvard Business Review in my Facebook and on LinkedIN, one of those two is going to lose. This represents a dual effort that can only come out of a continuing uncertainty of where content will be read (Arguably, tablet and mobile platform-interfaces are adding to this developmental overhead).

The Publisher as a Platform strategy may seem outdated, but it’s clearly a desire to control both content and audience, something that may not be as frictionless using other platforms. It’s public knowledge, for instance, that Apple does not share much user data with app developers (thank you Apple), but I don’t know whether this communication break is common practice with other platforms. I assume that due to the business model (it’s free, but someone is paying for it, usually with our user data), it isn’t.

So why does a publication choose to embrace so many platforms if, for instance, Facebook encompasses a good audience already? It may be for a couple of reasons, some more relevant than others.

  • One would be hedging bets on the future of a platform: history has proven that nothing lasts forever
  • Two may be that the overhead isn’t as large as imagined: at least for the web-based-platforms the programming tools will be similar. Platforms also have an incentive to make building apps easier.
  • Three could be differing audiences: LinkedIN and Facebook clearly aren’t the same, there is some overlap, but there are also people that only use one of the two. Same with Twitter and Facebook.
  • Four could be relevance: There’s a reason why old media is called Old…
  • Five could be learning: about platforms, audiences, differing business models, etc.

The list is probably endless and my bet is that at least half were mentioned in strategic discussions about publishing on platforms.

With all these challenges, however, it makes less and less sense to reinvent the wheel, unless your content or your platform vision is truly unique. Medium was an example mentioned in the article I previously linked to, but even that is risking much by some of the changes it is making, namely opening up the gates to the masses (I assume it did this because the masses were not reading enough). I hate end these thoughts on Publishing vs Platforms with time will tell, but it always does. & the evolution of Link Aggregation

I probably started reading 5 or 6 years ago, but realise that in its near 17-year history, it has survived through some pretty radical changes on the Internet. Jason Kottke writes about this in a, perhaps inadvertently, revealing blog post on the topic of links—the essence of what makes the Internet the Internet.

I could write a lot about what I think defines Jason Kottke’s website as a go-to site for me. Yes, it’s not focussed on a particular topic-area (what are the liberal arts really, except everything), but generally the content is interesting, intelligent and, as a result, rewarding to read. I also appreciate the commercial direction that has taken. On a podcast-interview some years ago, Kottke said that he can’t have a similar sponsorship model to sites like Daring Fireball, because that site is focussed on a particular popular and profitable area (again, that indefinability of ‘culture’). Recently, took on a new sponsorship model revolving around Kickstarter projects, which seems like an excellent fit for the site and are ‘advertorials’ that I actually enjoy to read.

In the blog post that he entitled “The return of the remaindered links (sort of),” Kottke writes about the importance of links to’s initial growth and the subsequent commoditisation of links as the web evolved:

The links gave the site a velocity it didn’t previously have. I hadn’t really thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but that increase in velocity made it possible, more than two years later, for me to quit my job and do full-time. But the web has changed. Sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News and services like Facebook and Twitter are so much faster than this one man band…trying to keep pace is like racing an F1 car on roller skates. So, I’ve traded that velocity for quality (or, if you’d prefer, fussiness). I no longer post 10-12 things per day. Instead I post 4-6 of the most interesting things I can share with you on that given day.

With Twitter, things are changing for him again, but I understand the following sentiment quite well:

As my remaindered links experience shows, going fast without a plan can be beneficial in unexpected ways. With different tools and media delivery channels available to me now, I wonder: how fast can a one-person site go while still maintaining that choosiness?

To translate this into something more innovation focussed, we see phases of Kottke’s development:

  1. One of several blogs on the Internet.
  2. An increase in content and audience through the aggregation of links.
  3. Rise of link aggregators (along with, I believe, changes in the way Google weighs them) leads to a devaluation of the link concept.
  4. Refocus of site on quality over quantity again.
  5. Rise of Twitter as a personal link aggregation site (previous aggregators had much less identity associated with them).
  6. Attempt to reintegrate that into the brand.
  7. Next…?

There is no telling if his experiment will work, but my bet is that as long as he associates it with his unique vision about what goes onto the site, it will be somewhat successful. It’s important to note that his current advertising model (just referring to the sponsorships) is long form and therefore perhaps less suitable for a site that posts short links exclusively, if that is a possible direction he is considering.

In the end there is no such thing as sustainability, at least not in the “stay the same and make money” sense. Everything has diminishing returns as the rest of the “competition” eventually catches on. The key is to balance experiments with opportunity cost analysis (risks of jumping on wrong (technology) bandwagon, of alienating audiences or paying customers).

The strange transparency of Apple’s App Developers

Now, when I say transparency, I do mean that in a very limited way. Datapoints are being revealed left and right by developers, but even so the majority of app developers are keeping their sales numbers quite hidden.

A little background: Overcast, Unread, Monument Valley and several other more prominent developers have been quite open about the financial results of their respective apps (MacStories has more). In the greater context of things, this is perhaps not unusual. As I pointed out in previous blogposts, we live in an age where information is speeding up and increasingly becoming commoditized. Still, you don’t really see many commercial businesses revealing their numbers, unless they are public and obliged to do so to their shareholders.

So I have a few theories about this, the primary one being that the App Store is a learning platform for many developers. It has built-in tools, an audience, and a revenue structure that is by and large complete, just missing that special recipe that makes the app (what many have pointed out is lacking however is the App Store as a marketing and sales tracking platform). Apple is also quite transparent to not want anything more from its developers except for their 30% cut and certain, sometimes oblique, values to be respected (no adult content, spam, advanced functionalities in notification center?). Apple is also the market leader as far as these app platforms go (alternatives are Google Play, Amazon, Facebook, you name it), providing a certain stability and confidence in developers that it, at least, is here to stay. Finally, there is the combing trend of communities enabled by the Internet and even before that around Apple, that makes it easier for people to open to up to what they feel are sympathetic audiences.

The bigger question is will this lead to something? For many developers, I can imagine it will. You can do a computer science degree to learn how to code, you can learn how to code from the Internet. To run a business, the best learning is made from the marketplace and these kinds of ‘revelations’ are invaluable lessons to budding entrepreneurs. That said, there are no guarantees that the App Store is a viable platform forever. Marco Arment and others publish statistics about what it’s like to have a relatively successful app in that marketplace, with its inbuilt mechanism to make the purchase possible. Arguably building for mobile will always require some kind of App Store, but there is no certainty about it making you rich.

Banksy, Uber, Je Suis Charlie, and the limitations of freedom

I believe to have said it before, but the one element I like about storytelling is the infinite range that your imagination can take characters and situations. Oddly enough, we live an age where information can also travel into infinite directions and in real time. This is the age of connectivity between devices, words, pictures, images, executable code, and people. This reality is just one of several, but it has been around for the affluent part of this world since the mid-nineties. To anyone growing up or immersing themselves in this reality for years and years, the view on the malleability of what is and what can be is irreversibly changed.

To some extent this same analogy can be made about globalisation, where companies are now incredibly flexible to choose how much they pay in wages, taxes, and other resources, all according to what location they settle on in a map. This, to the chagrin of many a local government that sees countless organisations close up shop and place their workforce into subsidised (un)employment programmes, because they either found cheaper means of production elsewhere or cannot compete with organisations that benefit from these advantages.

The Internet has had an equatable type of opposition in that many would not want information to move as freely as it does, because of financial and ideological reasons. Digital information (much like the resources used in globalisation) has become so flexible, so replicable, that the concept of ownership is very much in doubt. The traditional link between value and object risks to become severed and threatens to overthrow certain less adaptive elements of our economy.

Ideologically speaking, two threats of free information are often discussed. One, the risk of the media-hype, which can distort the truth of stories but can equally give extremists (like those that caused the Paris massacre) a platform to shout out their message from. The freedom of media is causing both for everything to be open (think racial profiling and killing in Ferguson), but can also bombard and destroy (think paparazzi chasing and causing the death of Lady Diana). On the other side of the coin, this abundance of press also causes audiences to become increasingly desensitised about the many atrocities around this world (particularly those in areas that don’t necessarily affect us directly).

So, how does this relate to Uber, the Je Suis Charlie movement coming out of yesterday’s Paris killings, and Banksy? Each of these deals with the testing of the boundaries of our current reality. Uber, in providing a service that wants to freely turn every driver into an entrepreneur, but depends very much on a free market economy where they can compete with established (and licensed) transportation companies. Je Suis Charlie, or rather the publication Charlie Hebdo, which chose to disregard individuals’ and groups’ sensitivities and instead chose to publish cartoons that were provocative in thought and certainly provocative in feeling (please read my note about this below!). Banksy, an artist treating public architecture as his distribution mechanism.

Each of these have decided to embrace freedom, yet have (purposefully) ignored that this freedom can also create havoc elsewhere and to themselves. Charlie Hebdo tries to expose much of the silliness in people’s beliefs, but that alone is not sufficient in eliminating that people believe in certain causes (that may or may not hold valor). Banksy combined public commentary and the use of a controversial medium (graffiti) into a  condemnation of the art world and statements about societies similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. Uber, perhaps in bad company amongst these two, chose to follow the freedom of a capitalist model (following many other recent startups), while purposefully ignoring the local environment for their own benefit.

With the freedom of information age that we live in, come these entrenched beliefs that we should not be censored in what we say and that it is better to act than to stand still. But this new thinking clashes with a world, a reality, where resource mobility comes at a cost, where information can hurt and overwhelm, where established forces do not want to be a part of this freedom. In this free world, we no longer have the freedom to choose not to participate, to choose to not lose our jobs to cheaper labour elsewhere, to not have our private pictures exposed, to not have our religious beliefs questioned, to not have our property defaced with graffiti, etc.

Freedom in a world without boundaries makes sense, yet we live in a world where someone, somewhere has the power to pull the plug, to pull the trigger, to pull the curtain closed. More worryingly, we live in a world, where the very limiting nature of our planetary biology discourages freedom and asks for restraint. We also live in the contrast where one person’s truth can set them free, while another person’s lie can provide them with food and housing in an otherwise poor environment.

What is the answer to this? To me, freedom cannot be the sake of it, but respect and cultural sensitivity to the diversity of beliefs is a more sustainable way forward. To me, Charlie Hebdo was playing with the fire of a stick of dynamite that has been burning globally for a very very long time. Uber has to realise that financial growth is not the only metric to measure themselves by. Banksy, while amazing, is essentially a criminal.

I wanted to publish something more hopeful, but these values of respecting differences are too deep and while I hurt for the killing of these amazing journalists, I also hurt for much of the killing happening in other parts of this world, largely ignored for the consequences they have on the behaviour of radicals within the Western world. Nothing excuses violence and nothing excuses ignorance, somehow we have all found ourselves in the middle of this discussion to which there is no short-term solution.

Afterword: after careful reflection, including discussions on the media and attending the march to pay respects to those that were killed as part of the Charlie Hebdo massacare, I want to add that I very much realise that all of this is a matter of perspective. To the French, Charlie Hebdo was a pillar of free speech and many of its contents were both contested and vindicated within the French legal framework, which deeply respects the separation between Church and State. The I am Charlie movement is also not just about free speech, it is about not living in fear. It is about not living in a dictatorship that restricts much more than just freedom of choice. My stance is still that this freedom of expression must be nuanced to respect those involved in it. Invading people’s privacy is not OK. Should conducting actions that conflict with people’s beliefs be OK? It’s a tough question that I struggle with in light of what comes after free speech is restricted.

The complexity in innovation

As someone with an unbridled curiosity about how (any kind of) organisations innovate, combined with a passion and ongoing interest for all new technological developments on the market, I have had the luck to have some incredibly in-depth and specific conversations with innovators about what they are trying to accomplish.

Every organisation is trying to accomplish something, because every one of them feels the pressure of being left behind. Some governments offer some limited protection in the forms of subsidies, tax-breaks, and protective measures against foreign competition, but every company has to stand on its own two feet by the age of maybe 3-5 years old. When you are alone like this, it matters to both earn a living now and to provide the promise of earning a living in the future. That is where innovation comes in.

We all derive our inspiration from the intelligent developments around us. For many, it’s the market, new technologies being released that make us wonder whether this or that organisation could do the same. For some, it’s also public, but less accessible releases in the forms of scientific breakthroughs that may inspire the expert to build on top of that. For a few, it’s the scientific team in a closed off lab that comes up with an idea that can transform itself into an innovation downstream.

It’s always worthwhile to come back to the essence of what an innovation is supposed to be: an invention that has commercial application. An idea that transforms itself into a product or service that people are willing to pay for. There are very prominent elements within this definition of novelty and applicability, which is a tough balance to manage between getting inspired by existing market innovations and not yet commercial raw scientific ideas.

The truth of the matter is that these are all races of solutions for specific problems. In the end, the problem (market) can only sustain a few of these solutions, which means that speed and completeness of a solution are keys to success. It means that any organisation that seeks to innovate, must do so in the way of a well-oiled machine, while realising that that investment may not pay off now, but will pay off if you see it as a continuous muscle that gets stronger with every problem you are trying to solve.

To make things not at all easier, the rate of innovation is increasing with technological advances. Physical goods are catching up to digital goods, in the sense that anything can now be modelled and prototypes can be produced and tested at a faster speed. This could and will very likely end up in a downward spiral for business returns, because, much like in for instance the software market, the range of utilities makes the market more price-sensitive and less loyal, thus creating less sustainable rewards from single innovations.

The conclusion is therefore two-fold. One, no organisation can afford to not dedicate time and resources to consider their long-term positioning in the market. Two, organisations seeking to be though-leaders in the market, must make the difficult choice of continually innovating with the promise of smaller returns, or of finding alternative models that position them within an innovative ecosystem, without getting sucked down the spiral. A good example of this are the many platforms that continue to arise, though even those risk becoming commodities over time. That … is the complexity in innovation.

I envision a world where filters are no more

What if this drama resulted in every newspaper (and weblog) publishing content that provokes… thought? What if by everyone becoming ‘the enemy,’ we all end up laughing about it becoming friends? What if…?

Je suis charlie

Ahem, hello and welcome back

First of all, happy new year! Second of all, this was one of those years where the transition of one to the next was less special than other times. I am not 100% sure why — less happy new year wishes on Facebook, a stressful few months, perhaps other priorities in life. But still, happy new year and may this one bring joyful news about your friends, family, work, and/or geopolitics.

Two months ago, I started a strange workflow that both works and doesn’t work for the purpose of this weblog. I started making notes offline, for the purpose of writing a blog post in the future. Why it works: it’s considerably more stress free than writing up one post at a time, sometimes over several days/weeks. Instead, I start with micro-thoughts, tag them for this blog, and finish it when inspiration hits.

Why it doesn’t work: long breaks mean I have a huge backlog of these ideas and that it’s a challenge knowing on where to start. I like going back and publishing the oldest thought and continue from there. That works well. But what if the oldest thought was from a time where you don’t even remember what you were really thinking? Can you recreate it? Is it still relevant? Then the search continues along the timeline to reconnect with a thought worth publishing.

That aside, what is the plan for this weblog in 2015? I’m afraid it’s more of the same, while I promise to continue to make the structure more transparent and easier to navigate. I started a little with this end of 2014, by creating a landing page and a separate blog view (found under this weburl/blog). As mentioned, I have a backlog of ideas (91 according to my CMS), of which I hope half are word-worthy.

Until the next time then.

Essay: The Consequences of Having a Digital Soul

In science fiction and in the Kurzweilesque future reality, the concept of a digital soul is abstract and difficult to grasp. Yet, we have experienced an evolution in this area in the last half decade or so. I speak of the simple matter of IT backups and how it changes our thinking about IT. Very likely that same change of thinking will happen about what it means to be human as well.

At some recent point in time, each computer that we possessed was a separate entity. Yes, every computer was designed with input and output methods, in the form of (portable) storage devices, keyboards and mice, printers, and other forms of output. This evolved to the rudimentary beginnings of the Internet and has exploded in the last 15 years. As network speeds became faster, so came the introduction of ‘the backup,’ in the form of external storage, either in the home or off-site.

Right now, computers are backed up in a multitude of ways. We have offsite options, in the form of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, and countless more. We have home-based options, in the form of software that will sync/backup your data to external harddrives. Not to be ignored, we have software that operates in the cloud, from note-taking to video-recording, to managing your customer, financial, and other company data.

What is one practical consequence of this? Every time your computer gets stolen, breaks, or is replaced, for every fire and flood, a simple restoration procedure from backup to a new computer will restore your digital life to its original, useful state. In essence, the hardware has become immaterial.

So what is the value of a human life? At this time, it is priceless because each and every one of us is ‘unique.’ We have data within us and, let’s not forget, physical features that are impossible to replicate and replace. We, you and I, are not backed up into some form of external storage. I am the only copy as are you, you, and you too.

Right now it seems unimaginable that Raymond Kurzweil or others will succeed to upload our human essence into a digital storage device 1. It seems equally difficult to grasp as to why they would want to do this, as if the very act would remove what it means to be human. That part is true. If being human means being unique, then having a backup is decidedly not human.

But there is incredible value in transcending humanity in that way. Wars and other disasters are killing people every day. People that we will never see again. Some are saying that our planet is being destroyed either by natural or industrial forces, or rather a combination of both. Without action, our only exit is to leave Earth and relocate somewhere else in space. Yet, that brings the cost of transportation with it, mostly expressed in time (another precious human commodity) and the resource cost of transporting many, let alone one.

What about more controversial values? What is the value of someone that is imprisoned for life, yet (supposedly) reforming himself? What is the value of the many unemployed, a trend that only seems to be improving for the wealthier part of this world? What is the value of a parent outliving a child or a person wanting to extend their life beyond human terms? The controversiality is that this value can also be expressed in cost to society.

If we do succeed in transcending towards a transportability of our digital souls, then we will also lose something else. We will lose our bodies and what they mean to both us and the people around us. At best summarised by staring into your beloveds’ eyes, also called the windows to our souls, which would then disappear with the passing of a human. Yes, we are making strides in replicating objects on a three-dimensional scale, but it is hard to believe that this replication can reproduce the depth and uniqueness of the eye, the texture, temperature, and hardness/softness of the body, the characteristics and flaws that make us unique in a physical sense.

For everything there is a price, but as I found out many times now with my electric devices, that price is relatively minor compared to having all of your memories restored. A point of discussion I admit, but I’m happy to argue it on this front also: does the value of a digital soul that is eternal outweigh the value of the whole of a living, breathing, physical specimen?


  1. For those interested, find out more information about his vision here

On Marketing: The business of loneliness

Perhaps it was in the late 60s that smart (M)admen decided that the next great thing is loneliness. Yes, probably before that, loneliness was a topic also, but it was different. The lonely were idealised (think lone cowboys in Westerns or James Dean). Perhaps at that time people wanted to be lonely.

After a certain point, let’s call it the rise of career-orientated male and female individuals and dual household incomes, loneliness became a pain rather than an ideal. Thus came the era of products and services targeted at this market: microwave dinners, TV, speed dating… and why do you think no one cares if you eat a McDonalds meal alone vs. at any other restaurant?

This hasn’t changed much, though we now have an abundance of services for single consumers, from content via your personal computer to couch-surfing. But there is another area that shouldn’t be ignored, that of the dual income market. Here we see the messaging shift from loneliness to making the best of the little time you have. Think luxury weekends, baby creches and other kid-orientated distractions, family-sized sports cars, and … robotic vacuum cleaners (my inspiration is slipping here).

With overpopulated now-not-so emerging economies like China and India, and the competitive pressures of a ‘flat’ global economy, this trend is not disappearing, rather we are moving towards less workers’ protection and a higher burden on and cost of services. Judging by what is happening around the globe, we could be heading one of two directions in the future: an acceptance to live with less on either a physical or spiritual level, or a war that temporarily reverses this trend, but only for the victors.

I’m sorry to head in both a geo-political and a Buddhist direction all at once. I choose to believe that, ignoring the many opportunities that life provides to crawl out from under the rock of humanity, most of us will have to become more efficient with what we have, and I will leave the reader to interpret that in either the spiritual or physical sense.

Taking a marketing stance may seem cynical, but not if you view business as the organisational connection between individuals, problems and solutions. We get into cars that get us to a destination quicker, but the car itself must be built with that purpose in mind. That requires a good understanding and appreciation of both sides of the equation: our consumer need and the services that can help us to reach it at a higher level.

So how can or are marketeers biting into this trend? Making more with less can mean spending less today and tomorrow and the day after, or it can mean spend more to have more, and both are viable perspectives. Spiritually, we are looking for both mind-strengthening activities and emotionally satisfying ones. Think sports and meditative services and on the emotional side, think family orientated services (from public spaces to family movies). Physically or materially, we are looking for one of two things: discounted pricing or getting more for your spend. In consumer electronics, these are the cheap netbooks vs. the more durable MacBooks; in food, these are the discounters like Aldi’s or Lidl’s vs. more energy-bringing “super” foods from (not necessarily) premium vendors.

In a perfect economy, there is perfect transparency and perfect pricing. Sadly, many of these services that I suggest are not perfectly understood and mis-priced. It shouldn’t be a premium service to go meditate somewhere and healthy food that gives you energy and makes you live longer, should not only be found in expensive stores. Conversely, short-term solutions shouldn’t be priced at a discount, because their ingredients are commodities (yes, I’m talking to the Samsung’s and McDonald’s of the world).

Both suffer from non-transparent because the cost or benefit to society is not included in the calculus. But that is a discussion for another day and perhaps someone else.

Publishing: Is free content an opportunity or a threat to scientific publishing?

Similar to last post from last Friday, there are other trends that are threatening the raison d’être of the traditional publishing model. This specifically being about publicly funded publishing, i.e. the scientific kind, being asked to become free content. What I find interesting is that this is not really for reasons of disruptive technologies like the Internet (even though Bill Gates is one of the initiators), but rather a much broader idea: that knowledge is important and must become free for the maximum benefit of societies.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation published a new manifesto / open access policy on their site a few days ago. It lists 5 stipulations that publishers associated to research sponsored by the foundation must follow:

  1. Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online. Publications will be deposited in a specified repository(s) with proper tagging of metadata.

  2. Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms. All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.

  3. Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees. The foundation would pay reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication on these terms.

  4. Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period. An embargo period is the period during which the publisher will require a subscription or the payment of a fee to gain access to the publication. We are, however, providing a transition period of up to two years from the effective date of the policy (or until January 1, 2017). During the transition period, the foundation will allow publications in journals that provide up to a 12-month embargo period.

  5. Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. The foundation will require that data underlying the published research results be immediately accessible and open. This too is subject to the transition period and a 12-month embargo may be applied.

Of note, this is not a new movement. In 2012, the British government announced that tax-sponsored research would be freely accessible as of last year. The European Union followed suit, and some American institutes (the Gates foundation included) are requiring it too.

Having studied scientific publishing models for some years now, I believe that this will in fact become an unopposed reality. The reason being that scientific publishers are transforming into becoming providers of decision making tools for scientific advancement. They are still dependent on new publications, but having access to so much raw data means that they can create intelligence on top of that, making it more accessible to practitioners. That is becoming their new revenue stream, therefore reducing their dependence on the traditional model.

Whether this should be a universally accepted way of publishing, arguably it already has in some parts, since this and many other blogs are free to read. I have a feeling that book publishing is heading into a different direction, though still more and more cutting out the middle-man, i.e. the publishers. Where it leaves the latter and how this will translate to other publishing media is a big question I hope to get the answer to in the future.

On Writing: Nihilistic Characters

“It’s a trap!” ~ Admiral Ackbar

When you write a character without motivation, it can seem like you found an endless well of inspiration. Go left, go right, go back, go forward, but whatever you do, don’t explain.

But the risk you run is a frustrated and confused audience. The risk you run when writing such a character is that after a while you forget your original reasons for creating that character. Someone said—I may have quoted that person on this site in the past—that you must love your characters to bits. But a nihilistic character absorbs that love to the point of perfect osmosis, it passes straight through without giving the needed feedback to the love-giver.

I digress and it is time for some examples.

Most recently, I watched Matthew Mcconaughey in Interstellar. There is a scene that bothered me throughout the film, of him deciding to head into space and “save the world,” without really giving a second look at his daughter, which he leaves behind crying in her room. We witness his many adventures throughout the film, but we never understand what drives the character. He is as cold as the antagonist revealed later in the story.

In the book Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 in the Expanse series), we are introduced to a washed out detective Miller, who fits the very definition of nihilism. He loses some pretty important elements to his life (trying not to spoil it), but his emotions are non-existent, the only expression is movement of the character throughout the story. Which is fine, except that his choices also appear at random or at least as those of a very depressed person.

Exhibit 3 is Vanessa Ives in the TV Show Penny Dreadful (Amazon link), which I also previously expressed my admiration for on this site. What I liked about this show is the melding of different mythologies into a shared adventure. What nearly drove me out was Vanessa Ive’s descent into her own darkness, one entirely devoid of meaning. The character is haunted, ever since she was a child, by an image of her mother cheating and later invokes that pain onto her mother’s lover, by seducing his daughter Mina’s fiancé. That leads her to being possessed by some kind of devil and we witness the scenes of her combatting that demon.

The salvation to nihilism is some kind of overarching faith or goal. Interstellar’s goal is to save the world and for a father to rejoin his daughter. The driving engine for this is the protagonist’s thoughtless (nihilistic?) bravery. In Leviathan Wakes, Miller entire focus is on solving a case, which is what drags him out of the various messes he creates or is a part of. But we also see this drive to destruction, which is hard to digest. Vanessa Ive’s “engine” is her faith and the overal goal is save Mina, the woman whose life she destroyed at some point.

A character does not need to be loved and understood always, but he must have a meaning to his actions. Some of the examples above showcase that this meaning can be lacking and must be compensated over time. But it also risks to frustrate the audience throughout the story and absolutely must be paid off.

The new face of Publishing… through Facebook

(…and other visual social media platforms like LinkedIn)

I have long held a philosophical stance about Facebook, as the “social enabler,” or disabler in some cases. Many of its core audiences, me included, struggle with finding a good use case for the platform.

  • Regular users like me wonder what to share (especially in an environment where privacy is more and more valued) and whether your online friends aren’t over-/undersharing themselves.
  • Corporations struggle with integrating it into their marketing mix, especially if they are already engrained into other marketing channels.
  • News seems like the most logical use case for this platform, but comes with some problems as well.

There is a major risk with publishing on a social media platform: it positions regular users on the same level as corporations, publications, and advertising. Everyone becomes the competition.

My social media education happened on Twitter. It taught me to not confuse the newsfeed with an RSS feed, because you would soon lose oversight of the “real” people you were following. As a result, I was a slow adopter of Facebook as a newsreader and continue to be careful. Recently, as a fan of Harvard Business Review on a professional level, and inspired by a “social suggestion” from my friends, I decided to give it a shot after all, and subscribed to the HBR feed. The results were surprising.

It turns out the publication has figured out how to integrate Facebook as a publishing medium. HBR is a monthly periodical, as a print publication, and has both its website and mobile (iPad) apps as online alternatives. I was surprised at the content being shared via Facebook, which both felt relevant and premium (you can buy many of the articles as a PDF), and was infrequent enough not to bother. It takes a discerning editorial team to ensure that both the quality of the writing, the thematical content, and the mix are of a good quality to its audience. Somehow, likely to having a dedicated social media editorial team, HBR figured Facebook out.

It’s an encouraging development, but one positioned on brittle ground for the same risk factor I mentioned above. Facebook, its users and content providers are continually evolving and thus requires continuous attention to the engagement metrics and other qualitative aspects of each shared item. It is clear that social media is an investment, which is why so many companies fail at it. And, more importantly, the return on that investment must somehow be quantifiable also. It’s for every company or individual to figure out whether it is worth it.

What Facebook and other social media platforms must absolutely do is to make using their services more transparent. They cannot handhold publishers and marketeers as they publish on the platform, but they can provide accurate information about how they are positioned for each news item within the overal newsfeed. That, in combination with link tracking, and a both coherent marketing strategy and dedicated social media team, should make a big difference to social media success.

On that even-keeled conclusion, I am still happy to read HBR on Facebook, as well as a limited amount of other news publications (The Big Picture is a good one). I am very interested to see where social media and news reading continues to evolve to, as we are clearly not done.

In Movies: Scriptnotes talks Superhero Movies

Superheros are mainstream now, so like many of you, I have witnessed this pretty amazing blending of visual storytelling, innovation in the effects area, and allround blockbuster-money-exploding movie releases. The Scriptnotes podcast, in light of the recent “forecast” for when what 30 superhero movies will be released until 2020 (MarvelDC), is pretty insightful in explaining what “pillars” made all of this possible.

They begin with Brian Singer’s X-men, released in 2000, which was perhaps the first non-cheesy looking mainstream (!) comic book movie. He brought these characters on screen, focussing less on costumes and more on characters we care about.

Secondly, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, released in 2005, which again brought a realistic, but hard-to-replicate gritty tone to the superhero scene. To me, this Batman is like the Indiana Jones of adventure films—an impossible character (in a good way) in a well-written adventure. If X-men was characters, I think writing is the key contribution here.

Third, Joss Whedon’ and Kevin Feige’s the Avengers, which really brought together the universe of these characters, much more so than X-men did. Craig Mazin says on Feige:

He’s like, you know, you have to go all the way back to like, I don’t know, Thalberg, and guys like that to find these really powerful, very smart guys that actually made like a good creator-like impact on the movie business. He may be our generation’s, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it, Zanuck or Thalberg. One of those guys.

… which I thought was really powerful stuff!

It’s hard to argue with John August and Craig Mazin, these two “pillars” of movie podcasting and scriptwriting, so I won’t. Like Lost or Battlestar Gallactica lead audiences into watching science fiction, something amazing has happened for comics as well. It’s nice to hear an analysis of what these contributing factors were and perhaps a discussion point for another time.

On Business: The Short Lifespan of “Smart Marketing”

A couple of thing crossed my mind today that I’ll try to intermingle into the point I’m making here. One, a baker that overcharges for a bottle of water. Two, a HR recruitment blog that advises applicants to send a physical letter “to stand out.” All of this is a kind of marketing, at least in the sense of communication. And not all marketing is positive.

The letter definitely classifies as smart marketing. Of course, it’s not just spam. The advice says that the letter should contain a specific pain the applicant is addressing about the company, but the package is “smart,” because it’s different.

Smart marketing only stays smart until people catch on. Hiring managers will read this letter because it stands out, but they’ll get as tired of it quickly when the fifth letter starts rolling in. Smart marketing in this case is an unusual, interesting thing, but not a lasting one.

Back to the bakery. I didn’t go back to it, after the expensive bottle of water. Everything is marketing, pricing and the non-core products that you sell. I can see the rationale behind it: we don’t sell water, we sell bread, but if we do have to do it, let’s make a buck (or two).

The reasoning behind the scenes should really be as follows. We don’t want to be seen as relying on the sale of marginal products, but as standing behind the quality of our bread. We want bread to be the profit drivers because it will continuously push us to make a better product and sell more of it.

All of this ignores the marketing mix of course, in that a business can send out multiple messages in multiple ways. Just like the physical application letter contains consulting advice and is targeted at the right person, it uses many different ways to craft an effective message (maybe). And the baker can of course promote his business in positive ways as well, as this baker did, with 2 for 1 promotions pasted all across the window.

Smart marketing is somewhat broad a term, in that it can mean short-term smart or long-term smart. A short-term smart marketing strategies assumes a highly competitive market and a constant need for change. A long-term marketing strategy relies on sustainable values, such as core-quality, which is often hard to replicate.



On E-Retail in NL: So many wrong assumptions

I’m sorry, I will have to link to some Dutch articles in this text, as there seems to be something brewing in this country that I couldn’t help but comment on. As always, Google Translate is your friend.

So, here is the timeline. About 3 years ago, the local retail association HBD came up with this brilliant advice that retailers had to make it easier to do comparison shopping. According to them, the Millennial was already doing this big-time and this was sure to increase across all generations by 2016.

Here’s the method described:

It starts with a search via, Layar Vision, and Google Goggles (I am stunned by some of these options), which allow for visual searching and identifying a retailer nearby or online carrying said item.

HBD advises that these searches may be overwhelming and a more effective strategy to reduce noise is for individual retailers to develop apps that allow for easy navigation in store.

According to HBD, word-by-mouth marketing is important (via apps like Yelp & Foursquare), and online reviews are important (e.g. Amazon or Google searches). I agree with both somewhat.

So HBD suggests:

  • marketing consumers’ pockets (for instance: targeting via QR codes)
  • understanding that customers want cheaper AND better products (…)
  • Combining efforts to go online together: working as a supplier for the bigger e-commerce outlets, pooling investment to build a joint e-commerce outlet, etc.

There’s so much more gold in this article of 74 pages (incl. 1 page of references), I can’t possibly summarise it all.

So the HBD decided to run some experiments in various cities starting in 2011. Silence followed for some years.

This week, an article and interview revealed that it was a mess. From the article: many retailers expected this to bring big profits, instead the costs were out of control. Another retailer (a butcher) states: I never believed in The New Shopping. Old shopping methods: good service, good products, a smile, work just as well.

From the interview with an HBD representative:

  • Clearly retailers prioritised technology over customers
  • They focussed on tools, rather than the end-goal (it can be argued that the latter was badly formulated)
  • Consumers are changing: multiple devices, more info about products online
  • Risk is a physical shopping area to not be interesting enough and lose its value
  • Retailers misunderstood the message and HBD communicated it badly as well
  • HBD also had to learn how to formulate such an approach better (…)

So… how to respond to this.

Technology moves fast and is in its nature disruptive. It starts with studying computing science and finding out 5 years later that most things you learned in terms of programming language is already obsolete. It’s powered by the competitive landscape of technology (Apple, Samsung, Google) and of software development.

A physical retailer is not usually in that mindset. They buy or rent a space to keep it. They don’t want to move and not necessarily change or take risks. That is not a bad thing either, because customer value consistence if it’s good.

But with technology, you need to make gambles and you need to stick to it, as well as having a strong vision about where you want to be.

The bigger risk is listening to hacks like the HBD (Bing & Layar, really?) and giving away your online channel to giants that will eat you up (Amazon, Bol in the Netherlands, others…). Pure online retail is driven by efficiency. It’s more efficient to keep profits centralised and to push costs from e.g. a supplier down as much as possible. Ease of comparison also pushes prices down.

It’s an equally big risk to not do your homework and not invest in those talents that drive your online strategy forward. A changing landscape needs a champion that rides that wave and makes it their own. It’s a lost cause to invest in gimmicks like QR codes, if you don’t understand what value they really hold and how to replace them if they lose significance.

I was sad to read this 3 years after they published this study, because I don’t think my opinion would’ve been different then. Online is just as important as physical, but you can’t master it without understanding and owning it. It’s 100% not surprising that this initiative failed.

Sorry once again for linking to only Dutch articles in this text.

In Activities: So you want to try… Fitness?

This is a series of posts covering that most cherished of all activities, sports. I will only discuss those sports that I tried and formed a studied opinion about. Those include a handful. I decided to start with fitness first, because it is a broad sport that serves as a good introduction and complement to others. 

Target Audience

Young and old, male and female, fat and skinny, there’s a reason that fitness is such a widely adopted sport. The other is that it’s both for experts, newbies, and hobbyists (which can mean both an infrequent practitioner and one that does it as a supporting sport).

The Approach

Unlike other sports that favour a specific kind of body type, fitness caters to the main three types: ectomorph (thin build), mesomorph (median build), endomorph (wide build). Each body type requires a different approach. I am not an expert on all of these, so I’ll cover it only superficially—read a more detailed description here.

Ectomorphs have trouble building muscle, but no trouble shedding pounds, so their area of the gym should be more focussed towards strength, rather than aerobics. Mesomorph are nicely placed in the middle, they respond well to both and risk putting on a few pounds if they ignore the aerobics. Endomorphs are strong through genetics, but benefit extremely much from aerobics.

The key to finding the best approach is really the ‘running in the rain’ approach: if you don’t feel like doing it, that’s probably the area you should focus on most.

That said, fitness has one particular goal that may not be compatible with the goal of other sports. Fitness in the purest sense wants to optimise your body in a general way, they want to turn us all into Clark Kent or Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s secret identity). Basically a balanced sport for a balanced body, while some other sports like running or olympic weightlifting require bodies more geared towards either of those activities.

The Options

Yoga_Class_at_a_GymThere are a variety of gyms that do or do not offer a combination of the below. They are ordered in no particular preference, though I would classify free weights as the most advanced and dangerous.

Machines vs free weights: You body benefits most from diversity, and machines don’t necessarily offer the best possibility to do that. I compare it to running in the sand vs running on pavement. On pavement, i.e. an even and unbending surface, your legs will always receive the same stimulation and grow accordingly. In sand, which is decidedly uneven and shifts constantly, your legs have to both run and keep balanced. There is a stimulation overload and the result is much stronger legs.

Machines are the pavement, they offer predictable and reliable movement, which is extremely safe and thus a good way to build basic strength. Free weights offer more flexibility to focus on either combination muscles or targeting more specific areas, but also force the muscle to constantly balance, creating the ‘sand effect’ on any muscle you train.

Free weights are however a decidedly advanced technique, where you can do much damage to your body and should not be exercised in isolation without education and thought. Any good gym should provide a basic explanations into what each weight and movement does and should be part of the introduction to this sport.

Classes vs. Personal Training: To the non-shy among us, there are a variety of classes available, ranging from ‘boot camps’ (allround, intense exercises regimes that range from 30 min to typically 1 hour) to aerobic classes (anything from dance to ‘rhythmic boxing’). The advantage of a class is the motivation aspect. 1. you have a teacher to guide you and 2. there’s a structure to it, both schedule-, content-, and music-wise. If you ever find yourself lacking motivation to just lift weights, a class may be the right change for you.

Personal trainers also range in orientation, from gymnasts to olympic bodybuilders, and offer the advantage of personal attention, as well as the disadvantage of cost.

The world is your gym ~ parkour

Niche Gyms: Whether you’re a runner, boxer, or simply hate the traditional gym model, there’s probably a gym that’s more geared towards a particular area. Running clubs may have a gym on site or attached to them, same as other sports, with equipment geared towards optimising for that sport. Then there is the relatively recent trend towards Crossfit ‘boxes,’ which is a combination of gymnastics, weightlifting, HIIT training, and various other sports. There is some controversy around it and similar to free weights requires a well-reputed trainer to guide you.

When you get really creative, the world can become your gym, from parkour, to playgrounds, to bouldering, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Support Through Technology

The modern gym is on your phone or wrist. While before, I used to read Muscle & Fitness magazine, or read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Bodybuilding Bible for workout tips, now every exercise program I use at the gym, as well as a timer and distance tracker, is in my pocket. Though they change over time, here are few that I’m enjoying right now (iOS only, sorry!):

Arnold Schwarzenegger the encyclopedia to modern bodybuilding

The StrongLifts 5×5 App (free with in-app purchases – download and read about the method here): This one is geared towards some very efficient core exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and various back, chest & shoulder exercises. I use it as a basic structure these days, training my own exercises, but using the 5×5 methodology and timer.

Hot5 Fitness (free with in-app purchases – download here): What I like about this app is that it has different difficulty levels and blasts an area in 5 minutes (5 exercises each 1 minute long) with some good and clear video-based teaching. I use it mainly for abdominals, core training, but it can easily be integrated into a cross fitness routine.

 Moves (free, now owned by Facebook (yikes!), download here): Though there are many trackers, I used it from the very beginning to track any move I make, from walking to running. It allows for automatic activity setting per location (e.g. I go to the gym and it tells me how much time I spent there), provides daily and weekly reports on activity, and generally serves as a calendar and motivator. I have a feeling Apple’s Health app will replace much of it for me, but we will see.

There’s some other ones that I do not use often, such as a Tabata or HIIT timer, and the Pocket WOD (the official Cross Fitness app, but I’m not sure they are absolutely essential to mention here. Important to mention that any good workout benefits from great nutrition, and for instance Pocket Wod has a recipe database, as well as other specialised cooking apps.

The Pros & Cons

Finally, let’s evaluate. Fitness is a sport that’s easy to get into, for a wide audience, and has many options. One of the pro’s is that it allows for great time management, to go whenever and however long you can.

There are several con’s: it’s not a supplement for other, more *interesting* sports (insert your own here), though it can be a great complement to or launchpad for them. Advanced exercises can also lead to some pretty serious injuries, though the learning curve is decidedly not steep (the motivation curve can be). Finally, as with any sport, it can become monotonous, but again, it doesn’t have to start and end at the gym.

Feedback request: did you like or dislike this post? Should something be added? Let me know in the comments. Over the next coming month, I’ll continue to add similar (sport) introductions, hopefully making a nice collection out of it. Stay tuned!

In Books/On Writing: Haruki Murakami interviewed

From the article:

Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm, which may be accessed by sitting at the bottom of a well (as does the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), or by taking the wrong emergency staircase off a city expressway (as in 1Q84).

It’s hard to find these kind of books, let alone write them.

Murakami’s style is simple, even apparently casual, on the surface, and Tsukuru Tazaki, like many of his previous novels, has divided critics into those who find it banal and those who perceive greater depth in its vividness and precision of imagery. Like most simple styles, of course, his is the result of lots of hard work. “I take time to rewrite,” he explains. “Rewriting is my favourite part of writing. The first time is a kind of torture, sometimes. Raymond Carver [whose work Murakami has translated into Japanese] said the same thing. I met him and I talked with him in 1983 or 84, and he said: ‘The first draft is kind of torture, but when you rewrite it’s getting better, so you are happy, it’s getting better and better and better.'” There is never a deadline for a Murakami novel – “I don’t like deadlines …when it’s finished, it’s finished. But before then, it is not finished.” Sometimes he can’t tell when he should stop rewriting, but “my wife knows. Yes. Sometimes she decides: ‘You should be finished here.'” He smiles and imitates his own obedient response: “‘OK!'”

Just as important, Murakami talks about readers:

How long does Murakami think the game of literature can last? “I think serious readers of books are 5% of the population,” he says. “If there are good TV shows or a World Cup or anything, that 5% will keep on reading books very seriously, enthusiastically. And if a society banned books, they would go into the forest and remember all the books. So I trust in their existence. I have confidence.”

If I haven’t reviewed 1Q84 on this blog, I should. It’s one of my favourite recent books, and I’m constantly looking for more like this. Equally so, but differently, I enjoyed his short biographical book entitled: “What I talk about when I talk about running.”

On Writing: The Ebbs and Flows of Moving Forward

While I’m specifically speaking about story writing, this is such a broadly applicable principle, that it could be placed into any category. When I speak of Ebbs, I mean those moments where you focus on understanding the underlying process. Flows are exactly what they sound like, everything is moving at a good speed.

For writing, I’m currently doing three things: writing in Scrivener on my Mac, writing in Daedalus on my Phone, and reading about how to be a better writer. Daedalus syncs to Scrivener via Dropbox, and I primarly use the phone to take notes and/or work on chapters. Scrivener is meant to be my production tool, but I find that most production takes place on the road, and I rather expect to do the finalisation on the Mac when the time is right. As well as maintenance / the act or prettying up, of course.

The Ebbs, to me, are contained within the transitions. There is a switching cost, to use a fancy term, that happens after you spend time in the Flow, suddenly come to a halt, and when you find yourself reorientating / searching for next starting point.

Very practically, I hate the way Dropbox syncs between these two softwares, creating duplicates, requiring some hacking in Scrivener, and a better understanding of that process overall. That is an inefficiency (Scrivener!), which creates an Ebb.

The other Ebb is new learning about production, during production. There is much to learn about writing, I find, specifically when it comes to narrative development and writing for the purpose of being read. Those pieces of knowledge force me to bring the writing to a halt and introduce new orientation points. Similarly, Scrivener had a learning curve in the sense of organising chapters, character backgrounds, etc., that I had to get past.

All of these are excuses of course. A writer should just write, and I often find myself wondering does a Steven King, Paul Auster, or a Nick Hornby do just that? Some interviews that I read suggest that they too struggle and often a good writing day is two good hours of writing, rather than the mystical 9-5 production mantra.

Flow could rather be described as the ability to navigate past the Ebb, wether through practice (likely) or outsourcing (possible). Food for further thought.

Software links:
Daedalus Touch for iOS
Scrivener for Mac & Windows.

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