Writing on paper

Prompted by this article in the Atlantic on how people in general can’t read cursive.

Given a current generation of students in which so few can read or write cursive, one cannot assume it will ever again serve as an effective form of communication. I asked my students about the implications of what they had told me, focusing first on their experience as students. No, most of these history students admitted, they could not read manuscripts. If they were assigned a research paper, they sought subjects that relied only on published sources. One student reshaped his senior honors thesis for this purpose; another reported that she did not pursue her interest in Virginia Woolf for an assignment that would have involved reading Woolf’s handwritten letters. In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today.

Dunno, I feel some form of cursive writing is just a natural human thing to do.

I was all for “maximum personal cyborg-ness” at an earlier stage of life, but I now feel the urge to be away from the screen and keyboard for some time, and pen-and-paper is a good fit for that, and … cursive writing is just a good way of using pen and paper.

As long as you are physically embodied, you’re going to feel some satisfaction in “doing things with your hands” (i.e. other than typing or pointing).

To quote the last paragraph from the article above:

I regarded the handwritten note as a kind of superpower. I wrote hundreds of them and kept a pile of note cards in the upper-left-hand drawer of my desk. They provided a way to reach out and say: I am noticing you. This message of thanks or congratulations or sympathy comes not from some staff person or some machine but directly from me. I touched it and hope it touches you. Now I wonder how many recipients of these messages could not read them.

Making marks on a writing medium in a quick, flowing way, using a writing instrument … is a form of communication, or even a form of expression, that you can do quite well if you try a little bit.

And if you are writing on paper, you aren’t going to be “printing”, are you? That’s be way too painful after a while — it’s only natural to not want to lift the pen up and down more than necessary (which is really all the “cursive” is!)

Finally, there’s a strong therapeutic benefit to writing with pen-and-paper, which (in my experience) has helped a lot, and it’s quite likely to help you out too.

Of analog “anti-nets” and slip-boxes

Came across this series of “emails” or “letters” about someone embarking on an analog thinking system.

An Antinet is for those who wish to read more effectively, take valuable notes from readings, and transform them into potent long-term material that significantly impacts your field.

Noble goal, one I would’ve mirrored in zealotry few years ago. Now though, I’m apt to wish them well. “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens has become the over-recommended guide in these quarters, and “Zettelkasten” the correspondingly over-used word.

The author’s description of over-doing reliance on an app must ring true to many today:

I had set out to use Obsidian to map out all the concepts from the books I was reading. My goal was to organize them into a cohesive whole that would become greater than the sum of its parts. I hoped to use the concepts to produce a book or a newsletter on marketing, copywriting, and cryptocurrency. Yet I ended up with a rat’s nest of 1,272 linked files, and a nifty diagram presenting me with a bubble graph of the mess!

Still, there’s something to like about it. One should write things down.

I’d recommend adopting the general idea, but change it slightly, and advocate a hybrid approach instead.

Avoiding technology for the sake of avoiding it is just as pointless, IMO. Yes, use pen and paper —because your ability to use it would atrophy otherwise — but don’t shy away from the “right tools for you”.

If you’re looking for a piece of software that will prove a good companion here, I’d modify the suggestion slightly, to Devonthink instead of Zotero. It does everything and more, allowing for multiple individual stores, and an iOS app.

Either way, writing and thinking is definitely a good alternative to passively scrolling the feed … avoid that at all costs! 🙂

On writing and sharing

I found this prologue from a recent newsletter by Justin Murphy inspiring:

If you can figure out the truth, you should share it. You might help someone.

But you’re unlikely to figure out the truth because you want to help people.

You’re unlikely to figure out the truth because you want to “join a conversation.”

You’re unlikely to figure out the truth because you want to build an audience.

You’re only going to figure out truths if you’re passionate about knowing the truth, if you find exhilarating the work of trying to figure out the truth.

Mustering the discipline to write on a regular basis is a battle against yourself, against your own feeling that it doesn’t matter.

“Writing is a Single-Player Game”, from “Other Life”

There’s a very real kind of procrastination hinted at here, one that I can unfortunately relate to.

Use an outliner

  • I’d say pick one of Workflowy or Roam
  • I’m biased towards Roam because
    • I already use it
    • It works for me
    • It has a lot of “power features” that go beyond jotting down thoughts
  • But … Workflowy is “good enough”, especially to get started somewhere with something, which is a whole lot better than what I did for a decade before, which is … nothing
  • Some nit-picking reasons I prefer Roam
    • Each “bullet” has its own timestamp and version: I use this to figure out things like “time taken”
    • Text can be formatted to have headers or separators: I find this useful
  • Pick one of them and start using them. If you’re totally new to this, I’d recommend Workflow to start with.
  • (Yes, I wrote this in outline form and am sharing it as such …)

On writing

Every now and then I find something insightful on HackerNews. I usually don’t share this, and store them as snippets for myself, but this is something that does seem generally useful:

(original source here, builds on a post here)

“Tips on making writing more fun”

  • Make it a story. If you are writing about an application framework, use an example application and make it something real (a todo app, a real estate search app, something you have personal experience with).
  • Link to your other stuff. He has a good point about sidebars (don’t do it), but if you have written about something tangential previously, links are a nice way to avoid that. Works for pointing to other people’s work as well.
  • Just ship it. He alludes to this in the last point, but seriously, the perfect blog post that never is published is 100% worse than the 80% done blog post.
  • Remember that while you are obsessing over everything, your reader likely isn’t (obsessing). Recall how closely you read this article? That is how closely most readers will read anything you publish.
  • Start with the end in mind (the title and the conclusion should be related and the thread should run through it).
  • “Kill your darlings”. If something doesn’t fit, no matter how interesting or witty it is, copy it off to some other doc (possibly for another article). Or delete it. Either way, remove it from your piece.

Missing blogs

The content I find online is largely crap, of the form

  • “10 ways to …”
  • “How to …”
  • or, with increasing regularity, “you should feel angry about …”

(These days I’m finding occasional success with Substack. But only occasional.)

My favorite kind of content was a bit of the rambling sort, sharing opinions on this-and-that, without really any expectations of being read at all.

Quoting from other sources, making connections, the dream of hyper-text as briefly presented in the mid-90s, some time before the end-of-the-beginning-of-the-end-of-history.

This current “mood” was brought upon by accidentally coming across a blog I read around 2005-2010, and learning that the author passed away in 2013. Time flies.

Yes, there’s a risk of getting nostalgic here, and there are forms of content (most notably video, more on which some other time), and I used to be tired of “backward-looking-ness” too, but there you have it.

I know that kind of blogging isn’t going to come back, and I miss it.

Thoughts on blogging (changes)

Status

Looking at my “online activity” for the past 5 years, I’ve been writing at:

  1. Twitter
  2. WordPress
  3. A Static Blog

Observations

  • Of these, (3) is basically dead, and is around merely as a a personal homepage for now
  • The use of WordPress consists of
    • Monthly curations
    • Periodic life updates
    • Occasional long-form “articles
    • Random one-offs
  • The use of Twitter consists of
    • Likes and re-tweets (duh)
    • Extracts (pics) from either books or online articles

Modifications

  • The static blog remains in its “homepage purgatory”; I don’t have time to migrate that content over, and I don’t have any other plans for it
  • I’ve been bringing “my whole self” to Twitter, but I might reconsider that in the current … er … environment. I’m a self-described “centrist liberal” (I think?) which has been been an un-interesting position for as long as I can remember, but which in the context of current polarizing sentiment amounts to roadkill (so maybe a new pseudonymous account? we’ll see)
  • I’ll consider hiving off a separate WordPress blog that will basically be “my own Twitter”, the same way my current one is “my own Facebook” (wait, isn’t this what Tumblr was supposed to be? Lol, plus ça change …)
  • As mentioned earlier, I’ll try out Medium again, as a “duplicate” for any long-form content

Thoughts on WordPress and Medium

I had tried out Medium earlier, perhaps three years ago. At the time, I found it redundant for what I had started doing, which is sharing the curated monthly links. WordPress was a better fit for that, and I left Medium.

Looking at my WordPress usage, I stuck to essentially posting the curated monthly collections, and life updates.

This year, I’ve been reducing my personal “barrier to post” by allowing more of a sort of “micro-blogging” to happen. For me, this is “my Facebook”; I don’t mind sharing tidbits from my life, but I want to own the content.

More recently, I’ve been challenging myself to write longer pieces, and for these I think it might be useful to give Medium a try again.

P.S. I will cross-post these longer posts on both WordPress and Medium. I don’t want to think about this sort of stuff more than a couple of times a year, so I won’t change my mind till about the middle of next year 🙂