Writing influences

I was recently asked who my main influences in technical writing are. It’s an interesting question, because there is so much bad tech-writing out there. I’m a coder, but I also like to write (perhaps “like” is a strong word — the writing process itself sucks, being full of turmoil and internal desperation to get things out and correct, but I love the result).

John McPhee is a good start. His Annals of the Former World (four books written over twenty years, each taking a look at the geology of a different section of the US at about the same lattitude, from east to west) is amazing. His language is uncomplicated and clear, often funny, and there’s little fat.

I’m going to (shock) plonk Annie Dillard in the same bucket as Neal Stephenson. Both are highly descriptive, and have a certain violence with language that is entertaining. I read Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1979, and it was a revelation that you could do things like that with english. So was Stephenson’s Zodiac, which isn’t technical writing (and has a weak ending) but is a lot of fun.

[Rule #2: Make reading fun! If someone isn’t thinking about chuckling or saying, “Ooooo” from time to time when they’re reading documentation or code, you’re not going to hold their attention, they’re not going to remember what it was they read, and your chance for pushing understanding-that-sticks at them will have been lost.]

Henry S.F. Cooper is the unsung hero of the aerospace essay. He’s been writing about the space program since Apollo landed on the moon. For me, his most gripping stuff is in The Evening Star, where he describes how engineers debugged a race condition in the operating system of the Magellan probe, orbiting Venus at the time.

Early-on, I loved Kernighan and Plauger’s Software Tools, which is a good walk-through of some baby programs and design philosophy. I had an advisor/mentor in college who helped me a lot with my technical prose, ripping it to shreds when I thought I had it perfect, and making me write draft after draft before I touched code. K&P are like that — highly crafted and exact, probably too crafted to be enjoyable reading, but accurate and lean and business-like, like a greyhound doing its job.

I’ve left folks out. ACM published some “distinguished doctoral dissertations” in the mid-80s that were a lot of fun (e.g., Katevenis’ thesis on RISCs, and Ungar’s work on a high-performance version of Smalltalk). Donald Knuth’s TeX work is great (and the cartoons by Duane Bibbey help a lot, see rule #2). Literate Programming is an interesting idea, but it’s also very hard to do a decent job of it (your average programmer is hard-pressed even to make sensible doc-comments). Elliot Organick wrote some depressingly boring (the “please God kill me now” kind of boring) books on Multics and the iAPX 432 Intel processor of the early 80s — I use his works as what to avoid, even if he was a hero for having tackled tough subjects like operating system internals.

[Rule#1: Ship out drafts anyway. This is a corrollary to the grit-your-teeth reality of the “Crappy First Draft” attitude. Just get it done, then revise the dickens out of it. If it’s an internal document, ship it out for feedback even when it’s not bloody perfect. The the most disturbing thing — other than a crushing total rewrite — is when a Crappy First Draft comes back with no comments, or “Boy, that was great!”]

Crime wave

According to this, crime is going up. Guess we’re spending too much money fighting terrorism, people carrying pocketknives onto airplanes and stomping out bad, evil Internet content to worry about mundane, boring murders and theft and stuff.

(They’ll ask for more money, of course. “Look, we took care of the pocket knives, if you want any more safety you’ll have to dig deeper.”)

Enterprise

Friday night, emptying out the week’s decent programming from the Tivo. Getting late. Tired. It’s been . . . a week.

“What next?”

“Ummm….”

“How about Enterprise?”

“Well…”

“It’s okay. If you fall asleep, you don’t like it that much anymore anyway, so it’s all right.”

It’s true. The first year or so of Enterprise ranged from merely okay to pretty bad. This season has been . . . pretty bad. I’ve always had a problem with the “boob” factor and the stupid physics. Everyone speaks english and basically looks humanoid. The recycled plots are hackneyed and often embarrassingly bad. Right now they’re doing a gothic Dracula mansion ripoff, complete with Mysterious Handsome Alien Guy. Oh, please.

There’s a puppy on board, and it hasn’t saved the Enterprise even once. I’m hoping it will get the chance, before the series has its final antimatter implosion.

And does it bug anyone else that the cut-scenes in the introduction are out of chronological order? We see something like: Balloons, airplanes, space shuttle, then Apollo mission. Arghh.

West mumble

Someone turned down the volume. Half the lights on the set seem to be out. The acting is wooden, the silences long, the witty repartee unfunny and aimless. Even the extras in the background seem listless and sparse. Aaron Sorkin, come back, come back. Or else someone drive a stake through the West Wing’s heart before it embarrasses itself in front of millions.

Them bulging foreheads

“You can’t write that story. I can’t write that story. Nobody can.” — John W. Campbell

Robert Reed is one of my favorite authors. His An Exaltation of Larks, a time-travel story with a very interesting psychological twist, is kind of a lead-up to his latest Sister Alice [okay, the common thread here is cosmology]. I thorougly enjoyed Lark, but his latest work was less than satisfying.

Sister Alice traces the journeys of a young man, some tens of millions of years hence, a member of a family of immortals. At the start of the book he’s only fifty or sixty years old, while most of the rest of his family are thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of years old. Naturally, his relatives are are all smart, and they have god-like abilities that beggar the imagination. The young man’s journey is strange and frantic (and involves saving a galaxy, which is the kind of planet-bashing space opera that I still love).

Unfortunately, this kind of story is very hard to write. How do you realistically portray a superman? How is it that their motivations and actions will be comprehensible? There are tricks you can use (e.g., limit a character’s situational knowledge or use other artificial handicaps, e.g., the “Prime Directive” in Star Trek), but figuring out what someone ten or a billion times smarter than you is going to do is hard, even if it is just a story and you have a long time to think about it as you write it.

Robert Reed tries to do this for four hundred pages, and while the stories about his godlike people and their problems is interesting at first, after a while it begins to pall. Many characters are millions of years old and have brains (literally) the size of planets (all nicely tucked away into weakly-interacting dark matter that follows them around like puppy-dogs, so they can still comfortably sit around a dinner table and have a conversation). Yet their motivations and solutions are quite unbelievable, approaching stupid, petty, and ultimately predictable and boring.

Larry Niven ran into this problem in Protector (he hid a lot of information from the reader). A.E. Van Vogt ran into it in Slan (and the story shows its age). Vernor Vinge neatly side-steps the issue in his Singularity work. I guess all you can really do is wave your hands wildly and say “Just because!” and “You won’t understand” a lot, which is kind of what John W. Campbell was trying to say forty years ago.

Dealing directly with supermen is probably going to be weird. Really good treatments are probably not going to be enjoyable (more along the lines of Finnegans Wake than an average SF potboiler). Supermen might be more alien than aliens, since they’re human, we expect them to behave reasonably. But think: Zen masters sometimes whop you upside the head, leaving you dazed and confused and maybe hurt, but they have concrete reasons for it. Aliens would be strange, but mega-geniuses would be the true oddballs.

On the other hand, the Greeks got away with it in their mythology; the Gods on Olympus had all kinds of human traits, and folks ate it up for millennia.

I just wish Reed would finish his Beyond the Veil of Stars books…

Sigh Man Tech

Quick note: Like many folks, I “seed” email addresses. I’ve started receiving spam from an address I used (only) to register products with Symantec.

So far, no response from Symantec on this breach. I suspect someone shot a copy of the Symantec customer email database out the side door.

My one percent real-email rate is far better than one of my cow-orkers, who claims a 500-to-1 junk ratio. That doesn’t make me feel much better.

signatures

Found this while vanity-searching (actually, trying to googlewhack) my evil twin, Kabdib: signatures.

Build a man a fire and he’s warm for the rest of the evening. Set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”

Yes, I am easily amused by .fortune cookie files. Hey, my builds are easily 30 minutes if I’ve touched any bloody header file in my current project.

“333: Eric the Half A Beast”
— Tim Allen in rec.humor.oracle.d

“Hit it…” (M-x compile…)