Allow Me Not to Explain Myself

Sometimes I feel as if I could blog all day every day, and other times I feel like I couldn’t write another blog post if my life depended on it. At the moment I’m feeling a bit of the latter, as some readers might have intuited from the fact that for the first time in a long time, I blogged not once all last week.

Part of the blame for this goes to the disorderly state of my blogging software. I’m eager to move off of Movable Type and over to Expression Engine, but it’s a process that’s going to take lots of time (even though I’ve been receiving the generous help of some readers like Adam Khan in getting up to speed with the new software). In the meanwhile, it kind of pains me to continue to mess around with the existing platform.

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Revving Up ExpressionEngine

ExpressionEngineNot long after I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I had that feeling familiar to most everyone who similarly relocates: “This is great. Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Once you’ve given up today’s Manhattan and its generally not-worth-it hassles, you understand how much more livable life is across the East River.

Well, I’ve got something like that feeling again right now, as I take the very first steps towards porting this site from Movable Type over to ExpressionEngine. (This is part of my recently stated desire to resolve the general slowness on this site.) It’s a daunting transition — especially for me, someone with more ambition than free time or technical facility.

To my surprise however, given a few short hours, I’ve gotten much further in getting ExpressionEngine to replicate my existing functionality than I thought I could. I literally started with zero knowledge of the software at the beginning of the week, and with less than six hours’ worth of labor, I’ve hobbled together a rough but serviceable, EE-powered re-creation of Subtraction.com.

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Not Moving from Movable Type

Movable TypeFor the time being, I’m sticking with Movable Type as the publishing system for Subtraction.com as well as A Brief Message. It’s not that I’m still enamored of it; as anyone who’s been patient and persistent enough to post remarks on my posts lately (thank you, by the way) will attest to, my particular installation of Movable Type is often painfully slow, and the version that I’m using, 3.33, gets longer in the tooth every day.

I’ve complained about this before, but the reason I’m staying put is that the switching cost is too high for me at the moment. I just can’t imagine investing the time necessary to re-create these templates in another publishing system; that’s a project for when I get laid off. I’m also holding out hope that a coming revision to its promising but not quite ready for prime time fourth version will modernize Movable Type sufficiently that switching to a competing package will offer fewer advantages. I still maintain that going over to WordPress would be trading in one set of problems for another (I know there will be many people who disagree with me on that point).

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On Blogging Well and Writing Poorly

Based on the number of reader remarks at the bottom of yesterday’s post, my write-up of Greg Maletic’s wonderful documentary “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball” wasn’t exactly a hit.

Was that because pinball isn’t among the topics that ignite tremendous passion, at least among the Subtraction.com audience? Maybe. But I think it’s more likely because of the way I wrote the piece.

I’m a long-time reader and fan of The New Yorker, and yesterday’s piece was my clumsy attempt at aping a bit of its editorial style. That magazine’s matter-of-fact yet constructionally elaborate prose has always been very attractive to me, both because it’s so incisively compelling and because it’s so efficient. I tend to go on and on when I write, using a lot of words to say relatively little. Writers for The New Yorker use a lot of words to communicate quite a lot of ideas with great richness. Can you blame me if it’s something I aspire to?

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Writing at No Great Length

The blog post I wrote yesterday was really hard to write, as it turned out. There were lots of revisions, and I nearly abandoned it once or twice because it kept going on and on and on. In its final form, it clocks in at about four hundred and fifty words. I’m not saying that’s svelte, exactly, but in one earlier draft, I was pushing well past eight hundred words without an end in sight.

I get caught up a lot over-explaining things when I write. It took me several tries to compress that post’s third paragraph, which outlines the basics of my critique of the new elevator system at my work, down to a relatively compact hundred-plus words. At one point, I was detailing my usability complaints in almost excruciating detail — recounting every minutiae of interacting with the system — the prose equivalent of watching a slow motion replay. It was so bad it was tiring even for me to type it, so be glad I didn’t make you read it.

Why do I do this? I blame design. A lot of my job is about creating visual and interactive presentations that accurately and effectively communicate information. In practice, that often calls for simplicity and explicitness, constantly reminding myself that I must go through great lengths to ensure that users understand every component of the experience I’m constructing.

When I transfer that value to writing though, it seems too often to inspire a long-winded, expository style that feels like homework: laborious, plodding, overly careful. Writing should be fun; the more fun it is, the more fun it’ll be to read. Anyway, it goes back to something Jeffrey Zeldman told me once: it’s a lot harder to make something short than it is to make something long.

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Are Design Blogs Killing Design Writing?

Though I posted it to this site’s Elsewhere section, I want to take a moment to point out Rick Poynor’s recent article for Print Magazine, “Easy Writer.” Since its publication, this piece has stirred up a little bit of controversy because it can be fairly easily read as an indictment of design blogs and their allegedly low standards for serious writing and criticism about the practice and art of design. Right or wrong, it’s an important essay that bears a closer look. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to take at least a passing glance at the response to Poynor’s article by D. Mark Kingsley at the design blog Speak Up, too.

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Popularity Contest

Webby AwardsNominations for this year’s Webby Awards are out, and I’m here to shamelessly plug a couple of favorites. First off, NYTimes.com is up for an award in the somewhat odd category of Best Home/Welcome Page. Suffice it to say, I’d encourage everyone to vote for everything Times-related, including our excellently written The Caucus, up for Best Political Blog; DealBook, our indispensable breaking news outlet covering the world of high finance; NYTimes.com Real Estate, our highly addictive index and marketplace for homes you can and can’t afford; and These Times Demand the Times, the companion site to our marketing campaign that debuted last year, which is up for an award in the category of Best Copy/Writing.

But that first award I mentioned for Best Home/Welcome page is the one I’ve got my eye focused on most keenly. It would be a very satisfying affirmation of the work we all do at NYTimes.com to have our front door, so to speak, recognized for all the hard management, debate and tireless tweaking that goes into it; it would be nice to get it, is all I’m sayin’. So please go cast your vote.

Also, I want to cite Design Observer, up for for best Culture/Personal Blog, as another nominee that I think deserves special attention. (It has no affiliation with The New York Times.) Though not without its flaws — I sometimes take issue with its reserved embrace of the conventions of online publishing — it’s nevertheless a remarkable site. The fact that this kind of critical design thinking is published regularly and for free is still hard to believe even though the site is in its fourth year of publishing. Over that time, it’s come to occupy a unique and indispensable position in the blogosphere as a platform for some of the most engaging, most provocative and, crucially, most accessible serious design discourse around. They have my vote.

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Loose Comments Sink Ships

Take a look at this Akismet graph charting the precipitous rise in comment spam across the blogosphere over the past few months, and you’ll see one reason Subtraction.com has been recently besieged by similar problems. Whatever percentage comment spammers are finding in what many might consider a sisyphean activity, it appears to be enough incentive for them to persist, and persist, and persist still, and their commercial litter is everywhere.

I thought I had my comment spam problem more or less locked down late last year, when my friend Su from House of Pretty helped me install AutoBan for Movable Type. That managed to tamp down the flood of comment spam for a while, but as per the aforementioned Akismet graph, the Internet-wide volume of this crap has increased nontrivially in just the past three months.

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Two or Three Things You Know About Me

With apologies to Jean-Luc Godard.

What is it about podcasters that allows them to make what looks like such a difficult medium seem so effortless? Brian Oberkirch is a great example: he’s the brains and voice behind the consistently fascinating and highly professional Edgework podcast, in which he hosts terrific dialogues with some of the best creative minds on the Internet. Last night he interviewed me via Skype at 10:00p EST, and he had the completed podcast episode up and available for download by 10:00a this morning. Wow, how do they do it? Anyway, it was a blast to talk to such a pro; Brian really knows how to run an interview. Have a listen and let me know how badly I stammered.

In other news, please vote for Subtraction.com in the 2007 Bloggies competition, where I’ve been very, very generously nominated for the “Best-Designed Weblog” category. That’s a huge honor, and I’m totally touched. I’m up against some formidable competition — not the least of whom is Veerle. I couldn’t possibly be saddened to lose to someone of that stature, because her blog is so clearly awesome. Still, it would be really nice to win, so if you can spare the time to vote for me, I’d greatly appreciate it.

Finally, you have two opportunities to come hear me ramble on about design: First, in just a few weeks I’ll be appearing in London at The Future of Web Apps conference (one of Ryan Carson’s many influential Carson Systems projects), where I’ll be talking about everything I know (and some things I don’t) about the topic of “Managing User Interfaces.” I’m pretty excited for that. I’ll also be doing a so-called ‘power session’ at South by Southwest Interactive in March, which will offer up for public appropriation everything I’ve ever appropriated myself about designing with grids. Mark Boulton will be sharing the stage with me, too, to provide the real substance. And of course, I’ll be available for hanging out afterwards, which after all is the real point behind the conference, right? Hope to see you there, or somewhere…

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Round-up Time!

I’ve been fighting what’s apparently a twenty-four hour bug since midday yesterday. Shivers and aches pained me all through the day and into night, and I didn’t even know if I could make it through a whole day of work today. But I underwent sustained, Cold-Eeze-powered counter-attack, and I feel loads better tonight, remarkably. Zinc is the magical cure for all my threatening colds, I’m finding.

Actually, I’m not back completely at one hundred percent. I’m still tired, and bound to my couch for the most part. But, at the very least, I have my senses about me enough to want to clear out some blogging items that have been hanging around for a while. So this is going to be another round-up style post. Get ready for random.

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