On writing material

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These are some principles which we consider before, while or after writing a piece of material. We will write them down here one by one.

Simple Minds principle

Background

This principle is named after the band Simple Minds. We don't want to, in any way, imply anything about this band's quality (how do you measure this?) or say they suck - it's Primus who suck. We do however use the band's name since this band's singer made a decision that we, in turn, use as basis for this principle. The band's singer decided to make a cover of a Neil Young's song "Rockin' in the Free World". What's the problem with this? Well, we consider Simple Minds and thereby the singer not to be very Rock and Roll. Usually we like when bands span genres (e g Jimi Hendrix version of All along the watchtower, Aretha Franklin doing The Weigth etc etc), but in this case we think it's a no-no. This gives us two things to consider when or while writing material:

  1. am I the one to write this piece of material, should someone else write this or is there no need for this at all?
  2. should I allow or assist (or even prevent?) my colleague from writing this?

The first consideration in the case of the cover version should result in a no. The second consideration should have resulted in a manager, producer, friend, musician, family member, psychiatrist or what ever, simple stopping the singer from releasing this cover. It's perhaps kind of tough of us on this one band or singer. In the 80's they were very successful. But the reason we stick to using their name is of course the name itself, Simple Minds. We're, again, not judging the band (apart from one choice of cover song on the singer's solo albums). Feel free to name a principle after us (keeping in mind that "Simple Minds" is taken).

Usage

Ask your self:

  • Am I or we the one(s) to write this? Am I or are we credible? Do I really know the subject?
  • Perhaps we should call the whole thing off?
  • Can I get, or do I need professional help (in doing this)?

Example

Here's an example of how to use the principle. Let's assume Rikard wants to write a piece of text about public key encryption using Java. Then we must ask ourselves:

  • Is Rikard the one to write this? - does he know enough about programming in Java, security and public key encryption to write this? If not, does Henrik? Who can check the quality and correctness of the material? Do we have credibility? Do we have something to show for our credibility?
  • Is there a need for this text or can we refer to something already written? Why is this piece of text needed? What do we add to the world by writing this?

Assuming there's no material available we decide to write material our selves. Rikard for sure knows about Java and he's done some public key encryption labs. He's not the most experienced developer on the planet but for introduction material his skills will do fine. Henrik knows too little when it comes to the Java encryption APIs (Henrik even used the, according to his comments in the source code, prime number 16 once) so Henrik might need to read some docs to be able to verify Rikard's material. In this case, being material used for introduction, the need for credibility is not high so we're ok on that. So we pass the Simple Minds principle.... this time.

Another example. Let's assume Henrik and Rikard liked writing an introduction on public key encryption, even though they have little work experience of writing applications using this technology. They haven't taken any encryption classes either, as part of their education. Now, would it be a good idea to start an Encryption programming Lab and invite people to come and program, do hackatons et cetera?

The answer would be 'No', because Henrik and Rikard lack the skills and experiences needed. There are many better suited experts who would be a better choice for starting or running such a Lab. It probably wouldn't help to do some research about encryption either. Security is a field in programming which requires both expert knowledge and understanding about encryption and obtaining that takes more than talking or reading about the matter. One needs experience also from doing the matter (write applications using security and encryption).

On a side-note, Henrik and Rikard are fascinated by the amount of research and academic courses that are about stuff, as opposed to how stuff works or how to do stuff. Imagine a course about programming where the course is centered around what programmers do without teaching anything about how programmers do what they do. Now imagine someone teaching this course about programming, without having any knowledge or experience about how to program...

They have seen literature and course descriptions that clearly suffer from this phenomena, the fascination about the about. Examples include stuff about computer networking, where the bulk of the material consists of name dropping of various network standards and protocol, without ever showing or explaining what those protocols are or how to use those protocols, or even when to choose one protocol over another.

Lynyrd Skynyrd principle

Lynyrd Skynyrd (of which Henrik has been a fan for a long time, a huge fan!) is not exactly considered the Pierre Boulez of music. They write catchy music. We're not trying to say the music is trivial in any way - we love it, and they write lyrics one can understand. This principle is about simplicity and focus:

  1. is this piece of material easy to understand, is the language easy enough to get through?
  2. do we have anything to say?
  3. can people relate to this?

Applying these considerations on the song Gimme Three Steps (by Skynyrd) screams for three yes. Applying these considerations on certain academic papers will most likely scream for three no. Applying these considerations on an article or book by certain French postmodernists might yield three loud no, check out Sokal Affair if in doubt. Want an example of a piece of text excluding you? Well, here you go

"it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation using the value of 'reference back' possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports." - Jacques Lacan

Why do authors use a complicated language? Could it be that they want to exclude you? Could it be that it should be hard to question them? We've been reading a lot of academic articles in our work here at the University of Gothenburg and we are sad to say that our university is no exception in breaking our considerations when it comes to papers. We have read scientic articles from natural science that are far easier to understand than papers regarding so called soft issues in IT. Our considerations rule out unneccesary papers.

So, be more like Lynyrd Skynyrd when trying to communicate a message.

Use a language that is easy to understand and that does not hide the message.

Example

Let's continue with the previous example and see how to use this principle. Using this principle we must ask ourselves:

  • Is the text easy to understand? We could check if we use the same word for different things (bad) or different words for the same thing (also bad).
  • Is there a need for this text or can we refer to something already written? Why is this piece of text needed? What do we add to the world by writing this?
  • Is the language and the context in the material such that we include rather than exclude people from using this material? If we want to teach functions in C it is not very sound to start by writing a function doing Fourier transformation since this will exclude people not into math - and perhaps even some into math but not knowing Fourier transforms.

...and let's make this absolutely clear, we love Lynyrd Skynyrd!