Sunday, May 06, 2012

Your own drumming blog: useful skills

I'm determined to follow my own instructions in the previous entry and tackle this starting-a-drumming-blog series in manageable pieces. Blogger's interface has actually made doing the work very nearly idiot(?)-proof but maybe this will help you get your work done a little more efficiently. Today we're going to look at some useful skills:

You don't have to be blazing with it, but you can't hunt and peck your way through a blogging career. Get acquainted with the touch typing method- if you aren't already- using one of the billion-or-so free typing tutor programs around. I'm partial to GNU Typist; you could maybe get yourself a copy of Typing of the Dead for fun, too.

Along with writing, using search engines effectively is really a primary skill. Here at CSD! we produce a lot of original content, but in most of the rest of the blogging world much of the job consists of seeking out things online and writing about them, and sharing a link. Google is pretty fool/idiot/lazy person-proof in that regard- you can just type in any old thing and get some kind of useful results- but it's worthwhile to take it a little further and learn to use the various query operators / wildcards / whatnot to open up some of the actual power of the search engine.

Using the keyboard
Put down the mouse- well, it's already down, but take your hand off it- and get used to doing a lot of tabbing, ctrl-c-ing, ctrl-x-ing, and ctrl-v-ing, and alt-whatevering to access the menus. Highlight text with the arrow keys, in conjunction with the ctrl key. Find out what the little bank of keys above the arrows does- Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, etc:

Over your blogging (and computing) career this will save you countless hours of waving the little pointer around the screen, hours you could spend practicing, writing, getting to know your family, etc.

Read on, fun stuff after the break:

Or not:

Blogger handles your formatting and design- your coding- automatically with mouse-friendly controls, but you should have at least a rudimentary grasp of how the code works, so when the software doesn't do what you want it to, you'll know how to fix it. That happens a lot, actually. Using Blogger or  WYSIWYG page design programs, it's easy to get the wrong idea of exactly what the medium can and cannot do, and attempt to do things for which it is completely ill-suited. Which will cause your work to look really bad or strange when viewed on other people's computers.

Here's my favorite introduction to HTML, from Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning There Was The Command Line:

The quickest way to get a taste of this is to fire up your web browser, visit a site, and then select the View/Document Source menu item. You will get a bunch of computer code that looks something like this: 
[Go ahead and do that now- tb] 
This crud is called HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and it is basically a very simple programming language instructing your web browser how to draw a page on a screen. Anyone can learn HTML and many people do. The important thing is that no matter what splendid multimedia web pages they might represent, HTML files are just telegrams. 
 When Ronald Reagan was a radio announcer, he used to call baseball games by reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire and were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself in a padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would eke out of the machine and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations. If the count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as he saw it in his mind's eye: "The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter's box to wipe the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep the dirt from home plate." and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper tape announced a base hit, he would whack the edge of the table with a pencil, creating a little sound effect, and describe the arc of the ball as if he could actually see it. His listeners, many of whom presumably thought that Reagan was actually at the ballpark watching the game, would reconstruct the scene in their minds according to his descriptions.
This is exactly how the World Wide Web works: the HTML files are the pithy description on the paper tape, and your Web browser is Ronald Reagan. The same is true of Graphical User Interfaces in general.

The entire book, though written in 1999 and well out-of-date as far as current events are concerned, is well worth reading for its general insights into computing- follow that link above to read it free online. It's short.

The upshot is, you definitely should know the basics of formatting text, and how to write a link from scratch. I mostly use the link, bold, italic, underline, horizontal rule, and line break tags. It's good to understand how tables and lists work, as well. Now is a good time to use your newly-developed googling skills to find an online tutorial that works for you.

Writing in English
Or whatever language you choose. Despite the musical notation, videos and things, written language is the true instrument of this form, so know and apply more-or-less correct English, and have an enough of an interest in it to communicate precisely and entertainingly.

A common pitfall is to over-explain- once you get into talking about how to do something, it can be very difficult to find the cutoff. Putting down a lot of words is OK if you've established some credibility with your audience as an entertaining writer- Digby and JC Christian are political bloggers who are examples of that. But for most of us the accumulated words are a barrier to communication- the reader takes one look at the giant blocks of text and decides he'd rather play Tetris.

Hacking ethic
This doesn't mean you go around trying to break into other people's computers or cracking software, or getting really into coding- for tech people, the word hacker implies a high level of mastery over computers, or whatever instrument in question; we'll practice it on a more humble scale, just applying a general attitude of figuring things out and of constructive laziness- that latter involving a lot of applied effort and ingenuity to the problem of making things easier and more efficient to do.

Next time: Software

No comments: