How Do You Tell When Something Is Good?


Friday, 9.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know. – Ambrose Bierce

Do you think we live in a world where what we see and read is better than ever before?

There is clearly more stuff. More people are writing and creating words, music and video. They are coming up with games and apps and platforms.

All shiny and new.

So, what makes one creation better than another? Why do you sit and watch one box set, unable to turn away, for week after week while others you abandon after the first ten minutes?

One test – much loved by the analytics folk – is to look at what people do. If they can watch your behaviour, see how you vote with your mouse and remote and money, then they can figure out what you like and give you more of it.

The thing with analysis is that it looks back at what has happened. You can try and do more of what worked in the past but, as the financial folk keep reminding us, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Also, this whole thinking in aggregate, in big numbers, in terms of markets is applying statistics to people. And no one really wants to be a statistic.

Take consumer behaviour, for example. In his book Buy.ology, Martin Lindstrom writes about Socrates and how he told his students to think about a mind like a block of wax. If an image is pressed into the wax and stays there, then we remember it. If not, it’s like it was never there. In other words, it leaves an impression.

Lindstrom goes on to describe how the things that leave an impression on us, from touching a hot stove to being embarrassed when we told someone how we felt about them, shape the way we start to respond to things.

But, while we share many of these things none of us have exactly the same. Imagine all these experiences like strands hanging down in front of you. You pick and weave your experiences into your own unique sense of identity.

So, while a statistical approach can be approximately right the ideal approach is one that is made just for you. Not one that is designed to make you feel special but one that actually is special.

John McPhee is an American non-fiction writer. I heard about him in a podcast and was interested enough to take a look at the cover of his latest book, Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process, but not interested enough to buy it.

Until I read this review by Michael Dirda on the Washington Post that had these lines:

“However, its opening two chapters, in which McPhee presents his various systems for structuring articles, do require a bit of perseverance. There are graph-like illustrations, circles, arrows, number lines, maps and even an irrelevant excursus about an outmoded text editor called Kedit. The upshot of it all is simply: Take time to plan your piece so that it does what you want.”

There are two points that the writer makes: drawing pictures is a waste of time; and text editors are irrelevant.

Well, if you have read this blog for a while, you’ll know that drawings are a big part of how I write. And I write with a text editor, possibly one even older than the outmoded one that the writer of the Post excoriates.

So, of course, I had to buy the book. Because now I desperately needed to read those two chapters.

And that’s the funny thing about people. They don’t act in the way you want them to. Just because you think things should be one way doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree.

So, that takes us back to asking how we know when something is good. And one answer is that it’s good if it’s been around a while.

Like pencils.


If you’re a writer, you know how to use a pencil.

What’s newer than a pencil?

Pens, text editors, Microsoft Word, some kind of SAAS program?

If you write with a pencil your words will still be legible a few hundred years from now.

Penned words may start to fade.

Plain text will be readable as long as we have computers.

Your Word documents from even ten years ago are probably lost.

And that SAAS company went bust not long from now.

In other words, choose things that have some history because they have shown they can last.


Karthik Suresh

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