Heed The Call of the Shofar

This one is a bit late but still seems timely. My wife and I decided to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Curacao, at the Mikve Israel synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere. Now a Reconstructionist congregation, Mikve Israel is a “famous” building (if synagogues can have fame) for its sand floor, meant to remind visitors of the steps taken to protect the identity and assembly times of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the post-Inquisition Iberian. After taking a ferry across the narrow channel between the Otro and Punda sections of Willamsted (the floating Princess Emma pontoon bridge was opened for boat traffic), we found ourselves mildly lost in the tourist section of Punda.

Sporting northern-climate synagogue clothes, carrying a tallit bag and navigating stone streets in high heels and dress shoes, we were easily to pick out visually or audibly from 100 meters away. From behind us we heard a shout and the click of more heels on stone. We picked up the pace, as did our tail, until the shout resolved to “Shofar! Shofar!” — it was a member of the Mikve Israel congregation who had spotted us, realized we were lost, and offered to guide us to services.

I don’t know what prompted the woman to call to us using the named voice we would hear repeatedly through the morning service – the shofar, the call to action, the shrill, undulating insistence on waking up and taking action. Easier and less embarrassing than shouting “Hey Jewish tourists!” and “Rosh Hashanah this way!” but in the back of my mind I wonder how much this was modulated by the visible and abhorrent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe over the summer months. “Shofar” was simply an encoding that only the desired recipient would understand without drawing undue attention.

In four centuries, so much has changed, and yet so much has not.

Last Nerd Chapter

Last week I did something I swore I’d never do, for reasons I never would have guessed, and yet I feel good about the decision: I broke an author contract. Earlier this year I signed a contract to update Professional WordPress: Design and Developmentfor a third edition, covering the major WordPress 4.0 update. I came into the project with good intentions: some new ways to convey the power of the WordPress platform, pages of good ideas from my co-authors Brad Williams and David Damstra, and a schedule that mostly consumed the summer months. A short run into the project, though, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to keep my end of the writing and editing schedule, and continuing to make excuses was only putting Brad, David and the Wiley editorial team at risk for missing a short window with the production schedule.

Fortunately, the WordPress community is full of smart people who know how to write, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lisa Sabin-Wilson professionally and at WordCamps. She graciously agreed to come up to speed, join her co-worker Brad in editing the book, and picked up my end of the deal. Thanks, Lisa.

What went wrong? First of all, I am much busier with my day job than I anticipated. Writing requires concentration and a regular schedule; when I was working from home 75% of the time it was easy to carve out mornings and early evenings for writing; my daily commute eats that time. Second, or maybe a better first, I should have had an editorial calendar of my own coming in – things I wanted to see in the book, a list of edits and points to be covered, emphasized and explained, so that I felt I would have put my imprint on the printed product. But I’ve let my interest in the topic slide, so this become less a labor of love and more just one more project that needed attention. I think that’s the final disconnect: If you don’t love your material, it doesn’t flow and firing up the editor is suddenly work and not transcribing something more playful in its perceived value. You have to write because you love writing. It’s why I blog. It’s why I started playing with WordPress.

I let my co-authors down, which was never my intention, and I will remove my name as an author from the book, which hurts a bit as this WordPress book was the first of its kind and perhaps the book of which I am the most proud. But under-performing risked the quality of the finished product, and would be more injurious to everyone involved, including my own ego.

I’ve effectively written my last nerdy chapter, ending a run that started almost exactly twenty-five years ago, when writing about computer networking was a highly specialized and extra-nerdy endeavor. Three books, five co-authors, three editors, and three imprints later, I will readily admit that writing technical books was a huge impact on my career: it taught me to develop a story, to research the facts and underlying explanations (best career advice bit #4 from Sun Microsystems employee Neal Nuckolls: “Understand how the lower levels work before you work on the ones above”), and in some ways influenced my leadership and communication style. Most of that comes from a lunch I had with Tim O’Reilly in 1990, before he moved O’Reilly & Associates west, where he told me that a good technical book had to feel like you were learning by watching an expert play a complex game.

Mathematics Student, Summer 1979

Mathematics Student, Summer 1979 – Kazuko Suzuki and I have been friends for 33 years, and Christine Burnley and I worked together at Sun Microsystems. You never know where publishing leads.

I’m not calling the end to my book-writing endeavors just yet. Despite never having published anything outside of the math and engineering space (first publication: a puzzle solution in “The Mathematics Student” in the summer of 1979, in a newsletter that only had 20 issues), I think it’s time to dust off the hockey book (at least four people have asked about it in the last three months, including the main character), I’m going to spend a fair bit of time re-learning signal processing and elementary electronics so I can get to work on a few guitar pedal ideas (and tend to the growing pile of “simple fix” projects in my office). I started outlining a book about parenthood but I’m not sure I’m an authority or even understand how the lower layers work (OK, to be fair, I understand those lower layers from high school health class but the actual parenting part is an ongoing experiment). I may finally, with authority and passion, just listen to a lot of music and write about it for J. David and the Star Maker Machine, as I’ve been promising since the 2nd edition of “Professional WordPress” went to print.

I’ll sign the postscript on my tech pubs run with a request: Buy and read technical books. Find out what you don’t know, and what questions you don’t know to ask. Discover how other people approach problems and craft solutions. Internet search engines make it way too easy to find answers to our questions, even if they are narrow or undershoot the possible solution space. E-books, and ebook subscription services like Safari Books Online (DISCLAIMER: all three of my books are available in Safari) make it easy to consume lots of content. If you find a category that’s not addressed in a way to fires your passion, well, I know some good book publishers.