Swapping "output" for "input" - taking a blogging holiday

 by Martin Belam, 15 April 2011

I’ve had some great feedback over the last few weeks from several people on how much they’ve been enjoying the currybetdotnet blog recently, and lots of questions about how I manage to keep the pace of publishing up. Well, one of the ways I keep up my enthusiasm for blogging is to periodically take a break from it. I’m well overdue one of my “blogging holidays”, so you can expect this to be the last post for a while.

I’m not just taking a break though.

Partly inspired by the lovely people I’ve been working with on the relaunch of the Guardian Books site, enthused by conversations with Mary Hamilton, Matthew Solle and Karen Loasby, and definitely with a view to trying to connect some ideas beyond the worlds of information architecture and journalism, I’m going to be actively trying to swap “output” for “input”.

My intention is to take all the time I usually spend writing for the blog, and turn that into time that I spend reading. You can follow my progress on one of our new Guardian book lists. Please feel free to suggest titles (including fiction) that I should be reading over the next few weeks in the comments below, which will remain open for a few days. I’ll then be switching comments off across this site, and recharging my blogging batteries to return in the summer.

In the meantime, in case you missed something along the way, here are the most popular blog posts I’ve written this year:

1. The vandalism of the BBC’s online history
The most popular blog post in terms of page views so far in 2011 has been my anger at the BBC’s blatant attempt to impress the government by announcing the closure of nearly 200 websites, many of which were “mothballed” anyway, and some of which are the oldest available unique slices of the history of presenting news on the web.

2. All your IA Summit slides are belong to us
Although I initially described it as futile, I’ve gathered together over 70 sets of slides, reading lists, activity sheets, sketchnotes, videos and blog posts from the recent IA Summit in Denver.

3. The iPad, iA Writer, and prolific blogging
The secret of my prolific blogging is using the iA Writer on an iPad balanced on my knees on my morning commute. It gives me twenty minutes of dedicated writing time every day. Which will now be twenty minutes of dedicated reading time.

4. 5 lessons from an Information Architecture career
The conclusion of my keynote talk at the Polish IA Summit was the five key lessons I’ve drawn from 13 years of making digital products - pragmatism, empathy, trust, leadership and experimentation.

5. RSS dead for newspapers? Not at The Guardian it isn’t
Because it has never had widespread mainstream adoption, someone always seems to be ringing the death knell for RSS. The removal of the little orange icons from some newspaper websites sparked this latest scare, which looked at RSS mainly as a consumer proposition, rather than as an information transfer mechanism.

6. The great BBC website massacre - the BBC replies to criticism
Following the announcement of plans to delete a wide range of websites from BBC Online, the BBC was forced to issue a clarifying statement. This was my reaction to it.

7. Is Guardian live blogging really the “death of journalism”?
My response to a blog post that derided the live blogging format of The Guardian website’s overnight coverage of the Christchurch earthquake earlier this year.

8. “Telling Stories with Data” - the BBC's Scott Byrne-Fraser at London Hacks/Hackers
I attended this Hacks/Hackers talk which looked at the processes and story-telling techniques used by the BBC interactives desk.

9. The Guardian's Paul Lewis on crowd-sourcing investigative journalism with Twitter
My notes from an event which saw a panel including Paul Lewis discuss “crowd-sourcing”. Paul recounted the journalism behind his use of Twitter to report on the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga.

10. “Neither TV station nor repurposed website” - Sky News app for the iPad
I think that Sky News have done something really different and innovative with the way they present their content on the iPad.

And bubbling under...

11. Guardian Readers’ Editor on the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution

12. “Should journalists always read the comments underneath their articles?”

13. Why comment spam still exists - and why I'll stay ‘dofollow’

14. “Strategic UX” by Leisa Reichelt at London IA

15. “Do Information Architects have a role in datajournalism?” debate on SIGIA-L

16. Chris Moran explaining SEO at The Guardian

17. BBC Sport defends itself against accusations of selling paid SEO links on BBC Online

18. “Why content strategy is a big deal for UX professionals” - Jonathan Kahn at Lightning UX

19. “Tags are magic!” series completed on the Guardian Developer blog

20. News innovation isn’t just about writing code, it is about how we use that code to tell stories


I heartily recommend Wired for War, by P.W. Singer, which covers the use of robotics by the military, but also the implications for the wider world and the moral and legal questions it all raises.
Plus I've finally finished the most recent of William Gibson's contemporary novels, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History - all really great, and lovely examples of someone fusing technology into the fabric of a good story.

Book recommendations including fiction, you say? In no particular order, with no obligation intended or implied, and some of these are graphic novels and/or art books. And in one case written in an entirely made-up language.

  • Blindsight by Peter Watts (technology, futurism, space, aliens)

  • The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian (poignant meditation on miracles, religion and the apocalypse; also, giant floating hospital Noah's Ark)

  • Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erbruch (beautiful art book on death)

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (because everyone involved in the business of storytelling should read it)

  • The Red Tree by Shaun Tan (amazingly beautiful)

  • The Codex Seraphinianus (not technically something you can "read", but I think you would enjoy it)

  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (if you haven't already read it)

  • Bangs (short story) by Zadie Smith (it is delightful)

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke (Victoriana, magic, fairies, wit, Englishness)

  • Bear v Shark by Chris Bachelder (bears, sharks, the name is better than the book to be honest)

  • Five Flights Up by Toni Schlesinger (collection of her New York living columns)

  • The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman (dreams, stories, magic)

  • The Harry Potter series (excellent commentary on the alienation of middle-class youth)

  • The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker (non-fiction, language, embodied mind, explains the distressingly large number of popular scientists named Stephen)

  • Spares by Michael Marshall Smith (because it's better than Never Let Me Go, regardless of the film)

  • IQ: The brilliant idea that failed by Stephen Murdoch (intelligence, assessment, obviously biased, another popular scientist named Stephen)

  • TekWar by William Shatner (exactly as bad as you think)

  • At least one Terry Pratchett book

  • The Zombie Survival Guide (because you can never be too careful)

Er. Please feel free to ignore any and/or all of these, and also to borrow books from me. I have too many.

Enjoy your time away from blogging! I've been reading for a while but have never commented before - thanks for inviting book recommendations!

If you're reading one Terry Pratchett book, I think The Truth is possibly the funniest, about the coming of newspapers to the Discworld - but any books with the City Watch in are good. Feet of Clay (the one with the golems) is particularly dextrously written - once you finish you'll be tempted to reread and spot the clues in every scene.

If you're at all interested in historical fiction, CJ Sansom's Shardlake books are some of the best, most detailed historical mysteries I've ever read: the protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who investigates mysteries during the reign of Henry VIII. They're big books but will transport you to another time and place.

Lindsey Davies writes in a much more snappy, sardonic style - Ancient Rome is the scene for Eastenders-style dramas and witty asides from informer Falco, who investigates murders aided and abetted by his better half and the disreputable rabble of his extended family. I think the first book in the series is either Shadows in Bronze or The Silver Pigs - anyway, they can be read in any order and you'll find many of them in the library.

I recently enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery - a much more literary book set in a Paris apartment block which moved me far more than I thought it would.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is my classic satisfying light reading recommendation - a slim novella with fantastic grotesque characters reformed by the arrival of a determined young woman.

Finally, depending on how much time you're willing to spend, the books that really changed me are Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy. They are massive sweeping epics stretching from the English Restoration to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, including the Royal Society, pirate queens, vagabond kings, the court of Versailles, the development of banking, spycraft, alchemy, and all kinds of intrigues from history made utterly compelling. Just to warn you though - the books are about 900 pages each. Still, I'd say taking a summer to read them is a worthwhile investment: you'll never look at London in the same way again!

Oh, I do like an invite for book recommendations! I think your idea of a blog break is a good one too, it's important to keep the batteries charged.

I would like to second Rosie's suggestion of the Baroque trilogy, it is amazing. And if you haven't read it before, Cryptonomicon, also by Neal Stephenson is very good indeed. He's one of those authors who transcend genre and style. Brilliant.

If you are in the mood for some escapism, then the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin is good. In a brutally realistic way that is. One of those series where no-one is safe, of even totally good (or bad).

In a different vein John Keay's history of India is very interesting, as is anything by William Dalrymple, To the Holy Mountain and White Mughals are particularly good. Insightful travel and history. And if you haven't already read them, Emergence and Ghost Maps by Steven Johnson (about networked intelligence and the Soho typhoid outbreak of the 1840s respectively) are worth a read.

Enjoy the break.

I've only really just started to get into the whole blogging thing, used to love the old open diary sites etc.. back in the day I really want to get back into writing and reading. Two books I defiantly recommend are: The handmaid's tale by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K Dick. Two very underrated books in my opinion.... Enjoy your break and I look forward to browsing the rest of your blog posts.

Books: just one, but it's great: Annie Proulx, Shipping News

The best books I've read in the last 18 months or so:
Ulverton - Adam Thorpe (modern novel looking at the history of an english village - very quirky and original)
How many miles to babylon - Jennifer Johnston (ww1 novel)
Wolf Hall - hilary mantel
Miracles of Life - JG Ballard (autobiography)
The unofficial countryside - Richard Mabey
Border Crossing - Pat Barker
Three sheets to the wind - Pete Brown (possibly my favourite of his beer books)
Home - Marilynne Robinson
Fragrant Harbour - John lanchester (a total surprise - brilliant book about hong kong)
The cunning man - (Robertson Davies - but if you're new to this fantastic writer, start with the Deptford Trilogy which is superb)
Map addict - Mike Parker (which I can't believe you haven't read yet)


I would very so recommend

Miracles of Life or the The Red Tree. Both amazing reads.

Keep up to date on my new blog