Ian Hines’ Unfinished Interview With Me

March 25th, 2010

Like Jorge Quinteros, Ian Hines was in the process of interviewing me for his weblog, but had to shut it down for personal reasons before we finished it. Below is the full interview.

Ian: First of all, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I think this is going to be a lot of fun.

Let’s start at the beginning: How long have you kept a weblog, and what made you get started in the first place?

Kyle: TightWind is my first (and only) weblog, and I began writing it in April 2008. This wasn’t the first time I wrote online, however. In late 2006, I discovered Newsvine, which at the time was a rather intimate community of people who posted articles on technology and current events and discussed them. The conversation on Newsvine at that point was wonderful. The group, due to its size or everyone’s shared interests, tended to have informed, deep, and honest discussions based around people’s articles. It was an ideal place to write, because the conversation was so good and the group self-regulated. Everyone expected respectful and insightful comments, and they also expected well thought-out, well constructed and written articles. I made some good friends on Newsvine, and still talk to a few, like Faruk Ates, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

I have been writing in some form or other for a very long time. I wrote short stories in the first grade, and after the September 11th attacks, I began writing political and international relations commentary privately and on various forums across the web. Newsvine was very exciting for me, because I had found a place where I could have my own “column” of sorts, and publish my thoughts, and people I respected actually read them. So I wrote consistently on Newsvine until April 2008. My writing became more refined, and I was quite happy with what I was doing, but unfortunately the quality of Newsvine contributors dropped by that time. I wasn’t happy with the discussion that was happening anymore, so I decided to try something new and create my own site.

I created TightWind for a very specific purpose, but not a specific subject: to write as well as I possibly can, and continue to improve. Luckily after writing for a few weeks I stumbled into Michael Mistretta’s weblog, and through Michael found a bunch of great people: Pat Dryburgh, Jorge Quinteros, and Chris Bowler. All four are talented, smart, motivated and all-around good guys, the kind of people you want to surround yourself both to work with and have as friends. That’s the second reason for starting it that I didn’t even know was a reason: becoming a part of a great community of people.

Ian: I had a very similar experience when I decided to restart my blogging earlier this year: I began blogging with the intention of sharing stories about my newborn son, but it soon evolved into much more. Like you, I stumbled upon Michael’s weblog and, through him, Pat, Jorge, Chris, and you (among others). Since then my blogging focus has expanded and I’ve come to feel a part of a larger community. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one with that story.

Back to your blogging, I’m curious where you developed your interest in foreign policy? I’ve always been more of a domestic policy guy myself, but I can see that you clearly have an interest in the way the United States fits into the larger international community (particularly Sino-American Relations).

Kyle: September 11th. When I woke up that morning, I was just an eighth grade student not interested in much besides music. I knew a decent amount about the world, just because I liked reading things about the world and my Dad reads the news voraciously, but I was still just a kid; what I knew was mostly of abstract interest. By the end of the day, I was more aware than I’d ever like to be of just how important knowing what’s going on in the world beyond our own borders is.

I followed the news on the attacks every day for months, waiting to find out more about what had happened and what our response would be, and this became a habit. Just months prior, during the controversy surrounding the 2000 election, my Dad watched the news on it every night, and it annoyed me — I wanted to watch something entertaining. After that day, though, I sat down and watched the news immediately after school, and at night with my Dad, and began asking as many questions as I could about everything. The Middle East, al Qaeda, our own political process. I wanted to know as much as I could, but my focus was on Islam, the Middle East, and al Qaeda.

Foreign policy was my main interest because I saw just how important it was on that day. Throughout high school, I didn’t just read the news, but I dove as deeply into studying Islam and Middle Eastern history as I could. I read the Qu’ran, I read Bernard Lewis’s works, I read long-ranging histories of the region, and anything else I could get my hands on. I wanted to know as much as I could, because the explanations given for the attack in popular media were so terribly shallow. My goal was to understand the historical, rather than the immediate, causes of the attack. My thought was, that if we can understand the world better, then we can insure that something like it doesn’t happen again to us or anyone else.

So my focus, actually, has been on the Middle East and Islam. My interest in China is something of a fluke; my first year of college, I took an early Chinese philosophy course, and quite enjoyed it — philosophy is a personal love of mine that developed during high school doing debate, so reading Kongzi, Laozi, Mengzi, Xunzi and Zhuangzi was fascinating. So then I decided to take a Chinese history course, and loved it… You can see where this is going. I found parallels between China’s struggles during the last years of the Qing dynasty, and after its collapse, its struggles to “modernize” due to its economic troubles and influx of Western ideas and interference, and the Muslim world’s struggle to do the same in the latter years of the Ottoman empire and after its collapse. Both are suffering in part because of the difficulty of modernizing while protecting and extending their rich histories and culture.

So how other parts of the world (particularly Middle Eastern countries and China) can develop and move toward some form of democracy while retaining their culture and history, and what role the U.S. plays in this process, are my central interests. Technology is a mostly ancillary interest, relevant to me in how it can benefit our lives and the lives of people around the world.

Ian: That’s really cool that the interest is derived from 9/11. I don’t know a single person who can’t remember exactly where they were when they heard that news, and I think for so many of us it really shaped the world in the aftermath.

Your writing is so sharp, and so insightful: it’s wild to think that you’re still in college. How do you hope to see your writing evolve over the next year or so? What are your plans for after graduation?

Kyle: I see a lot of things to improve on. There’s small things — better word choice, sentence structure, et cetera — but I’d like my analysis to become more technical, rather than just scratching the surface. John Gruber, while explaining what he’s trying to do with Daring Fireball, said that with each article, he’s trying to write something for the New Yorker. Something that doesn’t just wade in the shallows of a topic, but dives in to the details, while still retaining an overarching focus (the intent isn’t just to be detailed, but to use the micro to illuminate the macro). That’s my goal, too: to find meaning in whatever I’m writing about.

I’m trying to expand into fiction writing as well. A well-written story can tell us something about ourselves, and the world, in a more truthful and fundamental way than any non-fiction piece can. I’ve always had some kind of reverence for how moving fiction can be. So for the past few months, I’ve been working on a short story.

I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, because as of now, it isn’t that good. Non-fiction writing is easy to write: you put down your thoughts in a logical manner. But a story, to be convincing, requires so many more things. Well-constructed story and dialogue that is both believable and entertaining, and most importantly, a perfectly-conceptualized idea that you are trying to convey through actions, symbols, and bits of dialogue. It’s magnitudes more challenging to do, and I suppose that’s also why it’s so rewarding.

I’ll be graduating from college in May. (Wow, it’s hard to believe it’s finished already.) After, I am immediately going to graduate school for my Masters of Accounting, and then I plan on doing public auditing for a few years. The reason for this is that accounting gives you a firm and tangible grasp of how a company is operating.

I want that understanding, and experience, because my intent is to either start a company, or work for a startup. I don’t really want to work for a large company — it doesn’t seem very fulfilling to me. I’d much rather be starting something with a real vision, with the intent of doing something fundamentally better than it is now. Business isn’t about making money. It’s about doing something worth doing, and making money as a result, in that order. I always go back to what Walt Disney said: We don’t make movies to make money; we make money to make movies.

I want to be a part of a company which has that as its core belief.

Ian: Very cool. I like the Walt Disney quote, and I could easily apply it to politics (in my mind): You work for change to gain power, you gain power to bring change. I like the sentiment.

I’m curious: do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written for Tightwind?

Kyle: My favorite piece is “Alone With Our Triumphs“. I think it’s my best piece, both in the writing and how well it conveys the idea. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while — that the most successful people aren’t concerned with what other people are doing. They don’t criticize others for doing things wrong, complain that they can’t do what they want to do because someone won’t let them, or buy into what others say they can and can’t do. They see what they want to achieve, and they just find a way to do it.

It’s a powerful mindset, and it can change how a society functions. If individuals knew exactly what they want to accomplish, and were unswervingly-focused on finding ways to make it reality (rather than find problems with what others are doing), many of the problems we have would disappear. I think that, too often, we’re too concerned with how other people are living their lives, and we replace focusing on ourselves with criticizing others.

Ian: I remember that piece: it was (is?) wonderful. There are so many great lines / thoughts in it, it’s hard to pinpoint the key phrase or theme (which is good). I linked to it at the time, which is an around-about way of saying I think it’s one of your best, as well.

What about other people’s writing? What are some of your favorite blog posts that you’ve read–the ones that make you think, “Man, if only I could write that well…”?

Kyle: Shawn Blanc’s interview with John Gruber in 2008 was a huge inspiration to me. The questions were excellent, and Gruber’s answers were insightful. Even better, the interview developed, each question building on Gruber’s last answer. How Shawn conducted the interview, and what Gruber said, were both motivational for me. I read every word of that interview.

Gruber wrote:

My other suggestion (also, I think, stolen from Graham) is to concentrate on writing things with lasting value. I’m not sure I’ve been doing a good job of this at all lately — I think too much of what I write currently at DF is about stuff that’s only relevant right now. There are a lot of people writing for the web today; but there aren’t that many at all who are trying to do great writing for the web.

That was my goal when I started TightWind: to write pieces that contributed something, and were worth reading.

Paul Graham wrote a fantastic essay in April 2008 titled “Be Good.” Graham’s thesis was that when starting a business, you shouldn’t focus so much on how it will make money. Rather, you should focus on making your product or service as great as possible. Make something people will love to use, and revenue will follow. I don’t agree that you should ignore how you will make money, because 1. making money is what sustains the business, and 2. if someone isn’t willing to pay, then it might not be such a great idea.

But the sentiment is exactly right: a business should exist for a purpose, to make something better. Graham then asked a question that slapped me upside the head. He asked, could a for-profit company exist whose purpose is to solve problems for people that don’t have any money? Could a for-profit company solve problems like malaria that affect the poor almost exclusively, and that is addressed almost exclusively by non-profits now?

His essay made me think about the world in a much different way, and those are the ones I value the most.

Ian: I think those essays fit nicely into a larger theme I’ve noticed,
which is the overarching value you place on having a sense of adding value in everything that you do. To that end, if you could offer any advice to someone considering starting a new, serious blog—say, yourself back a few years ago—what would it be?

Kyle: To take a little time, and find what you are passionate about. Whatever it is you find yourself reading about constantly, and thinking about when you should be thinking about something else; that thing that just grabs your attention like nothing else does, and leaves you terribly excited… That’s what you need to write about.

But you need to go deeper. Think about why it excites you so much. What is it about the subject that fascinates you so much? It’s not enough just to say that you love the Mac. Why do you? Is there something about Apple’s approach to business that excites you? Can you find a deeper meaning in that, which can be applied to other businesses or even how people live their own lives? Use what excites you as your theme for exploring the subject.

And once you’ve found that, write — a lot. Whenever you have inspiration. Not everything will turn into something worth posting, but that’s how it works. Also, find other people interested in the same (or similar) things, and read everything they write. See how they write, what it is that makes their writing so effective, and learn from it.

But don’t read in silence. Send them an email with your thoughts. Form a community out of shared interests. That’s the most important thing writing has opened up for me.

Ian: You recently shared your thoughts on how web-based authors can monetize their content (Permalink), and I must say none of the options look particularly good. The best sounds like this idea of a “content store,” but you don’t seem very optimistic about it coming to fruition. I’m curious: don’t you think this sort of store would stifle the dialogue we’ve all come to enjoy about the web?

Kyle: Let me digress for a bit.

The best option for everyone—readers and writers—is some kind of Content Store along with a content application. It would make publishing for writers dead-simple, and it would be in a well-designed application, so readers could easily subscribe to their favorite writers and read their content in a standardized format.

I hate the idea of individual applications for each writer or publication I want to read. It clutters my iPhone (or iPad) with unnecessary icons, and it forces me to learn a new application for every writer or publication. There’s too much time focused on the application rather than the content, and any time a reader is thinking about the former rather than the latter, that’s a bad thing. Nonetheless, I thought through what a TightWind application of this sort would look like, and tried to make it as attractive as possible for readers. I know what I think about it, but I wanted to see what readers thought. The results have been that a dedicated application isn’t what they want.

Here’s the problem with writing: because the web as a reading medium is absolutely terrible, and the web made writing free to read, we’ve gotten used to the idea that writing isn’t worth anything. And why should people pay for it when (1) they have to read it through a web browser, (2) publishers treat their writing like it has no value (pagination, poor typography, obstructive, annoying ads for worthless products), and (3) most writing online has become a vehicle for pageviews, rather than for the sake of writing? I don’t want to pay for that, and I won’t ever pay for it.

That’s why the iPad is so important: we need a change of medium. Reading on the iPad can be a wonderful experience, even better than reading print. Because the medium can respect the content, the content will become better, too. I think people would be willing to pay for that.

But to your question: it’s possible it would lessen dialogue if writers and publishers do not also retain a free web version.

The potential is we won’t be able to freely link to articles and discuss them, because the only people who will be able to read them are those who subscribe.

This doesn’t worry me. I don’t think independent writers have any desire to gate off the web version of their content—the readership left after they did so would be a fraction. For large publishing companies, e.g. magazines and newspapers, there is more of a desire to wall off their content. But they will run into the same problem as independent writers. Moreover, the industry is moving toward a premium approach—the New York Times is considering a free/pay approach where you can read a certain number of articles per month but beyond that you must pay, and the Associated Press is developing an iPad application as well.

This will end up limiting discussion somewhat, but if paid-for writing succeeds, consider how beneficial the change in content will be to discussion. If a writer depends on their readers directly paying them for their writing, rather than on advertising, they are much more likely to write quality content their readers want, rather than attention-grabbing, shallow crap that attracts pageviews. The medium, and the payment mechanism, all influence the writing. Better, more thoughtful, writing can only improve our discussion (in quality if not in quantity). I think that outweighs any potential decrease in the amount of discussion happening.

Ian: I’m still not sure I’m entirely clear on what would make the “content store” so interesting. Basically it would be a really slick, print-like RSS reader through which I’d receive content from my favorite authors? How would the formatting of the content vary from author to author? How would the content differ from what was available on the web—if at all?

I see the appeal of it, but the specifics seem hazy to me.

Kyle: I just have ideas for what I’d like to see, no firm answers to those questions. I’d like to see writers treat this as separate from their web content. They would only publish their long-form pieces that they’ve labored on until they can’t any more.

I’m hoping for a content store, like what Neven Mrgan detailed in January : one where you can publish the work you’re proud of, and it can be read, listened to or watched in an equally good format.

What’s interesting to me about it, both as a writer and a reader, is it’s a place where I can eliminate the noise and just read pieces that are lovingly written, on a device that doesn’t have any distractions—just the piece I’m reading, with beautiful typography and layout.

I want an application that has the same feeling as print, that allows me to become engulfed in the piece. Every time there’s a new piece, I want to set aside some time, sit somewhere quiet, and just read it, with my fullest attention. This would be an application where I only subscribe to the writers I love to read, so every new piece that pops up is worth my attention. I don’t want to sort through posts, trying to find something worth reading. In this application, I want to subscribe to writers whose every piece is worth reading.

I want something it both as a reader and a writer, because an application like this—where readers pay you for your writing, and read it in a convincingly-good format—encourages a different kind of writing than what we’re used to on the web. The web—because people are typically reading when they have a small amount of time, the format is terrible for reading (they’re distracted, and the web browser isn’t ideal), and pageviews-based advertising encourages more posts rather than better posts—creates demand for short, quick posts. That’s most of what we read online. But because this application would be excellent for long-form pieces, and writers are paid directly for their work, quality pieces are encouraged.

That excites me. This could just be an especially good RSS reader, where you only subscribe to RSS feeds you especially like, but that doesn’t really solve any of this. You still get the link-list posts and the short posts, and that’s all still encouraged, because nothing’s really changed. (Not that link-list posts are bad—they’re very useful. But that’s what I see RSS readers as for.)

I don’t know how many people are interested in this sort of thing. I suspect there’s quite a few. We are all willing to pay for great software by independent developers, because we know exactly how much thought and work they put into it. We know it’s something they love to build, and they deserve to be supported for that. If the format is right, I think the same applies for writers.