In Praise of Incrementalism #

Pinky: "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"
The Brain: "The same thing we do every night, Pinky — try to take over the world!"

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but from what I remember, if the Brain had set his sights slightly lower, he definitely could have taken over a city, or perhaps a small state as the first step in one night, and left the rest of the world to following nights.

Along these lines, I was talking with Dan about why I thought of Stack Overflow/Exchange as being significantly more successful than Quora. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they have comparable traffic, users, or other metrics. However, from an outsider's perspective, Stack Overflow made fast progress on its initial goal of being a good programming Q&A site. There was never a clear mission accomplished moment, but at this point its success does not feel in doubt. There were follow-on steps, some more successful than others, and a general upward-and-onward feeling.

On the other hand, Quora's goals from the start were outrageous (in a good way): “Imagine a world where I knew everything that I wanted to know, as long as someone else in the world knew it.” I'm sure that having J.J. Abrams give his thoughts on monster/action scenes is a milemarker on that path. However, it's harder to see how far they've come or to feel like the site has a well-functioning foundation/core functionality, since the path is a continuous curve rather than a step function.*

Google might be considered a counter-example to this; from very early on its goal was quite broad and audacious. However, having a steady stream of corpora to add shows definite progress. There is also the matter of perceived goals versus actual internal goals. Thefacebook was long discounted by some as being a site just for college kids, surely even after they set their sights higher. Having others underestimate your ambition (but not too much, lest they ignore you) seems beneficial.

In the end, this probably reflects my personal bias towards the incremental Ben and Jerry's model. Though less exciting, over time it can lead to pretty good results.

* All of this might be a reflection of my being more aware of what Stack Overflow has done over the years via their podcast; Quora is harder to keep up with.

Non-fiction books for (curious) busy people #

I'm in the process of re-reading The Baroque Cycle and have gotten curious about Newton's time at the Royal Mint. Ideally, I would like something more detailed than the two paragraphs that Wikipedia devotes to this, but shorter than a 300+ page book*. I've had similar experiences in the past: no matter how much The Economist raved about a ~1000 page history of the British Navy, I was never able to commit to actually reading it all the way through. I think this is more than Internet-induced ADD; I manage to read a book every 4-6 weeks, and dedicating a slot to such a unitasker seems wasteful.

I realize that producing a shorter book on the subject may not be any cheaper or less resource/research-intensive than a long book. I would even be willing to pay the same amount for the digested version as I would for the full version. With recent developments like Kindle Singles there also wouldn't be the issue of fixed production/distribution costs that should be amortized by creating a longer book. Though fiction-centric, Charles Stross has a good explanation of why books are the length that they are.

I used to think that abridged editions, CliffsNotes, and the like were an abomination (as far as not getting the experience the author intended) and for lazy people. To some degree I still do; I think ideally these alternate editions should be produced by the same author, or with the author's blessing.

* As it turns out, there is a 128-page 1946 book about Newton's time at the Mint. Perhaps there was less need to pad then?

Update later that day: Based on the endorsement on Buzz I'll give the (modern) Newton book a try. Part of the reason why I was soured on longer non-fiction books was that I tried reading Operation Mincemeat and was put off by the amount of seemingly extraneous background information and cutesy anecdotes. Incidentally, Operation Mincemeat has a brief appearance in Cryptonomicon, another Neal Stephenson book – I promise that I read other authors too.