Interview with Blogger Dan Tow

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Would you please tell us something about you and your blogging?
My blogging takes me outside of myself, directing my mind away from my day-to-day concerns and personal pre-occupations. It is always a growth experience, and sometimes a relief. I also relish the sense of connection with the readers.

The object behind every blog is the attainment of a state of being. Do you agree with this statement?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I understand the meaning of the statement, so it’s hard to agree or to disagree. I would say, however, that the object behind my blogs is generally to form a bridge between minds, in my case usually a very long-distance bridge across which ideas may flow freely in both directions.

I’m wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

No single event comes to mind, but time after time I am delighted with how thoughtful the comments to my blogs are, whether the commenter agrees or disagrees with my ideas.

What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?
I’m really excited by the new availability of college-level coursework on the web. If you Google free online course materials, you find amazing resources, for example, MIT OpenCourseWare, enabling people all over the world to gain free access to college-level learning (assuming of course that they can get online!). There is no substitute for the full college experience, at least not yet, and it is surely helpful to have that formal degree to demonstrate what you’ve learned, but for bright, independent learners willing to take the time to learn for the sake of knowledge, itself, this is a huge opportunity! How is this an innovative use of technology in politics? Well, as many have noted, a democracy works vastly better if the voters understand the complex issues that face nations, and education is vital in this respect. Online resources, which will become increasingly available throughout the world, can spread learning without the bottleneck of limited local schools, and without local, repressive governments messing with the content. There is enormous room for improvement, here, as we learn more about how to package online resources so ordinary people can learn from them more effectively, but it is an exciting beginning!

In the ongoing US presidential campaign, I was also excited to see online debates, hosted by Yahoo, for example. These were a pale shadow of their potential, though, I think. What I’d like to see would be on online debate format that encouraged real depth in the candidate answers to questions (complete, in-depth answers could be provided over days, not rushed on the spot), complete with extensive documentation of their proposed policies, and links to any supporting material they think would be useful. Leaders should think about their actions, not make snap decisions, and the debates should reflect the same careful consideration. Ideally, I’d love to see a site that enabled these kinds of debates all over the world, in all languages, so such debates could become the norm, anywhere a government aspires to be considered democratic.

Do you think that these new web technologies are effective in making people more responsive?
Not yet, but they will be, powerfully so!

What do you think sets Your blogging apart from others?
Well, I think it would have to be the simple, obvious circumstance that I am writing on a Pakistani site as an American with no family connection to the Pakistani culture. As such, I might easily have been seen as an intruder, or in some sense an out-of-place voice, or at least as irrelevant, but, upon some urging, I went ahead and gave it a try, anyway, and I have been endlessly delighted and impressed with the warm welcome I’ve received. I feel (and get the strong impression that my readers feel this way, too!) that dialogue between cultures can be a fabulous tool for mutual learning, growth, and peace, on both sides of the dialogue, and I sense that there is far too little of such dialogue in the world. (I only wish that Americans as a whole listened as attentively to voices from other cultures as my Pakistani readers have listened to me!) Regardless of one’s culture, there are bound to be opportunities to learn from another point of view, preferably to exchange true insights, and at the least to gain insight into where that other point of view’s mistakes originate.

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success in life, what would it be?
My best tool for success has been to follow the second engineering principle I mention in Engineering for Politics and Life, Part 1 of 2: Never give up on solving the problem, but remain very open-minded about what is the problem. I have been astonished in my own life and in others’ how much can be achieved with confidence and a positive attitude. Confidence, alone, is not the whole picture, though: Real-world constraints won’t vanish just because you pretend they don’t exist, and you can’t choose your reality. As I state, too, in the same article, “What is, is.” In practice, I try to bounce back and forth between three equally useful points of view: First, assuming that success in the goal is a “given,” a certainty, in other words, how do I reach that goal? Second, dropping my optimism for a moment, in the real world, what will obstruct my optimistic plan, and what are the plan’s real chances of success, and what can improve those chances? Third, if bouncing back and forth between the first two points of view doesn’t yield a plan with a fair chance of success, and even beginning the attempt is likely to cost too much for the risk to be justified, how can I better understand the true problem so as to define a new, better version of the problem that may have a better chance of success? (Often, it is not so risky to begin the attempt and beginning the attempt yields useful new information about the risk and cost of continuing – perhaps it will turn out to be easier than you expected! In fact, the plan can often begin with a first step that is not just low-risk, but useful in its own right, so the first step is a good idea on its own, even if the larger plan turns out to be impossible. Why quit before you begin if simply beginning is low-risk? – perhaps you can change plans, later, before the costs of failure grow too high.) Contrast this approach with Bush’s apparent approach to Iraq: He had plenty of optimism, confidence that he would succeed in changing the Middle East in America’s favor, but the administration utterly failed to examine real-world constraints, instead simply assuming a fantasy version of reality where the war would be easy, and Iraq would peacefully rebuild itself in the image Bush desired, with nothing but love and gratitude for the Americans who brought them this golden opportunity! Then, having begun the fiasco on the wrong foot, and generated (the hard way!) vast, undeniable data about how wrong their assumptions were, they still clung to a horribly distorted view of reality, and failed to consider that the best plan going forward was to admit the utterly mistaken nature of the original plan.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?
The happiest was on October 14, 1990, when I first suspected I had found my soul-mate in life in Parva, whom I married in 1991. I think the gloomiest moments for most people revolve around family loss, either the death of a loved one, or learning of the likelihood of death, owing to a dire medical condition. For each affected individual, this tragedy feels unique and unprecedented, even while it is one of humankind’s nearly universal experiences, shared by almost everyone who lives long enough. I am no exception to this rule, and these have been my darkest times. I could share details, if they only concerned me, but to preserve the privacy of others, I’ll leave out the details.

Do you think [the use of Twitter and other social networking tools by politicians in US] is bandwagon jumping or what?
No, I think they are just making use of a new set of tools that won’t help them much, but that cost little enough to use that they are still worth the small effort. From a marketing point of view (and “selling” a candidate is a marketing task!), these tools aren’t worth much, yet, but they cost almost nothing to use, so why not?

If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it’s paid for – what would your top 3 choices be?
Pakistan, New Zealand, and Antarctica.

What is your favorite book and why?
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I almost never find time to reread a book, with so many marvelous books begging to be read, but that one is worth reading many times, for the pleasure, for what it has to teach about life, and for what it has to teach about writing. Twain’s subtle, multi-level irony is awe inspiring, and I love the way he reveals truth through a narrator who hasn’t yet come to understand the truth, himself, on a conscious level, although the narrator (Finn) has good instincts for doing the right thing, on the unconscious level.

You have also authored a book, would you please tell us about it?

In 2003, I wrote SQL Tuning, published by O’Reilly. It’s a technical book on the fairly narrow specialized problem (which I make my living solving as a consultant) of how to fix database queries (which are expressed in the SQL computer language) so they can reach the needed data as quickly as possible. It is of no interest to the 99.99% of the population who never work with SQL, but if you’re one of the rare few interested, O’Reilly’s website gives a more detailed description.

From where did you get the inspiration for the book?
In late 2002, during tough times in the software industry, I was laid off from my job at a then-badly-struggling software company. I had made my living for years working on computer performance, focusing largely on SQL tuning because that was where a surprising fraction of the performance problems turned out to be, using a SQL tuning method of my own invention. I felt like my best bet to make a living, next, was as an independent consultant in my specialty, but only a tiny fraction of my potential clients knew of my existence, or were ever likely to find me, unless I did something to change my obscurity. I had long wanted to document my tuning method for wider use, and this seemed like the best way to spread knowledge of my availability in this area. So, basically my “inspiration” was economic necessity; I was unemployed, in need of clients, with a family to feed!

What’s the first thing you notice about a person (whether you know them or not)?
I notice the level of that person’s interest; is the person curious about the world, and excited to find answers to a broad range of questions about the world.

Is there anyone from your past that once told you you couldn’t write?
I did well in English through high school, but, yes, I was discouraged by a technical-writing course I had to take in college, where seemingly-contradictory rules of writing in that course seemed nearly impossible to meet, while also being accurate in what needed to be said. In past jobs, I have been criticized sometimes for using unnecessarily complex language to express myself, and for being too “wordy.” My editor for my book, Jonathan Gennick, was a big help with my efforts to write better, but I still tend to wordiness and complex sentence structure.

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?
Significant, direct financial benefits are very unlikely for more than a handful of elite bloggers, today. I expect the opportunities will be better in ten years or so, when much more media consumption will be online, although even then the same distribution of income seen by book authors and other media figures will tend to apply to new media such as blogging – lots of money for a very few stars at the top, rapidly dropping off to subsistence wages for a minority of niche writers who can make a living at their craft, and a very large tail consisting of the vast majority of writers who are, like today, basically hobbyists, from a financial perspective, making too little as authors to matter, holding other “day jobs” that pay the bills. There are some indirect financial benefits to blogging, though, even today; a network of people who know and admire your work can often be useful in your “day job” in surprising ways, and in most jobs writing skills are tremendously useful for career advancement, and blogging is a wonderful way to tone those writing skills. (I would also admit, however, that posts of a controversial nature are at least as likely to hurt you in your day job as to help! Not even the best guarantees of free speech will protect an employee whose views are odious to an employer – I, for example, make no effort to advertise my blogging to my current and future clients. The best reason to engage in controversial blogging is a wish to spread the ideas you believe in, simply for the good of your nation and of the world, to offer your non-violent services in the war of ideas.)

Is it true that who has a successful blog has an awful lot of time on their hands?
Well, with two young kids and a one-person business to run, I certainly don’t have much time on my hands, so does that mean my blog is unsuccessful;-)? Seriously, the trick is to write the right amount. I, for one, have probably averaged a post every 3 weeks or so, which is about right for me, I think. If I had a lot more time, I could write more, but could I find anything worth saying in all that extra writing? For me, at least, I fear that if I wrote a lot more, I would bore my readers, even if I had all the time in the world.

What are your thoughts on corporate blogs and what do you think the biggest advantages and disadvantages are?
To be honest, I have never read them, so I have no opinion one way or another.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world more friendlier and less hostile?
The two-way conversation of blogs is a super tool for cultural understanding. It’s important that the participants write with a spirit of understanding, though, to avoid personal attack and inflammatory language – like most general tools, blogs can be used for good or for harm.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

I’m afraid that I don’t read enough blogs with enough discrimination for a list of my favorites to be worth anything, to be honest.

Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?
Perhaps the strongest reaction was to my post, American Control, discussing how countries can be manipulated from the outside, and how and why belief in such manipulation is sometimes exaggerated.

What is your perception about Pakistan and its people?
I don’t know Pakistan as a whole as well as I’d like, so I’ll have to focus mainly on that view of Pakistan and its people I see through The Pakistani Spectator, especially my view of those who comment on my posts, and who otherwise contribute to TPS. I’m excited by the level of passionate involvement in reasoned debate at TPS, while the apparent apathy of average Americans is endlessly discouraging to me. I find this very encouraging for the long-term future of Pakistan, and frightening for the long-term future of America. The passionate involvement in reasoned political debate on TPS, if it extends to the rest of your nation, can bring wonderful things to Pakistan, I believe.

Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?
I am stunned by the universality of bloggers, how similar our humanity is, across cultures and in spite of widely varied life experiences.

What is the most striking difference between a developed country and a developing country?
I’m unqualified to speak to that general question, but I’ll speak to a specific difference I’ve seen between my American culture and what I’ve seen as a whole in the Pakistani comments to my posts – degree of optimism. I already shared some words (brief, for me!) on the subject in my earlier post, Despair or Hope, specifically in response to comments to the post before that. Americans, I think, are fairly optimistic, focused more on “How can I achieve this?” than on “Why I can’t achieve this.” As fortunate as America has been in its history, such optimism is perhaps natural and easier for Americans than for most. I truly don’t know how optimistic the average Pakistani is (and this might be a subject for your comments), but if I just look at the comments to my own posts, as a sample, I sense somewhat more pessimism than I’d expect within the US. Of course, I’ve never blogged in America, so I don’t have much basis for comparison – perhaps people in both countries are simply more likely than average to comment if they have something pessimistic to say.

What is the future of blogging?
I see much more use of multi-media formats in future blogging. It’s happening already, to a degree, but it needs to be much easier and less expensive. I look forward to when common folk can easily record a video post, also instantly and automatically available in audio-only and text formats, and viewers everywhere have the bandwidth to rapidly access blogs in any format they please, including video.

An even more useful advance will lead blog consumers (readers, listeners, and viewers) to the posts and comments they will find most worthwhile. There is an awful lot of garbage in the wide world of blogs, in both articles and comments. A few days ago, I visited a moderately popular blog sponsored by an American television show, just to see what comments looked like for a high-traffic blog site. I assumed that after a few dozen comments, readers wouldn’t bother to add probably-redundant comments of their own, but I found instead that the comments to a single post numbered in the hundreds! (The post commented upon, by the way, was nothing earth-shaking – its subject was an episode of a televised fashion-design competition!) What reader with any sense of proportion will read hundreds of comments on a post that was fairly insignificant in the first place?! The answer is none! Instead, readers are undoubtedly ignoring all except perhaps comments made in the last few minutes. If they want to comment, their almost certainly redundant comments are merely added to an immense pile destined to be ignored by any reader with any sense of perspective. Clearly, there is a desperate need for tools to find the gems, if any, in the mountains of garbage like this throughout the blogosphere!

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?
My blogging life is fairly separate, so far, having little effect beyond the lasting sense of satisfaction, and the time consumed. In all, though, I’m delighted and honored to have this new outlet.

What are your future plans?
I would like to teach and write more, to take a more active role in the ongoing world battle between good and bad ideas. One role model I’ve considered is Alastair Cooke, who served as an amazing cultural bridge for over 60 years(!), mainly explaining American news and culture to the English. I think the world has a vast, unmet need for many more such cultural bridges. Is anyone filling this need currently between the American and Pakistani cultures? I’m no Alastair Cooke, sadly, but if the role is unfilled currently, and I could partly fill such a role for a time, until someone more qualified came along, it would be an inconceivable honor.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?
Keep up the very spirited debate! Such open, reasoned discussion is a vital part of moving forward, throughout the world!

About The Pakistani Spectator

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