Monday, April 28, 2008

About Reading and Writing

On Monday, a Professorial Parlay was held at Leeds Met. It had been a while since the last parlay was sometime in summer 2007. The topic of this evening was well suited to the current Leeds Met Festival of Reading and Writing: what we read and write. Everybody was supposed to bring a book and tell what we think about it.

I admit that I almost had forgotten about this parlay, because of lots of work activities. So I did not bring anything, but I still was curious about what the others were reading.

When the turn was at me to talk about reading / writing, I admitted that I was not reading a book, but that instead I am currently in the process of reading mostly articles, e.g. in the Times Higher Education Magazine which provides an excellent overview about news in the education sector and is actually almost an essential reading for any academic. When it came to writing, I mentioned two things: that I write a blog (well, not very active actually, as the long inactive breaks show...), and - that I write software. This is a completely underappreciated creative activity: to be a software author. And I do not mean to be a programmer: those are people who translate specifications into software code. But my role is differently: often I do not have a specification to begin with, and the software project often takes only shape when it evolves over time. It is important for the software author to keep in mind so many things: usability, functionality, the user experience. In designing the software, variables are introduced which take the role of characters in a novel: they experience change, their values get transformed, and they influence others. Writing a software is like writing a novel, with a storyline in mind (which then results in a user experience). I think nobody has looked yet at software development with this view in mind... I believe that software development is a true art.

When the discussion came about the topic if books are still important, my viewpoint was that this depends on the discipline. In some cases books are relevant, as their impact does not rapidly change. But in information technology, books are often already outdated when they are in print. Things change rapidly, and the current technology state of the art can hardly be described in books as it evolves constantly. Much more appropriately than a book (textbook) would be a online repository which can constantly be updated. A great example is in my opinion the PHP reference. It reads like a book, has excellent descriptions, references, examples, and allows user's comments and tips. This is the future of textbooks in the information technology area - my shelves are full with printed books which I do not use anymore, because they contain obsolete information.

When talking about reading, I could have mentioned that I did read a lot 20-30 years ago... and that especially the books by the Swiss author Max Frisch had quite an impact on myself. I still recall the fascination of the diary-like novel "Homo Faber".

When talking about writing, I could have of course mentioned that I am writing currently a novel... which takes place in the 4th century AD which is in my opinion one of the most relevant times in history. But since that is a personal activity, I decided not to bring it into the professional limelight.

I also could have talked about "writing music", as I do have many ideas and plans for this... but due to a lack of concrete composition projects, I too decided to pass on this. So I probably left there the impression that I am a true technocrat who just likes to write software... :)

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