February 25, 2014

Arthur Conan Doyle on Writing Sherlock Holmes


It wasn't Dr. John Hamish Watson who wrote the books about his companion Sherlock Holmes, even though you might think so if you read the books about the famous detective. The true author was the Scot Arthur Conan Doyle, born in 1859. Six years after his birth, he wrote his first story. Like so many other authors, he read everything he could find. But the library allowed him to borrow only one book at a time, so he had to return to the library several times in one day.

Like Watson, Conan Doyle was a doctor. While studying to become a doctor, he found himself in a class where the lecturer was Dr Joseph Bell. It was Bell who became Conan Doyle's inspiration when he wrote the stories about Sherlock Holmes. Bell taught his students how to use their eyes, ears, brain, and perception to find out what problems their patients had. Bell thought that you could treat someone who's sick by understanding the small details that differed the sick from the healthy. It turned out that Bell could find out more about his patients by just looking at them compared with Conan Doyle who had to ask them questions. 

Conan Doyle didn't make much money by working as a doctor - he made more money from selling his stories to magazines. Almost no patients visited him because an unwritten rule among doctors said they weren't allowed to advertise. But he could use the time to write stories. He had tried to publish several of his stories, but was rejected until 1879 when a magazine published "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley." The story was unrelated to Sherlock Holmes, and he would soon publish 25 more stories. 

But Conan Doyle didn't become famous because the magazines didn't allow him to publish his stories with his real name. Conan Doyle had to write a book - not a short story. He finished a book in 1885, but it was rejected by the publishing houses. Another book was lost in the mail on its way to the publisher. 

Conan Doyle had learned a lot from his first two books and was ready to try a third time. He wanted to write a book about a detective. He recalled his old lecturer Bell and came up with a detective who could solve cases by observing details. The name of this detective was Sherrinford Holmes, named after the American doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes. Conan Doyle would later change the name to Sherlock Holmes in the following 56 shorter stories and 4 books about the detective.    

On writing
  • Conan Doyle carried with him a notebook that he filled with thoughts about stories he wanted to write. He found these thoughts while walking, riding a bike, and when playing cricket or tennis. He always added tiny details and loose thoughts that in the future could become a real story. 
  • To this notebook, he added all the books he read and he also found inspiration from these books. He found inspiration to the language and story in his books from authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Bret Harte, and Charles Dickens.
  • Conan Doyle couldn't visit London, so he took a map of London and made up the stories. He never visited the now famous Baker Street in London and was surprised when he met a fan who had found the real address.  
  • He liked to include details in the books from his own life. It could be the name of a town where a relative lived, a topic he had discussed, or a book he had read. 
  • While writing a story about Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle began with the end. When he made up a name on a character in the story, he could forget the name after a few pages and just left a blank area because he didn't have the time to go back and look up the name. 
  • Conan Doyle wrote about 3000 words each day. He began after breakfast and ended at five to eight o'clock in the evening. He could write in a room filled with talking people or on the train. To save time, he tried to not lift the pen from the paper, and he also let his sister write on a typewrite what Conan Doyle had written on a paper. 
  • He often forgot the details, so the Sherlock Holmes books are filled with factual errors. The story can jump several months in time even though only a day has passed. This could actually have helped Sherlock Holmes to become famous since certain fans tend to read the books several times to find these different errors.  

More articles in the same series: Best technical and creative writing resources

February 22, 2014

Best technical and creative writing resources

A link roundup of the best writing resources



February 19, 2014

Book review: Jony Ive - The genius behind Apple's greatest products

Before Walter Isaacson released his biography called Steve Jobs, the most famous biography on Steve Jobs was Inside Steve's Brain by Leander Kahney. It was the third book in a series of books about Apple, it was an unofficial biography, but was still worth the read. Leander Kahney's fourth book with an Apple theme is called Jony Ive - The genius behind Apple's greatest products, and is, as the title suggests, an unofficial biography from 2013 on Apple's famous designer Sir Jonathan Ive.

I've studied Apple's design ideas before and summarized the findings in this article: Designed by Apple - How did they do it? I've also read the book Insanely Simple - The obsession that drives Apple's success, which is another book on Apple's design by Ken Segall, who worked with Steve Jobs at NeXT and then at Apple. The difference between these books is that Ken Segall covers more general principles while Leander Kahney covers more detailed principles about how to design physical products and much more about Jony Ive.

This is an unoffical biography since Jony Ive is not someone who enjoys publicity. When he gets a design reward, he doesn't want to go to the event and collect the price. If he has to give a speech when receiving a design reward, he always talks about the team to share the recognition. Maybe he doesn't like these rewards because he wants his designs to disappear and he's happy when the user doesn't notice his work at all. But he's not an unsociable person since he's often hanging out with the other designers from Apple on his spare time. Due to this fact, Leander Kahney has to struggle a little when he's describing the young Jony Ive since not much information is available, but when Jony Ive has begun to work at Apple, the book improves. A little bit of the book is repetition from Steve Job's official biography, but that information is still needed so the reader can get the full picture.

Jony Ive himself can be characterized as someone who has lived with design since he was young since his father also worked with design. As he grew up he was obsessed with design. He attended several famous design schools in Britain and while his co-students made a few models, Jony Ive filled his apartment with hundreds of foam model prototypes. If he made a change to the design on a piece of paper, he had to make the physical model to understand if it was the right change. Another difference between Jony Ive and other design students was that he understood the entire process from idea to finished product. His co-students designed only the outer shape, but Jony Ive always figured out how to include the internal components and how to manufacture it.

Apple is famous for designing simple products. Jony Ive realized early that simple products is the key to success, because in an era of rapid change, style has a corrosive effect on design, making a product seem old before its time.
"Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter."

To come up with so many ideas, Jony Ive needed inspiration. When designing a transparent product, he brought in transparent products, such as a taillight from a BMW. When designing bathroom equipment at a job he had before he joined Apple, he bought marine biology books for inspiration. It didn't work this time and the manufacturer of bathroom equipment rejected his designs. But Jony Ive was successful with many other projects and became a famous designer before he had finished school.

After Jony Ive joined Apple, and at age 29 became head of design, he could use his knowledge of the entire chain from design to finished product. When someone argued a design couldn't be realized, Jony Ive showed them that it could since he had already made his own cost analysis and talked to the factory. But it was an uphill battle (Jony Ive almost gave up and was about to leave Apple in frustration) until Steve Jobs returned and declared that Apple's goal was not just to make money but to make great products.

To make each product perfect, the design team spent a lot of time at their factories in Asia. An interesting detail here is that Apple tried to use an American supplier of aluminum, but the supplier couldn't figure out how to manufacture Apple's product, so Apple contacted a supplier in Asia who could manufacture the product. One Apple designer explained that 10 percent is design and 90 percent is working with the manufacturers to figure out how to implement their ideas.
"The team spent weeks at the factories in Asia tweaking the molds and chemical mixes of the different plastics, but eventually overcame all of the problems."

One of the few videos on Jony Ive is this one where he explains an important part of Apple's design called unibody design (a higher-precision, less complex design with fewer parts):

To manufacture this design, Apple had to use a manufacturing technology called machining. This technology is rarely used when mass producing products, but Jony Ive knew they had to make it work. The machine behind Jony Ive in the video above is called CNC machine and Apple needed a lot of these to be able to mass produce their products with a unibody design. Apple began buying CNC machines from across the globe, maybe 20 000 machines a year, and they had to spend $9.5 billion to afford them all. This can be compared with the $865 million Apple spent on their retail stores. This was a huge gamble. But thanks to Jony Ive's design, the gamble worked.

So if you want to learn more about Jony Ive and Apple's design process (and can't wait for an official biography) you should read Jony Ive. It's not easy to write an unofficial biography (I have experience from writing an unofficial biography book on Elon Musk) but I think Leander Kahney has been successful.  

February 8, 2014

Random Show Episode 23

A new episode of the Random Show with Kevin Rose (founder of Digg) and Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) is out! This is episode 23.

Lessons learned
  • Kevin Rose has some kind of middle-age-life-crisis and have begun to each month do something "epic," such as climbing a bridge, firing guns, meditation retreats, or simply reading a book.
  • Tim Ferriss has invested in Shyp - "The easiest way to ship your stuff."  
"A Shyp Hero (driver) arrives at your home or office, safely takes your unpackaged item(s), professionally packages it off-site, and sends it on its way. You only pay the cost of the shipping (no more than Post Office prices) plus a $5 pickup fee. If you send 2 or more items, we waive the pickup fee entirely."
  • Both Tim Ferriss and Kevin Rose are members of AngelList which is a platform for startups to meet investors, candidates and incubators. Individuals can the invest in what the investors has invested in with a minimum of $1000 (depending on the investor). So if you are tired of the traditional stock market, you can invest in the companies Tim Ferriss or Kevin Rose believes in. 


If you want to watch the rest of the episodes, you can find them here:
The Random Show with Kevin Rose and Tim Ferriss

February 7, 2014

10 unknown facts about Elon Musk presentation

I've made a small presentation with 10 unknown facts about the entrepreneur Elon Musk. I discovered these while writing the world's first Elon Musk biography book called "The Engineer - Follow Elon Musk on a journey from South Africs to Mars."  

February 4, 2014

Why you need to learn statistical thinking

"Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write," is a quote by H.G. Wells. This quote is one of four quotes that opens the book How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff. The book may be from the 1950s, hence the frequent use of the "N-word", but I believe the quote is today more true than ever before. We need statistics, but without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result will be a filthy mess. 

It's often common to read an article based on statistics data and then read a blog post where the same data is explained in a different way. A recent example is when a Swedish newspaper wrote an article on the Los Angeles police force (LAPD). The article compared the number of police officers in Los Angeles with the number of police officers in Sweden. It said that Los Angeles has 10 000 police officers and Sweden, with twice the number of people as in Los Angeles, has 20 000 police officers. But the article forgot that Los Angeles also has more organizations that can fight crime, such as California Bureau of Firearms, California Bureau of Investigation, California Highway Patrol, California State Parks Police, FBI, and so on. Sweden doesn't have these organizations.

How to Lie With Statistics is a short book, 129 pages, and it is filled with funny pictures and not a single equation can be found, so it doesn't take a long time to read it. According to the book, there are a number of ways to use statistics to deceive, and we need to learn them in self-defense.
  • The result of a sampling study is no better than the sample it is based on. US Navy recruiters explained that it was safe to join the Navy because only 9 per 1000 navy sailors died during the Spanish-American War. It was less than the 16 per 1000 civilians who died in New York during the same time period. But the navy consists of young men while civilians consists of infants, elderly, and the ill - you can't compare them. So a report based on sampling must use a representative sample, which is one from which every source of bias has been removed. What we need to ask ourselves is: "Does every name or thing in the whole group have an equal chance to be in the sample?" But the problem here is that it's almost impossible to achieve this "equal chance."
  • The world "average" has a very loose meaning. When you are told that something is an average you still don't know very much about it unless you can find out which of the common kinds of average it is: mean, median, or mode?    
  • If you use a small group as sample, the results will be more random than if you use a large group. Only when there is a substantial number of trials involved is the law of averages a useful description or prediction. If you toss a coin 10 times, you will probably not get heads 50 percent of the times.
  • The only way to think about sampling results is in ranges. If your result is 100, then it's probably somewhere between say 100 +/- 10. So comparisons between figures with small differences are meaningless. Even comparisons between figures with large differences are meaningless if the error is large. 
  • Charts can be manipulated to improve the message you want to tell. 
  • Flaws in assumptions of causality. It was said that cigarette smokers get lower grades than non-smokers. But there may be a third factor involved. Maybe extroverts smoke more than introverts who prefer to sit home and study, or it may be a random result? 

Source: Cornubot, How to Lie With Statistics (available for free)