Some of the recent posts on this site have shared bits and pieces of my youth with perhaps a bit more detail than is normal, and this has resulted in a couple of people asking whether some of the memory is filled in via imagination or remembered with an uncommon amount of clarity. Given that memories are malleable and do not generally have updated timestamps to show when or if something has changed, I generally need to answer “it’s a little bit of both … I think”. For most of my life after the age of six, I can tell you a couple of things I did for just about every day right up until now. There are gaps, of course, and there are fragments of memories that I generally view as suspect. Human frailties aside, the memories that I’ve shared on this site or in person when chatting with people are as accurate as I can muster. There are, however, tools that I can use to help trigger details of memories.

An indispensable tool when I wrote about the paper boats I made as a child was a mapping application that could show a satellite overview of the area I grew up. On the map I could trace the routes I used to walk alone and with friends. This would remind me of various details and warrant a little more investigation to fill in gaps that I might have forgotten. This was certainly the case with the metal grate that blocked human access to the tunnel where the Red Hill Creek flowed under King Street. I hadn’t thought of that filthy metal barrier in decades but, when I traced the route I would send my boats, it was like being transported back in time to watch myself run alongside the shallow creek, careful for the stones and low-hanging branches, as a vessel of dubious seaworthiness made its uncontrolled journey downstream. This technique was also used to remember details about the day I almost drowned in Lake Erie, the general history of Hamilton, and details for a bunch of other posts that have not yet been completed.

What might set my memories apart from other people’s is the area of focus. I tend to pay attention to small details or very specific elements of a place or situation rather than what someone might consider the main area of focus. This is also true of movies, where I’ll observe what supporting characters are doing while others are speaking or otherwise being the centre of attention. Disney and Pixar movies are great for this kind of activity. So, because I focus on small details, it’s easier (for me) to subconsciously reassemble a memory by filling in the blanks from one day with similar details from another. This doesn’t make the memory any less real, but it does make for a rather vivid scene in the mind’s eye.

What’s odd is that this memory is not limited to just places I’ve physically experienced, but extends to books and dreams as well. I’ve been told on several occasions that this is “not normal”. Given how many times I’ve solved complex coding problems in a dream and then later implemented the same solution in real life to great success, I’ll admit that I’m quite happy to be abnormal in this regard. It does raise a question, though: how do people generally remember things?

There are a number of bad memories I’ve wished could be erased, but I’ve learned to live with them and accept that not every event in life will be a good one. Does the typical human mind generally forget entire spans of time? Do people not remember most of their school-aged childhood? If so, why do more people not keep a journal to hold onto memories for longer periods of time?

Memory is a fascinating thing. I’ve considered mine both a blessing and a curse over the years. At some point it’s bound to deteriorate, which is one of the reasons for the recent posts about the past. Hopefully it won’t happen anytime soon.

The Time I Almost Died in Lake Erie

Some of the many things that I like about Randall Munroe's XKCD comic is the honesty and intelligence that goes into every strip. His strips can make a person feel sadness for a robot on Mars, make people laugh, change a person's perceptions, and remind you of people you've known (and probably worked with). Today's comic was unique as it instantly reminded me of the time I almost drowned in Lake Erie, the shallowest and filthiest of the North American Great Lakes.

XKCD - Swimming

In the summer of 1992, when Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back and Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You seemed to repeat endlessly on every FM radio station in the area, my step-father's family was having a rather large get-together at Rock Point Provincial Park, which is not too far from the small town of Dunnville, Ontario. The exact number of people in attendance slips my mind but, as my step father came from a rather large family that multiplied to create many more large families, there were several dozen of us playing around on the beach and in the lake. As one of the older kids present, I was expected to be the "life guard" and keep an eye on the people swimming nearby. No problem. Then we started to play a game involving throwing a ball as far as we could ….

The rest of the story can be pretty much worked out from that one line alone.

The ball was thrown too far for any of the younger kids to get it, as they would have been no more than 10. So I swam out to retrieve the object. Getting to the ball was no problem but, when I turned and tried to make my way back, I couldn't make any progress back to shore. I would swim towards land, but see it recede with every wave. In my mind, I needed to push against something to get a little boost. This meant going down to the lake bed and pushing. I didn't think I had gone too far out, so the bottom of the lake shouldn't have been more than two or three metres from the surface.

I was quite wrong.

When I went under, I didn't find the bottom. I didn't find anything but colder water. Lake Erie is said to be a "fresh water" lake, but the green liquid is anything but drinkable. Visibility is less than 50cm on a good day. The light from the sun was completely gone and I was in a world of darkness. I panicked. There were no signs as to which direction was up1 and air was in short supply. My uncle Ron must have seen me go out to get the ball because before the situation got much worse, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to the surface. I didn't even know he was that close.

Someone told me that I must have drank half the lake given how much water was coughed up afterwards. I don't remember the coughing, but I do remember being carried to the beach and put in a plastic lawn chair.

Just like in the comic, I still get a little shiver of panic when I don't realize how deep the water is beneath me. This won't stop me from swimming, but it is a good reminder to pay attention and keep my wits.

  1. I hadn't yet learned about "following the bubbles"; releasing a bit of air and seeing which direction the gas rises. An uncle suggested that later.


Round numbers are often treated with more significance than others, and numbers that coincide with memories can evoke a little bit of nostalgia, so it probably comes as no surprise that the 2,600th blog post on this site would be dedicated to the Atari 2600; a console that was great before Nintendo and Sega completely redefined people's expectations of video games at home.

Atari 2600

When I think back to when I used to play games with this machine plugged into the small, black and white TV we owned in the 80s, I'm reminded more of the competition I'd have with my father on a number of games. We'd play the standards like Ms. Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Asteroids, but the game that really stands out in my mind is River Raid. The premise was simple. You're looking down from the sky at your jet which is following — yes — a river, and you need to blow stuff up without running out of fuel or flying over land. My father and I would spend hours taking turns on the game and trying to reach the very end of the river. Neither of us ever did make it to the end, and there might never have been an end to the game, but the competition was real.

Well … it was real for me.

My father had the luxury of adult muscle control and not having to go to school the next day. I'd often complain that "it wasn't fair" for him to play while I was sleeping, and he'd just laugh and tell me "it's just a game". A line that, to this day, I despise. So when my homework was done, when the chores were finished, and when there wasn't any hockey game or Star Trek to be watched, I'd try to get some gaming in to hone the skills necessary to defeat my father's high scores and see farther than anyone else.

I don't think it ever happened, though. Eventually I wound up going outside with friends or burying myself in books or other toys. The Atari would sit unused next to the VCR. Occasionally I'd hear my father play a game or two of River Raid or Asteroids. I'd sometimes watch or join in. But around the age of 12 I stopped trying to compete with my father. By that time I was taller, faster, and stronger than he was. Though he was smarter, more patient … and better at River Raid.

A little while later I received an original GameBoy with Tetris, and we'd compete with that game. But it wasn't the same. By that time I had the reflexes and visual acuity to go farther than many, including my Dad. We'd come up with different sets of benchmarks, like how many "full Tetrises" we could get, and who could get closest to the top and then bring the blocks back down to the bottom. It was fun, but not the same.

The Atari 2600 is where I really competed with my father. It may have been one of the few places where we'd actively challenge each other to succeed. And while I did try to out-do him just about everywhere else, like sons have done since the beginning of time, there was rarely any incentive to keep going.

When I remember how frustrated I would get when competing on River Raid, I think about my son and wonder what things he will try to do better. Will he also try to play games better than I can? Probably. Will he try to write software better than I can? Possibly. Will he try to bake bread better than I can? I sure as heck hope so. At some point he will start to do things better, I'll step up my game, and he'll continue to improve until I simply cannot keep up. But what will his Atari 2600 with me be? I'm really curious to find out.

I Was Going to Write a Blog Post

I was going to write a blog post … but I forgot what subject I wanted to tackle. Was it about how the local news in Hamilton, Ontario has barely changed in the last 25 years? I don't think so. Was it about the recent difficulties I've had effectively communicating ideas in a coherent manner at work? I don't think so. Was it about a recent desire to start a new hobby, one that doesn't involve electronic devices at all? No … I don't think that was it, either.

What the heck did I want to write about? Maybe the new podcast Jeremy Cherfas and I have together?

Why Can't We?

A few weeks ago the very first episode of Why Can't We … ? was quietly released and it's managed to build a growing audience. We're just three episodes in, but we've asked questions about finding cars in crowded places, data backup processes, and even the difficulties in building a decent podcast recommendation engine. If you've ever wondered why, given the incredible number of really intelligent people we have on the planet, certain everyday problems haven't been solved yet, this might be the show for you.

You can subscribe in iTunes and wherever great podcasts are found.

Partial Recall

Memories from my early childhood have been bubbling to the surface recently, with the most common theme being the divorce of my parents and subsequent move to a foster home. While my time in foster care was quite temporary, no more than a few months, the entire experience remains fresh in my mind as though it happened a handful of weeks ago. There are some memories older than these, with the oldest being a dream, but it was at this time that I was both blessed and cursed with the congenital inability to forget. Time, however, has finally caught up.

A week ago I was replaying a dream in my head where I had programmed a solution to fix something in a piece of software currently in development at work. This is nothing new for me, as I often dream about technical problems. In the dreams I find solutions and, upon waking, I can remember the code line-for-line and write it into an application. More often than not, the dreamed up solution works. This time, however, I couldn’t remember how I wrote the code. More than that, I couldn’t even remember whether the solution was written in the front-end, the API, or the database — something that should have been more obvious than anything else. I had forgotten the details of the dream!

Most people I talk to can barely remember what they ate for lunch the day before yesterday, let alone remember the minutia conjured up by the subconscious mind during REM sleep. What would life feel like for a person who only experiences 16-18 hours of consciousness? How short does a year feel to a person my age who is unconscious for over 2,200 hours during that time? The concept seems so foreign that I would probably start writing the previous year’s date in when writing paper notes or losing track of what the current time is at any single moment during the day. The feeling of not knowing would likely terrify me at the same time as lifting a weight off my shoulders.

My life is twice as long as it should be. I work during the day, and I work during the night. Just like Leonardo DiCaprio explains during the build-up in Inception, our dreams operate at a faster rate of speed than the real world. Five minutes of REM sleep can feel like an hour for some people. We dream for an average of two hours each night. That’s a lot of time for someone who can remember dreams going as far back as 1985. But this is changing.

After last weeks memory lapse I started thinking back over the last few months. What had I eaten for breakfast? Where was I at a specific time? What did I write on a specific day and where? What was the temperature on the 5th at 2:00PM? These are questions I can typically answer without hesitation. But now I hesitate. The answers aren’t coming as quickly as they once did. Perhaps the index in my brain is messed up. Perhaps I’ve been working too hard for too long and am fast approaching burnout1. What I do know, though, is that I’m sleeping better as a result.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

As part of a Quantified Self effort, I’ve been tracking a number of physical metrics including body weight, caloric intake, steps walked, and sleep patterns for nearly two years. The idea was that, with a plethora of information about my bodily condition, I would be able to determine the optimum amounts of sleep, food, and exercise I need to be productive more days than not. So far, the experiments have been very successful. Stress levels have fallen through the floor, and the body weight is no longer fluctuating wildly between underweight and overweight every 5 months. At the end of the day, I’ve reduced my caloric intake by 550 kcal a day, set a minimum goal of 6,500 steps per day, as well as sleeping 6 hours a night while going to sleep to a podcast. This combination results in a positive attitude the following day as well as more creative energy to solve problems, and has been successful for the last month and a half.

Something changed two weeks ago.

Looking at the numbers from the QS2 data, it appears the 7-day average sleep quality jumped from 84.3% to 90.8%. At the moment it’s hovering closer to 93% and I’m waking up happier every morning. The difference between now and two months ago is that I don’t remember my dreams. At all. I know they happened, because the passage of time feels right … but I don’t recall any of the details. Not even a general impression.

And I’m generally happier for it!

This past week has been strange as I’ve had to work harder to remember details of events that have transpired. The effort is not untenable, though, and I wonder whether this newfound ability will stick around. A lot of writers online have bemoaned the fact that the Internet will not let us forget our past as records of our ephemeral moments will come back to haunt us as the most inopportune time. One can probably guess how little this bothers a person with an eidetic memory. However, if the ability to forget can bring a smile to our face as the weight of past decisions or actions are effectively scrubbed from our surface consciousness, I can see the appeal of having a real “delete” button on the web that people can push.

I don’t know whether my memory will return to its previous state after I get some rest or whether the brain is so full of irrelevant knowledge that it has decided to throttle the amount of new information it accepts for the rest of its life. What I do know is that, for now, I’m getting a much better night’s sleep and enjoying myself a little more while awake. Given a choice between total recall and general happiness, the latter wins hands down.

An Ungooglable Memory

For some time I've been trying to remember the name of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the crew of the Enterprise are sent to a planet that is about to become a warp-capable society. This world is just slightly more technologically advanced than we are today1, and there is a distinct schism within the society. The youth are looking forward to continuing forward with the ever-constant march of progress, while others are begging the government to force corporations and academic institutions to "slow down" so that the effects of technology can be measured and the people of this world can catch up. I believe I remember this episode quite well. I remember where I was when I first saw it, as well as several key scenes. There's just one little problem: I can't find any reference to it with the help of Google or any of the standard Star Trek encyclopaedias.

No Results Found

I've been wrong on many occasions, so I decided to admit that I probably made another mistake and looked through all of the Deep Space 9 episodes, too. I remember the world in question was considering joining the United Federation of Planets so I knew it couldn't have been an episode of Voyager, as there was no Federation to join, nor could it have been Enterprise, as the Federation was not yet in existence. But there was no reference.

Search by spoken line? No result.

Was it a book that was written so well I thought I was watching the events take place2? Nope.

It sure as heck wasn't a movie. So where the heck can I find the episode?

Five years ago I thought I had a pretty good memory. I could recall the most insignificant details about things I had done or witnessed decades before. Now, however, I find it a struggle to remember what I did 18 days ago without first reaching for a calendar application. It makes me wonder if I've reached the end of the "free space" in my brain and the old stuff is now being replaced with new memories … very slowly. I really hope this isn't the case, because I'm too young to forget my past just yet.

Does anyone know what episode of Trek I'm looking for?

Chlorine and Aluminum

At 9:30 am, the mercury is pushing 32˚ Celsius and people are taking refuge from the heat in any way they can. Many people have towels wrapped around their neck to prevent excessive perspiration from being absorbed into their clothing, children are wearing as little as possible, and nearly every woman over the age of 30 is carrying a parasol. Summer, like it or not, has descended upon central Japan. To mark the occasion, water fountains all over the area are operating during daylight hours to offer some relief from the heat and humidity.

Water Fountain Outside Hekinan Chuo Station

Many of the water fountains in Japan remind me a great deal of the ones I would see around Southern Ontario while growing up. There is one particular water fountain in Hamilton's Gage Park that I will always remember for its size and instantly recognisable smell. I would see it every time I went to the park and, while I haven't been there in over two decades, I'm reminded of it every time I come close to a fountain in Japan that matches two very distinctive attributes. The first is the smell of chlorinated water, and the second is the unmistakable hint of aluminium.

The fountain in Gage Park was not particularly large but, looking at it from a child's perspective, it may as well have been the size of a house. People would crowd around its sides and put their hands in the cool liquid. Others would kick off their shoes and socks to wade around in knee-high water. Others still would just sit in the path of the mist that was carried off by the gentle breeze that would occasionally flow by. In my case, I would typically do the latter. I never wanted to take my shoes off as I feared someone might make off with my shoes1. I never wanted to put my hand in the water as I didn't have anything to dry it off with later, and didn't like the idea of using grass as a makeshift towel2. Mist, however, was just great.

How many children try to intensely analyse the world with all five of their senses? I would think the answer would be somewhere between "many" and "most". I was certainly one of these sorts of children. While I didn't really like touching things3, I would sit in an area for a great deal of time and focus on listening to my surroundings, or really take in the smells. For the first 15-odd years of my life, vision was not something I had a great deal of. It wasn't until I bought my first pair of glasses4 when I was 19 that I realised just how much of the world I had been missing. Being near-sighted, shy, and excruciatingly introspective while growing up can leave someone with a very narrow view of the world. That said, when I sat down to "sense" the moment, I made good use of the other senses.

It's for this reason that so many of us are able to return to a very specific point in our past with little more than a whiff of lightly-scented air. Our memories, while not 100% accurate, are complete enough for us to reconstruct and experience life as we once knew and understood it, but with the perspective that only comes with age.

I will forever be amazed at how something I encounter here in Japan can remind me so clearly of something that is now on the opposite side of the planet. It's true that there are only so many ways to build a water fountain, but not every fountain can trigger the same memory.

The First Nightmare

Memory is an interesting thing. Like a fine potter's clay, it's very easy to record information with remarkable detail. Slap a good pile of clay with an open hand, and you'll find every line and attribute of your hand imprinted in that malleable surface. Leave the clay on the table in a warm room untouched for an extended period of time and you'll come back to find that many of the finer details have become less prevalent. Not happy with the hand print? That's okay, we can stretch and mould the clay into something else entirely … just like we can with our own memories. That said, some memories do not come with the same degree of plasticity as others. Some are etched into our minds so well that they provide an everlasting glimpse into our past into a time that no longer exists. My first cohesive memory is like this. I remember every detail. Every sight. Every sound. Every thought. I also remember the date: June 18, 1982. A Friday. I was three years old. And I had my first nightmare.

My father has been a Star Trek fan for most of his life and his fascination with space travel naturally rubbed off on me. We would watch TV shows where humans would go gallivanting across the galaxy in any manner of vessel, saving the day along the way. As any young child with a huge imagination might do, I would pretend that I was a member of these crews and contribute in some way to the success of a mission. This was often the situation that I would enjoy with my toys. They would join me in space.

At this point in my childhood my parents were often quite angry at each other. I was far too young to understand the details of the argument, but I knew that my father could get upset very quickly if anything unexpected happened. This was something I paid very close attention to whenever he was home, and I still remember watching and listening to him from the top of the stairs before deciding whether I should go down or not. On this particular day I decided to stay in my bedroom after my father came home, having already been tucked into bed1.

From The Earth To The Moon

I remember waking up in my bed, my summer sheets were tangled in a mess by my feet and a very bright moon hung low in the sky outside my window. Waking up as a child is very different than it is as an adult. At the age of three there are no cobwebs that cloud our vision or ability to think upon reaching consciousness. Nothing impedes us from getting out of bed and being a barely contained supernova of youthful energy after a good night's sleep. This is exactly how I felt when I woke up, so going back to sleep was not an option. There was no clock in my room, but it must have been the dead of night for all the silence and the colour of the night sky.

I slid out of bed as quiet as I could, so not to wake my father, and walked to the window. There was a huge cardboard box from a refrigerator on the far side of my room beside the window. My parents had helped me turn it into a spaceship and I spent many happy hours in that box2. I didn't go there, though. Instead I went to the window and looked up at the moon; it's brightness seemed surreal … I had to see why.

The window sill was at just the right height for me to use it as a standing desk, and I would often pretend that it was a control panel like we would see on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The white, lead-based paint still had the strong smell of metal tinged with plastic that you would expect from a recently-painted home in the early 80s, but I didn't care. For me, it was a control panel, and the window was my view screen.

My fingers flew across the imaginary controls as I plotted a course for the moon. I would go up there to see why it was so bright. How could a moon be this bright? I wondered. My space books always showed it as a dusty place … or made of cheese. Neither dust nor cheese looks like this. There must be something more to it.

clunk ka-chunk clunk-clunk

Docking clamps were disengaging. I recognised the sound. This is the same sound that the Enterprise made when it was leaving space dock …


An engine could be heard coming to life and building in intensity. None of these things were quiet at all. They were loud! My father would come in any minute now and start shouting!

I was terrified.

Looking out the window I saw the Moon getting closer and the trees in the neighbourhood disappearing out of my sight below. My room was going up to the Moon, and there was nothing I could do to stop it!

Not knowing what else to do I jumped into my bed and wrapped myself in the discarded blankets as tight as I could. Maybe by hiding I could avoid getting in trouble. What other solution could a three year old child be expected to come up with.

I don't remember waking up. I don't remember whether I watched Saturday morning cartoons or went outside to play in the yard after breakfast. I don't even remember realising that the sun was up and I was most certainly not on the Moon. One thing I do remember, though, is that I was so terrified of touching the window sill from that point on that I never used it as a control panel ever again.

Looking Back

The dream I had on that warm summer day was quite tame compared to some of the other nightmares that have occurred since3 but it's stayed with me for over three decades and is, I believe, my very first coherent memory. It was also at this point that I started to have a keen awareness of the concepts of cause and effect, as well as time.

Psychology books often state that we don't remember our dreams for more than a few minutes after waking, but this is not the case with me. I remember my dreams as well as I remember my waking moments. I can tell you what I dreamt last night, last week, last year, and even back when I was in high school. Memories of dreams for me are a natural part of life, and this comes with a number of advantages. Whenever I have a difficult programming problem to solve, the answer is often found in a dream and the appropriate code is (re)written upon waking. Whenever I have a stressful day, I can drift off into a world that has very little connection with the real universe and wake up feeling rested because, according to my sense of time, I've been away from reality for days … sometimes weeks. Once, while under a particularly severe amount of stress in Vancouver, I woke up feeling like I had lived for the better part of a year in another life. I had to look at my calendar to see what day it was, and where I worked.

This can also be seen as a disadvantage. Remembering so many events, real and imagined, can lead a person to confuse one world with another. This can lead to conversations with people that look a little bit like this:

Me: You remember that song we heard while shopping in Edmonton? What was the name of it?

Them: Edmonton? I've never been there.

Me: We went there last spring. We flew there together. Don't you remember?

Them: Umm … no. I think I would remember something like that.

Me: Don't tell me it was just a dream …

I would later check my passport in search of the proof that I did indeed leave the country … but the other person would be correct, leaving me to wonder just how many of my memories are real and how many are imagined.

People often say that we are the sum of our experiences. If this is true, I wonder how much of my persona comes from real world actions and how many from the imaginary constructs of my psyche. Could such a delineation ever be made, and would it even matter in the end? I spend a great deal of time up in my head; consciousness notwithstanding.

Memory Strain

The Digital Calling CardHow many phone numbers did you know by heart twenty years ago?  How many now?  How many people did you communicate with on an average day in 1989?  How about now?  Thinking about the incredible changes that have occurred in just twenty years can leave a person wondering just how we ever managed to accomplish as much as we did before the age of the internet.

Most of us now have over seven newer ways to stay in touch with other people including social networks, mobile phones, email, and instant messaging.  It was not a problem to remember the phone numbers of our closest friends and family twenty years ago but, with all these other options available to us, just how the heck are we supposed to remember contact information?  Heaven forbid if the world is ever hit with some strange electro-magnetic pulse that wipes clean the contents of every computer on the planet … billions of us would be left strugging to remember our spouse's phone number just to make sure they're alright.

Why Don't You Ever Talk To Me?

Instant communication can certainly eliminate the barriers we face with long distances and make the world seem like a smaller place, but it also puts an incredible amount of strain on us as we feel an obligation to check an ever-increasing number of voicemails, inboxes, and profiles pages … each with their own set of login and passwords.  If we fail to check one of these for any length of time, be it a day or a week, we can have an incredible number of messages waiting for us or, worse, we could miss some of the senseless gossip that permeates these incredibly tight social networks.

But doesn't this just make things more complicated?

There have been times where I've started a conversation on Twitter, followed up with a phone call, fired off an email to confirm some information, and then met with the person a few hours later.  The line between online and offline, which was once quite defined, has become so fine that it's difficult to tell the difference between one and the other.  Over the next few years we're going to see a whole new etiquette regarding conversations … and it's going to embrace complexity.

Sometimes, I Just Don't Know

While wondering just how many people remember the contact information for friends and family, I decided to make a quick (and informal) survey asking the following questions:

  • Do you know your home or cell phone number?

  • Do you know your spouses' cell phone number or mobile email address?

  • Do you know your parents' home or cell phone numbers?

Oddly enough, 35% do not know their own phone numbers … mobile or otherwise.  More than 60% do not know the phone number of their significant other.  That said, almost everyone remembers their parents' phone number … perhaps because it hasn't changed in 30+ years.

It will be interesting to see how this trend continues in the future.

What do you think of this trend?  Will communication become more complex in the future?

Digging Up The Post

How many things have I written on here? This was the thought as the young writer continued to look through the seemingly endless groups of files on the mobile computer. Though only an amateur blogger, the enthusiast loved to keep a copy of everything they had written, in the event they would need to pull a reference or, in this case, resurrect an abandoned idea.

Oh, I remember this one. But … wait a minute … why wasn’t it published?

This was quickly becoming a regular occurrence for the content creator. Over a dozen fully completed, but unpublished articles had been found on the tiny machine. Upon reading the title alone, the blogger had recalled not only the post, but the reason for writing it and its intended audience. Unfortunately, the time for publishing the thousand-word piece had passed. Even though it could have been considered one of their better works, its message was now months out of date.

Pushing the mild frustration aside, they continued on. Somewhere in these semi-organized blog article directories rested the half-written post that was about to be brought back from the perpetual purgatory where information was considered nothing more than abstract data.

Ask any long-time blogger about the number of posts they’ve abandoned, and you’ll probably hear a different answer every time. Nick over at RomanDock had asked this last week because he’s noticed an uptake in abandoned thoughts and, after unsuccessfully leaving a comment on his site, I thought that it might be worthwhile to explore this idea.

The reasons we might abandon a post tend to range from incoherence to being too emotional and everything in between. Looking just at the posts that have been ignored, set aside or unpublished from the various sites I’ve managed has shown that, more often than not, an article will fall prey to the killing floor if it explicitly defames someone or seems to be more angry than useful. Of course, there is the argument that most blog posts serve very little purpose, however, that’s a different subject altogether.

So, circular writing aside, what are some of the reasons people might hold back a post? I asked five people I regularly work with to answer this question and they all answered along the same lines: name calling, rage writing, superfluous circular references (incoherence), and memory.

Name Calling

Many people that have had the opportunity to blog under one pseudonym for any amount of time typically gets one or two people calling them out on one topic or another. This is to be expected and is sometimes the result of someone who’s trying to direct more attention to their site. However, depending on how we respond to a blatant attack on our character or personal beliefs, we can do more damage than good. It might feel good to hammer out a really good post backing up our positions and beliefs while simultaneously referring to the instigator as everything from an obtuse octogenarian to an idiot; it does little to add credibility to our own image.

Often times a good blogger will double-check their post as though they were a first-time reader to make sure that an article doesn’t seem too damning or detrimental to a site’s growth. When it comes to posting something that might be seen as fast-paced or racy on other sites, I often have someone sit down to read it before hitting the publish button. Maybe we didn’t really care how other people took our words when we started writing online content, so long as they placed our site amongst one of the better ones. However, while this methodology might work for some sites, it will not work for many.

Rage Writing

Much like name calling, rage writing is a terrible situation where someone sits at the keyboard and hammers away about a subject while still seeing red. Expressing our emotions might be considered a healthy way of releasing the frustration and pent-up emotions we might be feeling, but when an audience could be the size of the whole planet, this might not be the best way to solve our problems. It’s for reasons like this that people have often told us not to hit “Send” or “Publish” when we’re angry. Instead, it’s better to wait until we’ve calmed down to re-read the post (or email). Perhaps when we’ve regained our composure, we’ll be in a better position to decide whether or not our raw thoughts should be shared with the world. But how often do we remember to do this when we’re angry?

When I asked this question to some of the people I work with, the answer was not quite what I was expecting: 90% of the time. If one out of every ten angry posts can get through some of the more professional people that I regularly talk to, then it would be interesting to see just how often this might happen with the rest of us.

Superfluous Circular References (Incoherent Thoughts)

How often have you sat in front of the computer to type out a blog post without any real notes only to find that every paragraph seems to say the very same thing? How often have you read a post the day after it was posted only to shake your head and wonder how you managed to put together such senseless dribble? We all have days like this, but it’s important that we double-check our work before actually putting it online.

One of the most common ways to accomplish this goal would be to never write a post for the same day it’s going to be published. Instead, write for the next day, or any other point in the future, with the understanding that it will be read and edited at least once before the scheduled publication date. I’ve been doing this for quite some time, and I know of at least two other professional bloggers that have suggested this on their sites. While this will not result in professional-grade articles or better comments from visitors, it will allow us another opportunity to go the subject we’re about to share with the world.

Memory … Or Lack Thereof

This could be the biggest stumbling block for many people who want to become a little more professional with their blogging. Articles are written on various computers throughout the day and saved on a memory stick or some other location. When they’re ready for release, they’re either moved to a special folder or emailed to ourselves so that we remember to post the article somewhere online. Unfortunately, because of a phone call or a stray conversation, we often forget a critical step and what could be a great post gets lost in limbo. Depending on how often we double-check our “staging directories”, we could let these posts sit for months at a time.

This is certainly a problem in my case, as there have been dozens of posts for numerous sites left unattended for too long, and now they’ve become stale. It’s a sad state for the posts and, perhaps, a sad event for the author. How many of us have tried for months on end to become a better writer only to have some of our great work lost to the sands of time?

We are our own worst enemy … and an overloaded memory or burdened multi-tasking capacity can reduce our chances for success ten-fold.

Okay … Now What?

It’s important that we know our weaknesses and learn from our past mistakes. In the case of forgotten posts, we can often recycle them one way or another. With rage writing, we can get the anger and frustration off our chests, then come back later to take some of our raw emotions and phrase it more elegantly or to serve some constructive purpose. Name calling can be difficult to set aside because it’s something that many people have done since kindergarten, which means a conscious decision to take the high road must always be made. When it comes to incoherence or a poor memory … well, we can only strive to achieve something better.

How do you ensure the quality of your posts? Is there a checklist that you perform before hitting the “Publish” button? Do you have another set of eyes double-check the quality of your writing? I’d be curious to know how you get around some of these common problems.

As an aside … I have forgotten to post 38 articles in the last year alone, with six of them being guest posts. Only three of them can be recycled in any fashion, and one must wait until spring before it can be shared with the world.