Why are poorly written books so popular?

This is a re-post of my answer in Quora.

When I crack open the books my kids read and even re-read, I’m appalled. These are books that are published, and sell. They’re full of too many characters and everyone “smiles happily” or “grins.” All the time.

Is there more to it than dumping endless barrels of money into marketing?

 

I have a circle of book-loving friends who are never able to recommend books to one another. Most people find this strange until I ask this question:

What matters to you in a book?

  1. The plot.
  2. The characters.
  3. The writing.

Each and every single person in my circle answers this question differently, and I suspect it is also the reason why these “poorly written” books have become “so popular” (I put these adjectives in quotes as they are quite subjective, which warrant a separate question).

Once while reading a popular YA novel I had to stop because of a page where the author couldn’t seem to decide whether she was writing from a first or third person point of view.

I thought, Doesn’t this author know what she’s trying to say? What kind of editor lets a book like this get published?!

For reference, I’m a writing >> characters > plot type.

I asked a friend how she managed to survive reading the same book, and her answer was she was too engrossed in the story to notice the tiny stuff like I did.

She’s a plot > characters >>> writing type.

These popular books probably have plots or characters that appeal to a large audience—the kind that thinks good writing is “the tiny stuff”.

So in a way yes, it is marketing. There’s a market out there for readers who don’t mind good writing as much, and publishing houses are selling for that market.

 

 

Read Danna Lariba‘s answer to Why are poorly written books so popular? on Quora

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Farnam Street Course: The Art of Focus, a review

How do you learn to focus?

We don’t need to be reminded about the importance of focus. But if its so important, why is it so hard to learn how?

There’s a lot of material out there claiming to teach you how. Anywhere from psychology, self-improvement books, to Lifehacker.

Which one actually works?

As part of Project 2017 (i.e. Continuously improve myself throughout the year, through a series of sprints ), I set out to learn how to focus in six weeks.

Given the deadline I didn’t want to waste my time sifting through all the options, so I decided to just pay someone to teach me

After a bit of research, I narrowed it down to two choices:

  1. Farnam Street’s The Art of Focus
  2. Shawn Blanc’s The Focus Course

 

How I heard about these focus classes

I’ve been a regular reader of the Farnam Street blog for a while. I firmly believe Shane Parrish (the original blogger behind Farnam Street) and his team have some of the best content in the web. From books to the pursuit of wisdom, Farnam Street writes about things I truly care about.

Through his blog he mentioned the FS courses, one of which was The Art of Focus.

In Shawn Blanc’s case, he had featured in some of Sean Wes’s videos and podcasts back in December where he talked about the Focus Course he was developing. Sean was a big fan: he recommended the course to his subscribers, even offering a discount.

Sean Wes, in case you aren’t aware, has a huge online presence. Getting a plug like that is practically guaranteed revenue.

 

Why Farnam

So why did I go with Farnam Street? Even if it had no discounts? And so few reviews?

Because it’s Farnam.

Before The Focus Course, I had never heard of Shawn Blanc. I didn’t know if he was any good aside from the selected testimonials on his landing page.

On the other hand I’ve been a longtime reader of the Farnam Street Blog. I can attest to the quality of the content. But I didn’t know if this quality translated to the courses.

I came to the conclusion that even if the course doesn’t work for me, I can consider the course fee as a form of donation to the fantastic blog.

 

So was it worth the money?

Its hard to quantify if the course fee was worth it. Doing so would mean putting a dollar amount to my hours, and that I have a baseline to compare against.

I don’t.

But I will admit I learned a lot.

If you’ve read Cal Newport’s Deep Work, much of the material in The Art of Focus course is based there. What the course offers is a structured way to execute the material from the book.

I had enrolled in the course before reading the book, so much of the content was new to me.

Now that I’ve read the book, I wish I had done it the other way around: I felt I should have had context first (something the book does well) before being taught the plan (something the course does well).

One big con is that the course felt very much one-way. i.e., Shane explains, you absorb. There was no feedback mechanism to tell if you’re headed in the right direction. Maybe that was the idea behind logging your hours (one of the steps Shane implements in the course), but it didn’t work for me.

I felt annoyed considering I thought I had paid for a course, not just content.

But as I said earlier, I had gone into the course with the mindset that the money was a donation to the blog, rather than the fee for the course. I couldn’t stay annoyed for very long.

Especially since the material itself—whether it was Farnam’s or Newport’s–was good.

 

Would I recommend?

So in spite of all my complaints, I would recommend The Art of Focus if:

  1. You are looking for a structured way to execute the strategies taught in Deep Work.
  2. You are very much a self-learner and do not expect interaction nor feedback.
  3. You learn well through videos.

That last one was a doozy. Most of the material is delivered through videos–a miss for someone with poor hearing like myself. Shane does offer transcripts, but I’d appreciate subtitles more as transcripts don’t allow me to view the video content at the same time.

I guess I should be thankful it wasn’t something like podcasts, or else I’d demand a refund.

 

Key takeaways

Much of the content of the Art of Focus is based on Deep Work, so its difficult to say who was the source for which takeaway.

I did notice that the Art of Focus gave a lot more err, focus, to these topics:

  1. Attention residue
  2. Meditation

Which is why I’m finding that, even without implementing the other Deep Work strategies, just addressing these two have already made a significant impact.

The latter especially, as I’ve never really meditated and assumed it was something only yogi do.

The course seems to assume you already know how to meditate though, so I had to look up elsewhere to learn how. FYI, the Headspace app is great, but lately I’ve been using Smiling Mind.

I’m considering re-doing the course again in a few months, maybe even next year, now that I’ve finished Deep Work. I’ll give myself more time to digest the content before I start implementing such structure again.

EXPIRED: 5% off on edX Verified Certificates

Update: Discount period over.

If you’ve taken any courses on edX recently and have been considering getting the Verified Certificate to show off on your resume, now would be a good time.

There’s a site-wide 5% discount on all Verified Certificates if you use the following promo code:

EDX5FOR5

Valid only until July 1, 2017.

 

I’ve verified it works by using it on my Microsoft Introduction to Python for Data Science course:

edxvc_dat208x
Promo code applied on Verified Certificate for Intro to Python for Data Science

It’s not much, but it helps.

What I haven’t tested is if I can re-use the code for other courses as well–if any of you have tried this let me know!

Dear Microsoft, I’m confused.

Last year I heard about your Professional Program for Data Science.

I’ve been following along, albeit slowly, as I’ve been supplementing your content with other MOOCs. But the point is I’ve been following along and still intend to.

Your content is good. Not the best, but good.

Here’s the thing though: Why suddenly announce Microsoft Advanced Analytics?

On the surface it looks all shiny and new with the focus on Cortana Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Looking under the hood though, I see the course catalog and certifications mirror those of the original program.

What gives?

Are these two different, or the same? Are they meant to be complementary? Where does one stop and the other begin?

SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

Microsoft DAT208x: Introduction to Python for Data Science, a review

In my quest to complete the Microsoft Professional Program for Data Science, I took their course Introduction to Python for Data Science earlier this month to disappointing results.

It could be that I had very different expectations, or that I already have too much background in Python for another introductory course, but I wasn’t impressed and I’m loath to pay for the verified certificate.

This felt more like an overview than a proper introduction. If this was a university, this would have been the first day when the instructor gives out the syllabus and walks through the course expectations.

Would I discourage you from taking the course? Yes actually.

(To follow my progress on the program, check out the Microsoft Professional Program tag)

 

The Structure

DAT208x claims to “cover Python basics and prepare you to undertake data analysis using Python”. Similar to the Microsoft courses that come before it, it is a self-paced course comprised of video lectures and lab exercises.

The modules are as follows:

  1. Python Basics
  2. Lists
  3. Functions and Packages
  4. Numpy
  5. Plotting with Matplotlib
  6. Control Flow and Pandas

This course is brought to you by a partnership between Microsoft and Data Camp, the latter an online Data Science school similar to DataQuest. In an old post I mentioned my apprehension with Data Camp as I’ve heard they favor R over Python, but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and give their Python course a try.

Its due to this partnership that most of the lab activities are outside of edX. i.e., we’re redirected to DataCamp’s interface for the lab exercises.

These exercises are the meat of the course. If you’ve tried DataQuest before then the DataCamp interface should be familiar:

Instructions are to the left, interactive Python shell to the right. After submitting your answer DataCamp verifies if your code is correct.

Unlike other Microsoft courses I’ve tried, this one has a final exam. In this exam you are given 4 hours to answer 50 questions: a mixture of knowledge checks, pseudo coding, and actual coding.

Considering the quizzes, exercises, and final exam, you need to score at least 70% to pass the course. Pretty easy considering 40% is just course surveys.

 

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