All posts by Tor Håkon Haugen

What do you want to achieve?

What do you want to achieve? This is probably the most important question you can ask someone who comes to you with a request. People (usually) know what they want, but that does not mean they know what they actually need. [1]

Let me try to put this into context; I work as an operation manager for a mid-sized IT company, which means people come to me asking for resources. And by people, I mean developers, and by resources, I mean anything from a new server to a firewall opening.

It is in this context; I have learned to ask the question: what do you want to achieve?

Most of the time, what they want is also what they need. But occasionally, what they ask for just makes no sense, like: “can you create a subdomain pointing to a specific path on the webserver?” [2] Even if they do ask for something sensible, they still might not know what they really need.

In this example, what they wanted was to display a specific landing page depending on the subdomain that was used. The solution, if you wonder, is to have a piece of code that checks the incoming http request header rather than trying to make DNS into something it is not.

It is not that developers are stupid, on the contrary, developers actually apply a great deal of logic to their thinking; leading to assumptions like: “If a domain name points to a website, it should also be able to point to a specific path of a website.”

The point is: if you ask someone what they want to achieve, you can potentially save yourself and others from wasting time doing the wrong things. And time is the most valuable resource we have.

It is such a simple question, yet so powerful: What do you want to achieve?


[1] A lot of people struggle with what they want in life – as do I – but in this context I am talking about when people ask for something specific.

[2] This is of course a made-up example (or is it?)

Writing Tips

Twice I have been fortunate enough to have one of my posts featured on Hacker News. Well, fortunate might be a strong word because the attention comes with a price.

The first post was a tongue-in-cheek essay about digital natives and boy did it get some attention. Mostly negative. HN is a lovely community, but reading those comments were not an enjoyable experience.

This brings me to my first tip: Humor can easily get lost in translation. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it, but you should be aware that humor – especially irony and sarcasm – doesn’t translate well into writing.

In my second post, Writing is Hard, I wrote about what I find difficult about the writing process, and what I believe is the best way to solve it. This time the comments were far nicer, and I enjoyed reading them. There were different opinions, obviously, but the general tone was much better and the feedback more constructive – which I attribute to the fact that I wrote a more constructive essay as well.

I could say: Write more constructive, but I don’t think it’s a constructive advice. Instead, my second tip would be: Keep your promise to the reader. This applies even if you think nobody will read it; if you promise something in the title or the beginning of the text, follow up on that. In my first draft, the title of this essay was “Writing Tips”. So now I must either deliver on that or change the title.

This brings me to my third tip: Change your title accordingly. Sometimes the title is clear from the start, but usually the title is just a placeholder until you know what the text is about. Writing can be an evolving process; in some cases, you don’t know the text until after you have written it and done the first round of editing.

As mentioned, I find much joy in the HN community, and I’ve noticed that people often want evidence. This is a good thing; It means people are paying attention. So, if you claim something, make sure to back it up. This is not a hard rule; I just broke it myself claiming that people on HN want more evidence.

Speak the truth and be honest with your reader. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write fictional stories or fairy tales, but if you try to sell something; be upfront about it.

English is not my first language, but I believe I can use that to my advantage by keeping it simple and make the text readable. I don’t try to impress with words I don’t understand, and neither should you.

Equally important, no matter how simple words you use: Fix spelling and grammar. Our brain is incredible when it comes to filling in the gaps. One way to fix spelling is to read the text backwards, word for word. But I’m lazy and just copy the whole thing into Microsoft Word and let it advice me.

Still, weirdness can get through. In the original draft I managed to write “thong-in-cheek” instead of “tongue-in-cheek” – now that will certainly conjure up an image in your head. Both will pass the spellchecker; but one is not like the other.

Once you have written your piece; let it mellow for a while. I know it’s tempting to press the publish button, or in other ways release it to the world, but let it rest. As with tasty food, the flavors must get to know each other. I think this applies to words and sentences as well. If they taste sour when you get back to them after a few hours, or a few days, re-write or throw them out.

The written word doesn’t have an expiration date; it won’t go bad, but it won’t get any better either. Make sure your text is tasty before you serve it to other people.

I want to finish with this: We all make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world if you make a typo or two, as long as the text is readable, understandable and you get your point across.

To summarize:

  1. Be careful with humor, especially with irony and sarcasm
  2. Keep your promise to the reader
  3. Change your title (if necessary) once the text is ready
  4. Backup your claims with facts and references
  5. Speak the truth and be honest with your reader
  6. Keep the language simple, avoid using words you don’t fully understand
  7. Fix spelling and grammar
  8. Let your text mellow and re-read before you publish

So, there you have it: My writing tips. They may not be perfect, but I didn’t promise that either, so I believe I have delivered according to my own advice on this one. Now, what are you waiting for? Start writing.

Writing is hard

Writing is hard. Especially if you start thinking. Never stop to think about what to write (unless you must), it will ruin the flow. Never stop to correct yourself, to judge or run a spellcheck. Don’t do that; that’s what editing is for.

I’ve read the same tips again and again: Write first, edit later. The first draft is for you, the second is for everyone else (or just an editor or a confidante). Don’t interrupt the flow. If you need to look something up, place a marker in the text and look it up later.

That’s why I love to journal using pen and paper. You only have one direction: forward. Get the words down on the page in the order they appear in your head and move on with your day.

Breaking the flow has been one of my biggest issues when it comes to writing, both at school and later in life. I always ended up fiddling with the text before I got all the ideas out of my head. Looking up words, finding reference material (blog posts, news articles), checking facts. Don’t do that either. Checking facts is a part of the editing process.

In school I could spend half an hour playing with WordArt (remember WordArt?) for the title alone. The title can wait, you may want to change it anyway.

Another mistake I’ve made is installing a SEO plugin for WordPress and trying to make it happy. It has tips that make sense for readability: Use active words instead of passive. However, most of the tips are there to transform your style into something it’s not – someone else’s.

Add an image. Add a key phrase. Repeat the phase repeatedly throughout the text. Shorten your paragraphs. Add subheadings. Add more outbound links (but don’t forget internal links!).

Forget about SEO. That’s not part of the game, if it is: you’re not writing for yourself anymore. Don’t let anyone dictate your style; find your own voice. If you need pointers on style: read a book, then read some more.

Once you run out of steam; you’re most likely done. Take a break. If nothing new pops up in your head, you can start the editing process. If you thought writing was hard, wait till you start editing. Editing is hard.

Russia invaded Ukraine

This is not a regular blog post, it is just me stating a fact, since Russia has started blocking all external news sources, maybe this page will still be visible. Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia went to war with Ukraine. And Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.

This is not the fault of the Russian people — maybe other than their acceptance of keeping an autocrat in power for over 20 years. Healthy democracy needs new blood and new ideas.

If you are a russian living in Russia, ask yourself: What are the government trying to hide from you by blocking more and more social platforms? Why have they created new laws to punish those who try to voice their concern?

The flag of Ukraine

Reading goals for 2022

2021 started of well. Very well indeed. Life was good and I was happy. That did not last. None of this had anything to do with Covid-19 or any other illnesses, except for anxiety, I guess. Anyways, now that I have completed the seasonal greetings of the new year, I want to write a bit about my reading.

Some of the books I read in 2021

In 2020 I hade a goal of reading 12 books in a year. Since it was my first year setting such a goal, I figured one book per month was as good as any. By the end of the year, I reached 15.

In 2021 I decided to double that goal, 24 books in 12 months. A hairy target, giving my taste in books (mostly memoirs, biographies, and other non-fiction literature), but goals should be aspirational, but also within reach. At the end I managed 30 books. I really managed to push through at the end of the year. Also, I tend to read more than one book at a time. More about that in a bit.

Now this year — the year 2022 in case you missed it — the goal is to read 36 books. Combined with slightly faster reading speed, and a solid reading habit each day, I think that should be doable. There, I have said it: 36 books by the end of the year.

The goal to read 36 books is not just about reading as many books as possible. That would be a waste of time. The goal is to absorb the books. To enjoy them and to learn. Most of the books I read, as said earlier, is memoirs, biographies, and other non-fiction work. This generally takes more time to digest then pure fiction.

My reading strategy now is to read more than one book at a time. Typically, this means one biography/memoir, one other non-fiction book and one pure fictional book to seek refugee in when my brain needs a time off from all the facts and figures in the other books. Also, to my benefit, I can read both Norwegian and English books, which gives me yet another dimension in my reading. I do not have any issues reading a biography in English and another in Norwegian at the same time.

Usually, I read a mix of physical books and digital on my Kindle. I love books on paper, but the Kindle is so much more versatile when traveling (not happening much in Covid times) or in bed. I rather swipe on my Kindle than on my phone — the Kindle is so much better for the eyes.

If you really would like to know what I am reading, I have a Goodreads profile — here is the books I read in 2021 — otherwise I would probably not log my readings at all.