Blogging about Blogging

Last week in London there was an event called Talkfest which was all about Science Blogging. I didn’t know anything about it until I started to see some tweets about it just before it happened. Apparently a few people I know went along and, by all accounts, it was quite an interesting evening. You could have knocked me down with a feather, however, when one of the invited panellists, particle physicist John Butterworth, mentioned this as his favourite “after-dinner” blog. If you don’t believe me here’s the evidence!

John is the chap with the microphone, and that’s my blog behind him. Unfortunately, the fact that I’d picked a Welsh title that day probably means he probably managed to convince the audience that I can speak Welsh which, in turn, probably means I’m going to get sued under the Trades Descriptions Act! I don’t know exactly what was meant by “after-dinner” blog, either. Perhaps its because it should only be read after the watershed. Anyway, it seems like it must have been a fun event judging by the other pictures and some of the chat that went on via Twitter (#talkfest)  afterwards.

I must say I was thrilled to bits to be mentioned in despatches in front of so many people who know a lot more about science blogging than I do. I’m not really plugged into the large online science community. All I do in that vein is write this. Just because I write a blog doesn’t mean I’m not a Luddite at heart! Anyway, I’m both flattered and grateful to Prof. Butterworth for his kind words. At least, I assume they were kind. If I’d been there I would have blushed.

Anyway, John’s own blog is very interesting and he followed up his dubious selection of favourite blog with a post of his own about the whys and wherefores of blogging. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery I thought I’d follow his cue and do something in a similar vein. Actually I’ve been meaning to do something along these lines for a while.

I suppose the main issue to be addressed in  a sermon about blogging is “why?”. Lots of people have asked me why I have a blog and why I apparently spend so much time writing it. Well, for me, there are two answers. The first is just that I enjoy writing. I think because of that I’ve always been able to write stuff quite quickly and developed a little bit of a knack for it. When I started blogging – less than two years ago – I realised that it gave me the chance to write about things quite different from the usual themes I had yet tackled in publications. I’d written scientific papers, textbooks, lecture notes, popular books and newspaper articles before but most had   been quite strictly controlled by editors and were always related to my scientific work. In fact, I’d already written quite a lot of stuff that never made it into publications so as time as gone on and I’ve been short of blog fuel I’ve tended to throw some of these pieces on in addition to bits I write on the spur of the moment.

It was only after I’d been blogging quite a while that I started doing music and poetry items, entirely for my own amusement, like keeping a scrapbook, but if people actually enjoy things that I’ve put up that they’d never seen before then all the better. I know a lot of people think I’m a pretentious twat for posting about Opera and modern jazz – some have said as much to my face, in fact – but that’s what I like. There’s enough blogs about pop music, TV celebrities and computer games already, not that I’d be able to write about them. I’m flattered too by the fact that some of my music and other posts have been linked to wikipedia articles – and, no, I didn’t put them there!

The other reason I had for starting to blog is much more personal. I moved job to Cardiff in 2007, but I got caught up in the credit crunch and was unable to sell my old house for quite a while. I spent far too much time commuting from Nottingham to Cardiff and back for the weekends and got thoroughly depressed, a state of mind not helped by some other issues which I won’t go into. In the middle of this my father died. Though not entirely unexpected, I did have to take some time out to deal with it. He hadn’t left a will, and I had to sort out the legal side of things as well as dispose of his belongings and arrange the funeral. In the aftermath of all that I had pangs of nostalgia for my childhood in Newcastle and an urge to connect with all that through writing down some thoughts and memories. Many of my early posts on here were quite morbidly introspective and probably not much fun for anyone to read, but I found writing them quite cathartic, as indeed I’ve found other posts for different reasons.

Anyway, knowing my tendency to write bits and bobs and then forget about them, quite a few people had encouraged me to start writing a blog but I hadn’t done it because I didn’t know how to go about setting one up. Fortunately after a public talk I’d given, Phil Brown of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave me a few pointers to getting started writing a blog. After finally managing to sell off the Nottingham house and after relocating fully to Cardiff, I got this thing going about 2 years ago.

So there you are.  That’s some of why and most of how I came to start writing this blog. I wish I could say I had a mission to change the world, but it’s really just partly a big exercise in self-indulgence and partly a piece of occupational therapy. I would add two things in my defence, though. One is that I think that among all the other stuff, I do a bit of public service on here. Any bits of news about funding, exciting or controversial science results and things I think my colleagues in Cardiff and elsewhere might find interesting tend to go on here and I do think that’s a useful thing to do. People in my own School sometimes find things first from reading here, which I think adds a healthy bit of transparency to the otherwise closed world of academic life. The other thing to say is that, contrary to popular opinion, I don’t actually spend a huge amount of time writing the blog. Much of it is recycled and the rest thrown together quite quickly. I’ve just reached 1000 words of this post, for example, and it’s taken me 25 minutes. I know it’s rubbish, but at least its fast…

..which reminds me. Was it Voltaire who apologized for not having time to write a short letter so he was sending a long one instead?

Aside from the other things I’ve mentioned, the comments section is the thing I enjoy best. It’s great when people take the time to correct my numerous errors, whether it’s an incorrect chord sequence from a Charlie Parker track or a mistake in interpretation of a cosmological result. I also enjoy watching the discussion threads veer off at all kinds of unexpected tangents. Of course the comments section does occasionally have its downside, but generally its a lot of fun.

I’ve kept a weather eye on the hit statistics for this blog since I started. Although they are highly erratic, varying between 300 and 3000,  I seem to have a steady baseline average of about 700 unique hits per day. That seems an awful lot to me, but I’ve nothing to compare it with so I don’t know whether it’s a lot for a personal blog. I do know who a few of the readers are, some because they comment regularly on here,  and some because they tell me they read it in emails or face-to-face. I thought at the start that the intersection of jazz, opera and astronomy was a set of very small measure indeed so I’d never get more than a handful of readers. I realise now that I was probably doing the wrong logical operation; I should have been thinking `OR’ rather than `AND’. Judging by the incoming links I probably get quite different people reading the different sorts of items.

I’d be interested to know how people read this and other blogs, actually. I post almost every day, but I’d be surprised if the same people visit every day or read the posts that often.

It’s strange to think that the tentacles of the internet sometimes reach out from the other side of the world, bringing someone here without me ever knowing who they are. Wheoever you are, and however you got here, please feel free to say hello through the comments. I’d love to know who you all are. But if you’d rather not, that’s fine. This blog is delivered in the electronic equivalent of a plain brown envelope.

Anyway, that’s more than enough introspection for one night. Reading it through I realise it sounds like a very long and very boring acceptance speech for some sort of award! Perhaps I should keep it for when I get into Pseud’s Corner. Still, it will have to do. I haven’t got an editor to rewrite it for me…

PS. I would have been great if the picture had featured this post instead of last week’s. That would really have suited the self-reference theme, although it would have violated causality constraints!

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26 Responses to “Blogging about Blogging”

  1. What a lovely post! And I’m delighted we’ve managed to infect the blogs of people who weren’t even there!

  2. Whether it is kept as a personal interest or for a public service, well-kept science blog as “In the Dark” truly satisfy an undergrad physics student who is interested in cosmology. So hello from Turkey! ^^

    • telescoper Says:

      Arif,

      Nice to hear from you. It’s amazing that I can post an item from my study in Cardiff and then less than an hour later there’s a reply from a total stranger in Turkey. The internet is a strange thing but it’s also, in its own way, rather wonderful.

      Peter

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Not Voltaire but GK Chesterton, I believe.

    It’s your blog, you don’t have to justify opera or jazz or anything else to *anybody*.

    All the best for further blogging,
    Anton

  4. telescoper Says:

    Incidentally, here’s another statistic which is quite interesting. I’ve just passed 600 posts and these have generated about 5100 comments (not including spam); that’s an average 8.5 comments per post.

  5. […] a science blogging community get together. These include photos of the event on flickr and an introspective blog post about blogging from another guy who wasn’t […]

  6. geohale Says:

    “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

    mark twain

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Curry, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Blogging about Blogging: http://wp.me/pko9D-1Hy […]

  8. Keep on blogging sir! I found your blog when I was doing an OU astronomy course and have been reading ever since. I like your academic insights and the opera stuff is orthogonally pleasing as I know nothing about it!

  9. Thanks, Peter – always enjoy reading.

    “I’d be interested to know how people read this and other blogs, actually.”

    I’m a Google Reader person – http://www.google.com/reader – which saves me checking blogs individually for updates, and (in theory at least!) keeps all my procrastination activities in one place. Apparently you have 242 subscribers on Google Reader, incidentally. And we probably don’t show up on your hit statistics.

  10. Well, I read it after the “watershed”, but in Singapore. As an “expat” I like the interesting mix you provide, be it academic funding, Sidney Bechet, Newcastle (I’m from the other side of the Pennines) or Columbo. I raise my glass to you!

  11. I recently stumbled upon your blog and have been coming back just about every day since. I enjoy the interesting mix of posts here. In the Dark and Cosmic Variance are my most traversed blogs. These have been filling my physics and cosmology void as I get ready to head off to my first year of grad school in the States. Keep up the good work!

  12. CTReader Says:

    I spend an inordinate amount of time reading blogs every day and visit this one at least once a day. I love science blogs and came to this one via a link in one of the others. I’m located in Connecticut. The science is what I came for and the jazz is something I’ve enjoyed for a long time. I’ve learned more about opera from reading here than from all the other sources I’ve perused.

    Keep writing the very interesting mix of material that you have and we’ll keep reading it!

  13. “Just because I write a blog doesn’t mean I’m not a Luddite at heart!” I’ll add this to my list of quotable quotes.

    I notice updates via RSS. Actually, I think many improvements one could think about in relation to blogs—especially if one reads more than one—were already implemented in usenet 20 years ago. Perhaps this Google Reader stuff provides some similar functionality, but then it is Google Reader. With usenet, one could use any newsreader, or write one’s own. To some extent probably true for Google-Reader-type stuff, but the blogosphere is a moving target whereas the NNTP protocol can be relied on.

    This isn’t to say that blogs offer nothing new compared to usenet, and I plan to start my own in a few weeks. (Even if they didn’t offer anything new, one would have to embrace them since most of the youth of today don’t know the advantages of usenet.)

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    If you want self-reference, point a videocamera at a mirror. It is not a bad exercise for students to ask them what would be seen.
    Anton

    • This is essentially the same as looking into a mirror. The video camera would record an image of the video camera, just as I see an image of myself in the mirror.

      More interesting is to point a video camera at a monitor showing what it is recording. This is like standing between two mirrors, but without the disadvantage of one’s head blocking the view.

      This reminds me of one of the very few truly innovative things I have seen on a television variety show (a candid-camera show): In the public toilet at a motorway petrol station, the mirror behind the wash basins was replaced by a plane of glass, and behind the glass was a “mirror image” of the room before it. Good, but it gets better. Behind the plane was a woman, and in front of it, at the normal basin, was her identical twin. They coordinate their movements. A woman comes up to wash her hands and doesn’t see herself in the mirror. She DOES see (what she thinks is) the reflection of the other woman, and the rest of the the stuff around her. There might be a clip on YouTube, but I can’t find it.

    • telescoper Says:

      The original title sequence for Doctor Who (way back when it first started in the 60s) was made by simply pointing a TV camera into its own monitor. I still love watching that sequence.

  15. […] In the Dark, having picked up on being mentioned as a favourite site! […]

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: There’s always the Harry Worth trick, as it’s always called in England, shown in in the opening seconds of this clip:

    Anton

  17. Harry Hill has the modern version of Harry Worth , done between takes of the excellent TV burp

  18. telescoper Says:

    Incidentally, here’s an item from the THES which complains about the style of writing in academic journals.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=412480&c=2

    It’s worth reading, but the author misses a big opportunity. For example,

    Basically, you have to be well known to find an outlet for your views … I can hardly blame my graduate students for not cultivating the skills of public writing.

    The author seems never to have heard of blogging which, as I said above, is a great way to develop a different writing style and its an outlet anyone can use.

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    The THES article is mostly about the humanities. It doesn’t take long in a library to discover that writing in the humanities used to be clear, but has become opaque in the postwar era. Why this should be so is a deep question, although it is disconcerting to see John Cornwell’s commitment to academic rigour emphasised in view of his book on Pius XII and the Nazis. This book (‘Hitler’s Pope’) all but painted Pius XII as a Nazi fellow traveller. That was never the case, and the book made it a lot harder for those of us who think Pius’ real crime was silence and inactivity to be heard. The Pope was the one man feared by Hitler as having real influence over the minds of many Nazis, and if Pius had been willing to stick his neck out in the way Jesus of Nazareth did, the 20th century might have been significantly less bloody.
    Anton

  20. […] easy, so I’ll keep it brief. It struck me that this would provide a nice postscript to my recent navel-gazing post about blogging so I decided to put it up before I forget which, in fact, is part of the point of […]

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