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Blogging about Blogging

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 19, 2010 by telescoper

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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