Leaving 2017 For 2018

[Note: Navel gazing about this blog and how and why I write it.]

With 2017 another year of blogging ended and it’s now exactly two years ago I published my first post. Unlike 2016 when not a lot happened here, this year is deserving of a proper summation.

I wrote 26 posts totaling 68900 words, compared to 21 and 31000 in 2016. That makes 99900 words in the first two years. If only I’d added them all up before publishing my last post of 2017, I could’ve inflated it a little and celebrated 100k along with the new year.

fireworks

That was a hundred words, pushing me over the line. Nice.

So I wrote about a novel’s worth of blog posts this year. I think that’s pretty good, especially since three of my posts from the year before were variants of complaining about how difficult I find it to get some words down. There’s been none of that this year, which suggests I’m getting better. And it does feel like I am. It comes easier now.

Volume isn’t what really matters, though. Mediocrity is mediocrity, even if I produce novel-loads of it. But I am a firm believer in the idea that doing more will make you do better as well — you can’t help building skill if you practice a lot. That appears to be true, by my own judgment. What I write today is better than what I wrote a year ago, which was better than what I wrote two years ago.

Despite things getting easier I’m nowhere near the productivity I’m aiming for. When coming back from a four month hiatus in late 2016 I said I had 35 text files in various states of development (idea, outline, draft, disordered paragraphs, etc.) in my notes folder. Now it’s more than twice as many, including about 20 marked “high priority”.

The more I write, the more I fall behind.

So why do it at all? Those files are weighing on me and I could just walk away and tend my garden, literally and figuratively. Well, for one, social reinforcement is pretty powerful. Getting readers, engagement and encouragement provides enough dopamine hits to tolerate the restlessness.

Indeed, traffic has gone up significantly over the year, mostly in two spurts. After growing a lot in March and April with Science, the Constructionists and Reality, Reactions to Infinite Jest and People Are Different, things plodded along over summer with my lengthy Erisology of Self and Will series until another jump in mid-October. I have most of that to thank a few successful articles (The Big List of Existing Things, The Nerd as the Norm, A Lament on Simler Et Al and to a lesser extent The Signal and the Corrective) that got some attention mostly from being endorsed by David Chapman on Twitter. December closed the year by bringing in 1300 visits, and while that’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, to me it’s progress. And I do like that this blog I barely dared think would interest anybody has managed to get an audience, however modest.

Yes, 2017 has been good. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought I could write a response to an editorial article on Ribbonfarm and have the author come by and discuss it with me. That’s nice.

A point

While increases in output, self-perceived quality and audience signifies success for the time being, I still don’t know what my “endgame” is.

That’s bothered me a few times this year. What do I ultimately want with this place? One view is that as a hobby the activity should just be its own reward. That makes sense, there is certainly a lot of satisfaction in writing and gettings things out of my head. But I’m a goal-oriented person and blogging (specifically, trying to produce a relatively steady stream of decent quality output) has a large enough cost in time and effort that there should be some goal on the horizon to justify it.

Not that I spend an inordinate amount of time writing as such (even if it is significant considering how little time I have, because being an adult kinda sucks). But thinking about what to write and keeping up with the reading required for that thinking takes up so much time and mental energy that I wonder if it’s worth it. I’m often exhausted, my mind never shuts up and when I have a little time that ought to be used for some restorative relaxation there’s always a voice in my head going “You should write! When else are you going to do it?”.

It also draws attention away from my real job (and my real life), which is boring in comparison. I’m unsure of the direction of causality: does my job bore me because blogging is more interesting or do I blog because my job is too unengaging to keep my interest? Either way it’s a problem.

Despite these issues, giving up blogging would mean losing something rare and valuable. I’m a pathologically promiscuous hobbyist and my past ever since childhood is a scrapheap of aborted creative work: drawing, carpentry, sewing, music, fiction, board games, quizzes, card games, computer games, computer art, simulations, theater, bonsai, pottery, poetry, photography, infographics, recipes, comics, comedy, conlangs, writing systems, and more, including some weird artforms that don’t exist. All sampled, all enjoyed, none of them compelling enough to make me put a ring on its finger and forsake all others (which is what it takes to get anywhere).

Except this. Everything Studies is the first hobby proejct for 15 years that’s been able to make me keep creating without losing steam as the first fit of “what’s the point of it all?” comes along. That’s not something to just throw away.

One candidate for Ultimate Point of this blog is spreading what I judge to be valuable ideas into the memetic environment. Many posts are the result of me describing ideas and mental tools I think would be good for people to have access to and use to interpret the world. This with the ultimate purpose of helping prevent and dissolve some of the dysfunctional yet theoretically functional disagreements I see playing out over and over and over again.

I wrote this in my very first post two years ago:

When people discuss ideas and exchange opinions it fascinates me, not just great ideas and well thought out opinions (which aren’t always so common), but also the remarkable differences between people, how they experience and think about things in such radically yet sometimes subtly different ways.

You also notice certain standard failure modes. Discussions predictably break down and turn into shouting matches or stalemates born of baffled confusion. And it’s often totally avoidable if the participants can find the real sources of their disagreement. It seems to me that people don’t get mad when other people disagree with them, they get mad when they’re not being understood.

/…/

Reading forums gradually became a kind of disaster tourism for me. The same stories played out again and again, arguers butting heads with only a vague idea about what the other was saying but tragically unable to understand this. Something had to be done.

When an engineer-brain sees a particular type of problem occur predictably, it begins to try to fix it. Now, I can’t fix online discourse (but if I could, I think I’d deserve the Nobel Peace Prize), but I felt I could at least create some resource that would make it easier to identify pitfalls, maybe defuse a fight somewhere, sometime, and have someone walk away with a more, rather than less, nuanced view of the world.

That’s (applied) erisology.

Any nontrivial success at this is of course a lot more difficult than just writing hobbyist essays in exchange for some satisfaction from a job moderately well done. I don’t think I ever seriously believed any actual “impact” was going to result, and every time I remember that I get one of those “what’s the point?”:s and have to wait for it to blow over before I can go on. But, unattainable as it may be, I need that goal to keep moving. Googling “strategic self-deception” doesn’t give a lot but I think that’s what I’m doing.

A fantasy

My one-sentence description of erisology is “the study of disagreement and intellectual difference”. One part of that is looking at exactly how and why public discourse is predictably terrible. Related but distinct is the idea that intellectual and cultural specialization is splintering societes into partially non-communicating, fractal-like structures of sub-sub-subcultures (more reading on that). This process has been wonderfully liberating for nonconformists, absolutely, but also alienating and nihilism-inducing. I wrote about it in All the World’s a Trading Zone and All the Languages Merely Pidgins, a little at the end of Reactions to Infinite Jest, and put some criticisms of intellectual specialization in both Science, the Constructionists and Reality and Mass-producing Hansons.

They both border a bigger issue I wish I was in a position to dedicate my life to. In order to build taller intellectual and cultural skyscrapers we need sturdy foundations and tools to effectively build on top of existing peaks. That means less emphasis on rule-breaking and novelty and more on constructing canons of common understanding. A quasi-schizophrenic world-brain with no coherent collective self to integrate its thoughts cannot do much. We’re limping into the future.

A few months ago I tweeted this:

tweetlogist.png

By a knowledge logistics problem I mean that more knowledge, insight and culture is produced than ever before, and the bottleneck to what somebody more woolly-headed than me might call an “enlightened civilization” is not production volume but packaging, indexing, compression, synthesis and distribution of ideas.

A dream of mine is that all relevant facts, models, narratives and perspectives are available to everyone at all times. When debate, discussion or just communication happens, everyone would know the gist of what has already been said on the topic, by anyone, ever. Instead of working with insights on a level comparable to carrier-pigeon tech, everyone taking part in public discourse would be equipped with state-of-the-art understanding in the same way most people in modern societies have access to the very best digital services in the world.

As a fantasy I guess it’s odd. Why care so much? I don’t know. I’m at once a rationalist and a romantic and I find the current state of discourse deeply unsatisfactory on an emotional and aesthetic level. Practical too, but if I were to be honest that’s not the part that motivates me. In practice, there are many more important issues that simply don’t motivate me the same way. I accept this[1].

So I have my fantasy. And a fantasy it is. In order to achieve anything vaguely resembling what I described, not only must the necessary ideas be created and made available, they must also be spread throughout the population. But mere exposure is not enough, an idea must me installed in a person in such as way as to make it activate at the right time. Because just like there is little point for knowledge to exist in a book somewhere if nobody reads it (looking at you, academia), there is little point for an insight to be present in a mind if it isn’t activated and applied to what that mind encounters. It mustn’t lie waiting to wake up on command, it must take initiative.

Everything needs a name so I’ll call this “proactive ideas”. People Are Different was an attempt to write a piece that could transmit such a proactive idea. While it was fairly appreciated (one of my most successful articles at that time) it is, of course, big picture wise, of no great consequence (if someone felt it changed their thought patterns in any way I’d love to hear about it.)

That’s the problem with pursuing a ridiculously ambitious goal — the chance of making significant progress is low.

I did have a plan of sorts: try to get the general concept of “erisology” out there, and use that as scaffolding to hang individually useful ideas on. It’s going so-so. There are my articles, a Twitter hashtag I occasionally use, and a small subreddit with a 100 subscribers. I’ve been thinking I should start a big project finding, curating and systematizing erisological writing by others, but since I don’t have the time it would mean less focus on writing, which is honestly something I like better. To give erisology the attention it deserves I might have to become a cryptocurrency millionaire or something.

On an unrelated note: tell all your friends to buy cryptocurrencies. Raise those prices.

I have no great proclamation for the year 2018. This post is not here to present a bold new direction or a big new plan. The policy remains: keep developing ideas and build on what I (and others) have. As long as it feels rewarding and I’m making several kinds of progress, I think I’ll go on.

Happy new year.

• • •

Notes

[1]
Although, since I’m currently reading Elephant in the Brain, I can’t help thinking an opaque motivation like this probably has something self-serving behind it.

3 thoughts on “Leaving 2017 For 2018

  1. Interesting to read these meta posts about your experience blogging here over the last two years, since I’ve been on a similar project blogging here on roughly similar themes, in the exact same timeframe. Here is an excerpt of an appraisal I wrote on my other blog about how my overall project of writing under this pseudonym went in 2017:

    I would overall consider the rationalist-adjacent blogosphere side of my life in 2017 pretty successful. In particular, at the beginning of the year, I had hoped to produce a WordPress post at a rate of once a month. And I did succeed in writing 12 of them, although my writing rate was much more irregular than I wanted, mainly owing to both my work life and my social life temporarily revving up during the middle of the year. By August or so, I was feeling pretty behind on blogging, but I managed somehow to catch up, even if I gave myself a bit of a freebie with that last WordPress post which was really just a bunch of links to Tumblr posts (it took me a pretty long time to organize nonetheless). […]

    For the first time since I decided to start writing about certain kinds of thoughts online under this name, I actually feel like I’ve dug myself out of a good amount of rubble which is now organized into more or less intelligible (if long-winded) essays. Sometimes I’ve disappointed myself by not being able to express what feels instinctual in a completely coherent manner or by not knowing the answer to something that feels like it should be obvious, while other times, in the process of writing, I’ve managed to make connections and answer my own questions for the first time. But overall I’m finally starting to feel like I’ve managed to (however clumsily) express most of the ideas that have been building up in me for years, and while there’s more that I’m still sitting on and hope to find the words for in the following months, the bulk of it is now out on paper. Given enough time, I’m sure my innermost creed will continue to develop to the point that I’ll need to update some of the things I’ve now discussed openly, but at least for the moment I feel more “caught up” in this way than every before.

    My blogging goals for 2018 are somewhat different than they were for 2017. I’m less intent on producing longform posts at any particular rate, although there are a few I do intend to push out at some point next year. I plan on being more relaxed in general with the WordPress blog, maybe publishing a few “blast from the past” posts (pasting some things I wrote around college age or thereabouts with commentary on how I feel about them now) around the middle of the year. I do, however, resolve to at least try refurbishing my “multivariate utilitarianism” essay to be readable and maybe contain a more satisfying conclusion, and to seriously consider submitting the resulting more polished essay to a more visible place.

    Overall I’ve found my life under this handle to be very rewarding, and I certainly hope to continue being active throughout the next year. But it may well happen that I change jobs and move countries and/or positively develop my social life, leaving less time for this, which would be okay as well.

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  2. Got sidetracked before finishing commenting on this post and I’m getting back to it now.

    Congratulations on reaching the 100,000-word mark! I calculated my total word count, and it looks like I’ll reach that milestone within about five more essays 😛

    Which brings up the question, did you employ any particular strategy or mindset that helped make it become easier to “get words down” over the last couple of years, or did it just happen naturally with practice? Perhaps my greatest frustrations about effortposting on this platform is that “getting words down” has proven to be much harder than I’d imagined before I started, and although I do think my writing style has gotten marginally better since two years ago, the effort required to articulate things well hasn’t really eased up any for me. Each of my posts takes me more energy than I like to admit; I find it quite challenging to come up with sufficiently clear yet varied ways to structure sentences and paragraphs; and I still find myself needing a thesaurus a little too often. (I’ve always blamed my vocabulary limitations to the fact that I haven’t read enough advanced adult-level fiction and nonfiction, something I keep resolving to change.) This feels like perhaps the biggest thing holding me back. Your writing seems to flow very naturally and even somewhat poetically; I’m curious as to how much concentrated effort going on behind the scenes and how much of it flows easily from already-honed skills.

    Also, impressive (but perhaps a little frustrating to you) that you have more proto-posts than ever waiting in your draft folder. By contrast, as you can see from what I quoted in the other comment, I recently feel as if I’ve gotten over some kind of hump where now the amount of material that still needs to be written about is actually diminishing (though there are still a few major things in the queue). Hopefully that means I won’t get lethargic over the next year but will instead look over and fine-tune my understanding of the things I’ve already attempted to talk about and eventually start exploring new ideas. And certainly continuing to read blogs like yours will help stimulate me to do that. Happy 2018!

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    1. I’ve been meaning to get back to your comment for a while, but yaknow, things get in the way.

      About strategies I don’t know, part of it is simply practice, but I also find having more of your own writing to refer to helps a lot in building context, and that makes it easier to write. I think almost everyone finds it a lot easier to, say, write a comment on something than an original post – because the context is already established. I also find its important to write your thoughts down as you’re thinking them and not wait until the “perfect” time later (as mentioned in Idea Infatuation). It’ll make a mess and there’ll be a lot of stuff that never goes anywhere but it’s easier to work with too much text than too little.

      It’s frustrating though, since the process of going from a collection of disordered paragraphs to a coherent text requires more work than just jotting things down does. You need a decent chunk of time to concentrate and that can be hard to find. What most difficult, I note, is to know in how much detail to explore an idea or how far to take a model. If too far it often doesn’t work well, but if it does it’s better in the end. I rewrote “The Big List of Existing Things” several times before I was satisfied, taking more time than I reasonably should have put in.

      The paragraph and sentence level writing comes comparatively easy, I don’t know why. Maybe learning to get rid of academic writing affectations over a few years as a consultant was healthy. Still line edit quite a lot, though.

      I read some of your tumblr posts and liked them. Do you find that easier than longer posts? I think you could get good results if you could find a middle ground between long, dense posts and more off-the-cuff thoughts. To start with something simple and then bring in something theoretical and let it grow is a common technique for a reason (and I need to get better at it, instead of starting theoretically…).

      It’s great that you feel you’ve gotten over your main hump, that leaves more time for polishing and development, as well as providing some solid ground to stand on when you continue. Also: getting rubble out of your head is wonderful, an underestimated feeling. Even though I have a lot more it still feels great to make some progress and notice that it’s possible.

      Happy 2018 to you too 🙂

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