Hindsight in 2020

[Note: Meta about the blog. Some navel gazing, personal journaling, with a chance of whining.]

I could’ve called this “2020 Coda”, “2020 Finale”, “2020 Cadence” or even “2020 Recapitulation” if I wanted to stick with the classical music titling theme from the two preceding posts, but there was no way this wasn’t going to have the title that it has. I’ve planned to use this mediocre pun for a whole year and I’m sure as hell not dropping it now.

It’s certainly been a special year, and not in a good way. But however badly special the year has been for everyone and everything, my blogging performance hasn’t been affected very much. Last year I said that I felt my productivity hadn’t been up to snuff, and, well, not much has changed. No collapse, and no improvement.

2020: 11 posts in 8 paragraphs

The lesson I keep learning but then forget again is that things take a lot longer than I feel they should. I bought The AI Does Not Hate You by Tom Chivers in late 2019 and planned to have a review ready by January. Couldn’t be too hard, right? My notes on it grew into a beast that I had great difficulty controlling that winter, and eventually decided to split it into three parts. Great idea! I’ll have material for three posts then! I can spread them out over a few months and give myself time to breathe! Nope, each one still took a long time, and not until July this year did I have the final piece ready. So my work with that book lasted the better part of a year from first buying it to publishing the last article off it. That wasn’t the plan.

The actual review was finished right in the middle of the first pandemic craze in mid-March when nobody was talking about anything else, so timing was not great. The author liked it and thanked me on Twitter though, which was nice. The second piece was a collection of comments and thoughts that had been cut from the review. It should have been the quickest but here is where I dropped the ball the worst and procrastinated for two months. I developed an “ugh field” around it, partly because it had some political things in it that I wanted to get just right.

In the final part of the “trilogy” I was grasping for something ineffable and almost mystical, which I’m not used to. I got some criticism for it from a direction I don’t usually expect. I had been questioning some sacred cows — if such things exist — of the rationalist community, which the book had been about, even going as far as advocating a kind of irrationalism for the sake of psychological health. Some criticism was good, some was bad — the bad most often seemed to have missed the note in the beginning saying that it wasn’t a manifesto. It wasn’t even an argument, it was a combination of personal feelings, speculation, and the hopefully artful combination of a few motifs.

When these three pieces were my main project I still put out a few other small articles to keep my posting rate relatively regular. It’s Not So Only and Picking Apart Eugenics were both quick reactions to something I’d read. I can be quick when I need to to comment on something while it’s fresh, but those posts usually aren’t among my best.

August’s Turnabout Trash was a also “reaction piece”, although I put more effort into it than the other ones. There I dipped my toe into straight up culture war for once, trying to prove two things. Firstly, that you can make just about anything sound worthy of mockery by simply describing it an unflattering tone. Virtually any hatchet job dripping with sarcasm can be inverted and pointed in the opposite direction, so they mean nothing and carry no argumentative force. Secondly, I wanted to show that I’m not just going on about fair play and honesty here because I want to win but suck at playing dirty and thus want to change the rules to favor me. I can put out sneerpieces if I want to.

I enjoyed doing Notes on Notes. It was an old idea I finally picked up, wanting something easy, and — you guessed it! — it ended up longer and more time-consuming than I expected. Ahistorical Siblings was small-idea filler. Fantasia For Two Voices passed by without anybody noticing (possibly because of an opaque title), which is sad because it’s quite dear to my heart: it was, like Notes on Notes, an old idea I finally managed to execute on. And it’s making a point I really want to make, all the time.

I finished off the year with a long one: a set of ten variations on the tilted political compass, the big hit from last year that still gets the most page views the typical day. It got unexpectedly long! Would you believe it?! I planned it as an unstructured sequence of little riffs that I’d been slowly putting together as I came up with them, but the more complicated ones got longer and longer explanations and a narrative line emerged out of everything. I don’t decide this stuff, it just happens.

2020: 11 posts in 12 months

Variations was the only “big” piece I managed to publish this year, and it was big mostly by accident. Nothing has felt really ambitious, and that feels like a failure. I have trouble starting things I know are going to take a lot of work because I always feel I need to have something done soon, so I focus on what I (mistakenly) believe will be quick and easy. Maybe Variations got made exactly because I didn’t plan it getting that long.

Practice makes perfect, so I should be a better writer than ever. Yet my output is down. It was down last year as well but it’s dropped even further.

Total words published per year. The light green part of 2017 is my series on disagreement on the self and the will adapted from my Bachelor’s thesis in philosophy that was just cut up and edited and doesn’t really count as new writing.

Why is that? I’ve been writing some things that aren’t in there because they were meant for other publications. For example, a big part of this summer went into writing a book review for a contest that got postponed to next year. That’s a lot of work that didn’t result in a post. Not yet, anyway. I do plan to republish it with some expansions, notes, and comments after the contest.

I suspect but don’t in fact know that I spend less time writing now than I used to do. If so it’s worrying, because I’ve actually had more free time this year, with the pandemic eliminating my daily commute and even leading to some furloughing in spring and summer. In April, when I had the most free time this year, I didn’t produce a single post (I did manage to build a wooden terrace in the garden so I guess I did something worthwhile).

It doesn’t seem like it’s a matter of time, per se. It’s a matter of routine. When I was the most productive I wrote on my lunchbreak almost every day. I went to a café and focused hard for an hour. That adds up. My free time this year has been at home, and I find it a lot harder to focus there, especially because I can’t just ignore everybody else there and count on them to ignore me as well. I don’t just need free time, I need free time alone and out of the house. A pandemic isn’t great for that, nor was the switch to a job where my time is measured and I can’t justify taking an hourlong break every day (but I wrote about that problem in my last yearly review).

I know the issue, now I just need to find out how to solve it. I don’t know if “get out more” or “learn to write at home and while the family is there” is easiest.

My archive is picking up the slack

It’s not just productivity that stagnated this year but hits as well. The blog got a little bit more popular in 2019 compared to 2018, but now in 2020 total page views went down for the first time. Not by much — 2020 is still ahead of 2018 and within an inch of 2019 — but it sure looks like stagnation.

Is there any progress? It does look like robustness has improved. Total hit count is down slightly because I had no “big hits” in 2020 like the Klein-Harris post from 2018 and the Tilted Political Compass in 2019, and not because everyday, non-exceptional traffic levels are decreasing. They’re not. The lowest months are above the lowest months in earlier years. In 2018 there was seven months with less than 5000 views, in 2019 there was six, and in 2020 only two. There are no peaks but the foundation isn’t crumbling.

No big new hits means most traffic in 2020 wasn’t to articles from 2020. I noticed the same last year but now it’s even more pronounced:

Total hit count on posts from each year, per year. 2020 has done pretty badly in its “own” year.

As time passes new posts capture a smaller share of the attention. It’s to be expected as the archive grows but it’s still disconcerting because it feels like I’m slipping. But maybe that’s the wrong message to take home. Rather, I should take note that this place isn’t as dependent on new posts coming out as it used to be. It’ll likely stay alive for quite a while even if I publish even less frequently, relax a little, and try to stop feeling like I’m always behind schedule (the idea of going a full calendar month without a post makes me irrationally anxious).

Maybe I should pursue that plan I’ve been thinking about for almost two years and turn selected posts plus some new connective tissue into a book? I’m not trusting myself to commit to that. I don’t think I can turn off the psychological need to put out new posts — I need it to feel good about myself. Even if I work alright all day at my actual job, take care of all the domestic chores, play with the kids, and accomplish everything you can reasonably expect from an ordinary day, I still feel like I haven’t done enough unless I’ve also been able to make significant progress on a post.

This isn’t ideal and maybe it does suggest it would be healthier to stop blogging altogether so it’s no longer yet another chore that’s never, ever done. I’m skeptical it’d work, however, because I sure as hell remember that the very same feeling was there long before I even blogged, but then I had nothing to pour effort into to quiet it down temporarily. That was worse, and I don’t want it back.

Every thing becomes a thing of the past

That I should be able to relax a bit and is the positive spin on stagnation-but-consolidation. The negative is that I’m past the peak and the “heyday” of this blog is now in the past, not the present.

In To Die Happily Ever After I said that things in life need to continuously change, grow, and expand more and more to stay interesting. Or more accurately, to stay new — to keep their narrative center of gravity in the present instead of having it recede in the rearview mirror and become the object of nostalgia, instead of presence. Given that, I’m aware of what stagnation risks doing to the blog.

It has been a long time. I went back to read some of my old teenage journals recently, and I’m stricken by how brief periods I’ve been thinking of as whole eras of my life were. Looking back at the hobby projects I remember from my teen years reveals that most of them took perhaps a handful of days of work over a few weeks — less than I spend on ONE blog post now.

In other words: things are bigger, but feel smaller. Those old journals make me think back to what a big deal it felt like to turn 18 and go to a bar with friends and order drinks for the first time. Only a handful of the hundreds of visits to bars that followed it over the years felt as big. And it’s the same with everything. All the stuff I’ve enjoyed in life — hobbies, work, social environments etc. — have grown stale after a few years. Not bad, necessarily, just no longer “about the present”. Most of my friendships now are built around experiences we had together in the past. They’re not about now.

Yes, things are bigger but feel smaller, and meaning is not infinitely sustainable. This was the driving force behind my non-enthusiasm for life extension in To Die Happily Ever After, and I struggle to deal with it in a healthy and productive way.

The implication is that I should stop blogging and do something else. Part of what made that time 20 years ago feel more “epic” creatively is that things developed so quickly. At 16 I wrote a humor text in a few weeks that got really popular at my school, so I started a website for my (terrible) jokes that I kept up for a few months before transitioning to writing a comic novel. All in less than a year. After I finished it I didn’t do anything on the same scale for many years, for various reasons (one being having a girlfriend for a short time which did quite a number on my emotional stability, and another being having much more of a social life to distract me). I despised myself for years for failing to continue on that path, starting numerous little projects but never being able to commit for even a fraction of the time required.

Getting the blog running and sticking with it made most of that feeling go away, for which I’m eternally grateful. The question is if my efforts need to move onto something different, but if so I’m not sure what it would be. Going for a book is the obvious choice, but if it requires me to (mostly) stop blogging in the meantime it’s going to be hard. At the very least I should write more and more ambitious articles over time, but that doesn’t seem to be happening and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe that need to have something ready every month is ruining things for me again.

It’s probably also a problem that my critical skills have improved faster than my productive skills. It was easier to write that novel at 17, because it was shit but I didn’t understand how shit it was, so I could just sit there and write the thing. The same was true when I started working an actual job ten years ago. Some things I did then are harder to do now, because I’m much more critical of my own work (and sometimes of my colleagues’ work, which I avoid saying), which makes it feel like it’s practically impossible to make something good enough. This kills motivation and in some ways I’ve become a worse worker for it — and there’s a risk the same is happening with my blogging.

Another source of self-criticism that gets worse as you write more is that you have more opportunities to repeat yourself. I feel embarrassed when I return to a thought I’ve written down before and present it as new, even if I’ve only mentioned it in an aside or footnote. It’s the same feeling you get when you tell a funny story to somebody and you’ve forgotten that you already told them the same story before.

Repetition also makes me feel small. It’s like in fiction when the villain is the long lost twin of the hero or it was really the protagonist that did everything with some time travel bullshit, and everyone important in the universe is family or old friends or from the same high school or whatever. It makes a universe feel small, and a writer going on and on about the same things makes their mind seem small. I don’t want to be that boring, predictable writer harping on about the same things, and it’s getting harder.

Growing tired of disagreement

I wonder if i’m running out of steam for a different reason. Part of me is getting tired of what I write the most about: disagreement. I’m not getting tired of differences in beliefs, thoughts and feelings between people. That’s as fascinating to me as it always was, but I’m utterly sick of arguing and rhetoric and, in a broad sense, politics.

In my second post ever, where I introduced the word “erisology” for the study of disagreement, I wrote about relishing the complexity and messiness involved in hot-button issues:

There are other such topics with high emotion-to-clarity ratios, and they all carry a certain morbid fascination for the erisologist: Religion, of course. Politics, yep. Moral qualities of economic systems, the justness of crime and punishment, rights and responsibilities, come on in. Gender relations, now here we go! Ethnicity and identity, yes please! Even tastes in art and culture.

I don’t recognize myself in that any more. I think I enjoyed it more back when the understanding that makes sense of it was newer and fresher to me. I remember 2014 and 2015 as the coming together of years of reading and thinking on topics ranging from linguistics, philosophy, math, technology, economics, history, psychology etc., resulting in a slow-burn, background apophenia.

Now I just see the same script playing out again and again with no sense of novelty or progress. And of course it also feels like online discourse is getting worse and worse. In 2015 I hadn’t seen dysfunctional stuff in the same potent, nasty forms as many times as I have now. That it all feels pretty transparent, comprehensible and unsurprising, yet I can’t do anything about it, makes it feel even more hopeless, and me more cynical.

Maybe a lot of is simply me being on Twitter since the spring of 2017; Twitter isn’t known for its nuance, charity and maturity. Or maybe the general tone in public discourse really did worsen a lot between the early and late 2010’s. It sure feels like it.

Quit whining!

I’ve just re-read this all the way through, and God do I sound neurotic. Maybe, despite what I want to believe, the phrase “you’re thinking too much” does have a few legitimate uses. I should tell myself to just buckle up and work, to stop virgining and start chad-ing. Grow up! This one piece per year is where I get to whine, and now it’s over. Let’s get on with it.

I should end with something other than complaints. Some things are good. I have a few things in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to publishing eventually. The pandemic will come to an end. The kids are growing more manageable by the day (well, not exactly by the day, but still).

The blog got some positive attention this year. Lots of shares and mentions, which is nice, and a few callouts in some “real” publications. Tom Chivers, the science journalist who wrote The AI Does Not Hate You, has namedropped me and linked to my articles in three of his pieces this year — once on decoupling back in February, once on life extension and transhumanism in September, and once on nerds and beliefs in October. I was also quoted on decoupling (what else?) on BBC Worklife a few months back. I had a nice conversation with Todd Nief on his podcast this fall as well. And finally, mybit art” piece is now part of a book and the editor was kind enough to offer to send me some hardcopies halfway across the world (thanks Graham).

I need to remember that compared to what I was used to back in 2016/2017, a 2020 that feels so-so at best still represents tremendous success.

Now, here’s to 2021! A new leaf if we ever needed one.

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4 thoughts on “Hindsight in 2020

  1. I echo your thoughts about growing tired of disagreement. I feel like I’ve gone on the same arc, relishing culture war topics in 2015-17 and now being rather disinterested in them even in the form on longer, more thought out responses on TheMotte / LessWrong etc. Twitter is far and away a lost cause.

    Can I say for posterity that even though I was one of the first who pushed back on the To Die Happily Ever After post (and called it an argument on reddit when you didn’t mean for it to be an argument), I only did so because I enjoy this blog a lot. As they say, when you end up having disagreements with people you respect it hits a lot harder then when its with some random internet username.

    All that to say, I’ve been reading this blog since you started and I’ll keep reading it till you retire it. And I hope that won’t be anytime soon. Here’s to a better 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your support! It’s always nice to hear people are reading and enjoying my stuff. Don’t sweat it about Die Happily Ever After, I’m not pissed or anything, I was mostly not expecting some to react as critically as they did and felt they had misinterpreted the tone.

      A good 2021 to you too!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. +1 on the arc of fascination with disagreement fading and being replaced by hopelessness.

      and +50 on “keep writing them and I’ll keep reading them”. Even if the message isn’t contagious, I certainly benefit from receiving it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. For what it’s worth, I just checked my RSS reader and when I saw a new post from you, my thought was, “oh yay!”. Don’t feel bad about repeating yourself. Most people still haven’t heard about decoupling or the tilted political compass. With how competitive the attention marketplace is there days, you could repeat yourself 100 times & it would still be new to lots of people. Not only new, but it would improve their lives & their understanding of the world.

    Liked by 2 people

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