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January 22, 2003

A Look Backwards

So I’ve been blogging for a little over 3 months now. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the experience. All in all, I have to way that it has been a tremendous waste of time. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

One thing that surprises me is that I have spent much more time futzing with the ‘plumbing’ of this blog than I expected to. Some people seem to change the layout of their blog every other week. The appearance of mine has changed very little. The most dramatic change I made in the superficial appearance was to rationalize the fonts (and sizes) to make the whole thing more readable.

On the other hand, I have thought a lot about some of the defects of the “traditional” blog layout and tried to rectify them here. For instance, consider the Blogroll. Traditionally, this is just a static list of links to other weblogs or sites. Ho hum, why should I click on that link? Or, perhaps, Oh cool, Aaron Bergman (another physicist-blogger) has a weblog, What’s he blogging about?

Now, of course, Aaron’s a bad example because his blog doesn’t have an RSS feed. But those which do (indicated in bold on my Blogroll) are syndicated, so you can see what they’re blogging about before clicking over there. That just seems a heckuva lot more useful than a static list of URL’s.

Another thing that’s basically irksome is the ephemeral nature of the weblog. Content that’s more than a week or two old drops off the main page, never to be read again. Yes there are links to the archives. But nobody clicks through to them. And yes, there’s a search engine (a mighty fine one, I might add), but unless you are looking for something specific, you’re unlikely to use it.

So I decided to add a list of Random Past Entries (changed once an hour) to the sidebar, in the hope that serendipity might bring to your attention some interesting post from the past. And, again, you shouldn’t have to click through to see if it really was interesting; an excerpt should be available with a mouse-over.

I thought that MathML was going to be easy. It wasn’t. But the next release of MovableType will bring creating posts with embedded MathML a lot closer to “easy” (by converting them on-the-fly from embedded itex). And hopefully the release of the Stix fonts will ameliorate the residual rendering problems, and make the whole process a lot more plug-‘n-play on the user side.

(Those of you who are Internet Explorer users may wonder what the heck I am talking about. The fancy sidebar stuff is only viewable in a Standards-compliant browser, like Netscape 7, Mozilla, or the next release of Apple’s Safari. MathML is natively supported only by the Gecko-based browsers, though I hear there are MathML plugins available for IE.)

The final thing that surprises me, looking back, is that it proves much harder than I thought it would be to say something interesting and relevant about physics in a few paragraphs, with few or no equations. I met a colleague at a symposium back in November, who said

Your typical post says, “I read this paper on the archives. It looks interesting.”

He was teasing (I think!). But it does raise the issue of the general shallowness of the blogosphere. Just because the topic happens to be physics doesn’t guarantee any greater level of profundity.

All in all, it’s a heckuva lot easier to write about something other than physics. Which, despite my better efforts, seems to be what I’ve been doing much of the time.

Which reminds me of an anecdote. Many years ago, Sacha Polyakov approached me at a cocktail party. He was very apprehensive at the prospect of teaching his first-ever undergraduate course a Princeton. “At least,” he said after we’d discussed it for a while, “it’s only Nonlinear Dynamics, and not Quantum Field Theory.” “Oh,” I said (to one of the great men of modern QFT), “why is that?” “If it were Quantum Field Theory, I’d feel responsible for the subject.”

Posted by distler at January 22, 2003 12:58 AM

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Jacques, I think you’re hitting the nail on the head here. People aren’t afraid of playing dilettantes as long as it is understood that they’re just “fooling around”, but they want to be careful about what they say on topics they’re supposed to know a lot about.

Perhaps we are too afraid to make public mistakes. I think we’d learn faster if we were a little less careful.

BTW, “Random Past Entries” is a great idea.

Posted by: Seb on January 23, 2003 3:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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