One Year In

I started this blog a year ago, which somehow seems like the wrong amount of time in both directions – half of me can’t believe it’s been a year already, and the other half is certain I’ve been here for far longer than that. It has been a year, though – 365 days on the dot – and I figure that makes this as good a time as any for a retrospective.

(I’ve said before that all blogging is ultimately narcissistic, but sometimes you just have to drop all pretense and write about yourself directly)

Anyway, we’ll start with the exciting stuff: stats! Over the past year I’ve published 17 posts (including this one), which amounts to a post every 3 weeks or so. In total I wrote just under 29000 words, which works out to an average of roughly 1700 words per post (if you’re trying to make me sound impressive), or roughly 79 words per day (if you’re not). The median post was only 848 words, but then you have to expect some skew when you’re posting zero-word Dinosaur Comics.

In terms of readership, I managed to attract about 3100 visits to the site, and just over 5300 views. I’m not entirely clear on what the difference between visits and views is – I initially thought that the former referred to the number of unique visitors to the site, and the latter to the total number of page views. But I’ve definitely seen my visit count for a given day increase while my view count stayed the same, which seems like it shouldn’t be possible. In any case, by far the most popular post was Restricted Range and the RPG Fallacy, which accounted for roughly half of all views by itself. It was also the most commented on post and the most shared, although interestingly not the most liked – that honour belongs to a short post I wrote (a poem, of all things) called Commonplace. I was confused about this for a while – I’m assuming/hoping that most people don’t come to this blog for the poetry. What I think happened there is that by tagging the post as “poetry” it ended up on some kind of WordPress feed, and was then seen and liked by the kind of people who follow poetry feeds on WordPress.

(Incidentally, I gained several new followers that day. I can only assume they followed me with the expectation that there would be more poetry at some point, and are now getting increasingly frustrated by the rambling 3000-word posts about AI that keep showing up on their dash)

In terms of the posts that I’m proudest of, it would have to be a tossup between the aforementioned Restricted Range, and The Cost of Humility, which I just put up a few weeks ago (they actually bookend the year nicely, now that I think of it). Both of them are too long for their own good, probably, but they’re things that I needed to write. The thoughts that led to those posts had been bouncing around in my head for a long, long time, and it was an immense relief to finally get them down on a page. Honourable mentions go to a series of three posts I wrote on what I called P and NP intelligence – basically a framework for talking about creativity. Yes, they were practically the definition of non-rigorous armchair psychology, but I think it was at least interesting non-rigorous armchair psychology.

Overall I’m very happy with how the first year of this blog turned out. I produced a decent amount of writing, clarified and crystallized many interesting new thoughts, and got more traffic than I had any real right to expect. I’m even reasonably satisfied with the quality of what I wrote. Not even close to totally satisfied, of course – there’s a bunch of stuff that makes me cringe looking back on it, and I should probably just stop rereading my old posts altogether. But I’m cringing much less than I used to, and that seems encouraging.

So what’s on tap for next year? Well, hopefully more of the same. My number one priority is to up my posting frequency. Official stated goal for the year is 20 posts (I even wrote it down on a napkin and everything) but really I’d like to get to 26 – a post every two weeks. I don’t think that’s too unreasonable of a goal, since I basically had a four-month period with zero posts in the middle of last year.

I’d like to increase my traffic as well, of course, but I’m less clear on how to go about doing that. Probably my best bet is to engage more with the nebulous “rationalist” community that I’m sort-of a part of – historically that’s where I’ve gotten a good chunk of my traffic. So I might start commenting more on other people’s blogs, weighing in on the popular topics du jour, linking my posts at rationalist hubs, that kind of thing. Heck, maybe I’ll even start using tumblr (although that seems like the kind of sentence I might point to years down the line, when I want to show someone exactly where it all started to go wrong for me).

As for topics, I’m not sure what I’ll write about this year, but I’m sure it’ll continue to be in the intersection of “areas that I find interesting” and “areas where I think I might actually have something interesting to say”. If nothing else, you can definitely expect more in the way of philosophy, rationality, pun-based Dinosaur Comics, and armchair psychology (but probably not poetry – sorry, random followers).

Although maybe I can be a bit more specific than that, actually. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve gotten older is how often our thoughts can have…I guess trends would be the best word for it, or maybe themes. Sometimes I’ll notice that my thoughts keep returning to a few specific subjects that I find confusing, or a few inconsistencies or puzzles that I find particularly nagging. And they don’t seem obviously connected to one another, at least not at first. They just seem like…things my brain keeps coming back to. But then I’ll keep thinking about them, and they’ll start to seem a little more connected, and eventually I’ll arrive at some grand or not-so-grand insight that explains everything, and realize: of course! All along they were part of the same confusion, the same complicated mess that my brain was trying to make sense of. I may not have known about the connection consciously, but some part of my brain intuited that it was there. And so the seemingly disparate thoughts I was having were all part of a trend, a trend towards some larger piece of understanding (this is more or less what happened with the P and NP intelligence posts, for example).

Anyway, when I ask myself which way my thoughts are trending these days, my brain spits out two main themes. The first is sort of a continuation of the train of thought that led me to write The Cost of Humility, involving things like self-charity and validation. It goes beyond just that, though – mixed in there are thoughts about growth mindset, choosing “safe” options, relationships and dating, confidence, timidity, and self-identity. I don’t know how much I’ll write about all this – it’ll likely be heavily personal, and I don’t think that’s really the direction I want to take the blog. But part of me senses something big lurking beneath all these thoughts, and I’m excited to see where they lead.

The second main theme, and the one I hope to write about here, is all about opinions and beliefs. Again, it’s typified by a bunch of semi-connected thoughts that I keep running up against. Some are just basic questions, like how to know when having a strong belief is justified, or when it’s okay to go against expert consensus. But there’s also a lot to do with politics – things like how to get past the tribal mindset that underlies most politics, how to stop viewing political opponents as enemies, and how to have more productive disagreements that lead to people actually changing their mind. And then that bleeds over into thoughts about disagreements in general – for example, I think that many of the disagreements we have with one another are due to differences in worldview and life experiences. But if that’s true, that makes it very difficult to privilege your own opinion over someone else’s – after all, they had a set of experiences that led them to their position too. Are your experiences somehow “better” just because they happened to you?

Essentially, I think this theme is my brain trying to tell me: hey, epistemology seems really important, and right now when it comes to epistemology you basically have no idea what you’re doing. I think so far I’ve just been handwaving away all of the problems I encounter like this, but a lot of them can’t really be dismissed so easily. Now my brain is making me confront them, and it’s all coming to a head.

Of course all of this is necessarily somewhat hazy, and I don’t know if I’ll end up writing about exactly these topics. That’s the nature of these trends – you can’t really tell where your thoughts are going, just that they’re probably going somewhere. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few posts along these lines pop up here in 2016.

When I started this blog I was afraid it wouldn’t last – that I would just post here a few times, and then let it drift off into the state of chronic disuse that is the sad fate of so many blogs. Well, it’s been a year, and it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not ready to declare victory, but I am ready to at least declare optimism – optimism that I’ll keep writing here and having new ideas; optimism that the year 2016 will be a good one for me and for this blog. And optimism that a year from today I’ll be putting up another post, just like this one, titled “Two Years In”.

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New Year, New Blog

Among my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 is to start blogging more. Like many resolutions this one is admirable in its intent, dubious in its attainability, and ultimately narcissistic in its motivation. But hey, that’s never stopped anyone before. Rather than just continuing on with business as usual at my old blog, I decided to start up a new one with a dedicated domain name. I did this because I thought a fresh start might do me good, and more importantly because I thought paying for a domain might motivate me to post more.

(Plus, have you ever owned a domain name? It’s really cool)

The name of this blog is The Pen Forests. It doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it’s an anagram of my own name that I discovered years ago, and I’ve always been fond of the imagery it evokes. Incidentally, I realize I might have just given up enough information to prevent me from keeping this blog fully anonymous, but I don’t think that was ever in the cards. I do wonder, though, how many other names are anagrams of my own. For what it’s worth my name is not Seth F. Peterson.

The theme of this blog will continue to be whatever happens to interest me. If history is any indication, topics will likely include a mix of philosophy, rationality, and science. This will not be a didactic blog: I don’t intend to write pop science articles and explain quantum mechanics to the layman. Those are admirable goals, but they’re not for me. I want to write at the boundaries of my knowledge; at the outermost limits of my confusion. If I write a post it’ll be because I just figured something out, or I’m trying to figure something out by writing about it.

For better or for worse, blogging thrives on contrarianism. If you’re not going against some kind of existing grain then no one pays attention to you. At its best, this dynamic encourages bloggers to push back when public opinion has swung too far in one direction. At its worst, it incentivizes writers to use convoluted, too-clever logic to come up with reasons why some common sense truth is actually false. I will try to walk the fine line between being contrarian enough to be interesting and not so contrarian as to be stupid. I hope you can all appreciate that it’s a harder line to walk than you might think.

The motto of this blog will be “Impassioned Reason”. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms to you, then I haven’t written enough yet. Do stay tuned.

With some reluctance I will link you now to my old blog. My reluctance is not so much because I disagree with anything written there (although in many cases I’m much less sure of what I wrote than I was when I wrote it). It’s more due to a general embarrassment I feel in regards to any piece of mine that was written more than…oh, let’s say a week ago. Trust me, if you think something I wrote sounds pompous or naïve or stupid, then I am probably rereading it and cringing a thousand times worse than you are. I can only assume this pattern will continue in the future.

(This might be why I don’t blog that often)

My masochism aside, I’m currently about a quarter of the way through my first real post for this blog. I hope you will enjoy it, and at least a few of my future posts. If nothing else I hope I can introduce you to a few new concepts along the way and give you some different ways of thinking about things. And if you don’t particularly like a post, then please: say so and why in the comments! I welcome dissenting opinions and criticisms – that’s how I learn. I should probably emphasize, though, that I think debates are only useful if both parties enter into them with a sense of mutual curiosity and truth-seeking. If you don’t give me any indication that you understand that, then I probably won’t waste my time engaging with you.

Like any blog, this one will either be supported enough to blossom or neglected enough to wither. Hopefully it will be the former; more likely, the latter. In either case though this is me embarking on a bit of a journey. I hope to bare my intellectual soul over the coming months (and fate willing, years). If I do it right it’ll be a bit of an adventure.

I hope you’ll join me.