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October 14, 2005

Expectations and Reality

Yesterday was Yom Kippur and, by coincidence, the 3-year anniversary of Musing. A time, therefore, for a bit of reflection on (if not atonement for) having started this blog.

What I set out to do, three years ago, was test the idea that weblogs could provide a useful medium for exchanging ideas in physics, less formal than research papers, but still archived, searchable, and hyperlinked. I also hoped that whatever software modifications were required to enable mathematical blogging would be easily adopted by the hordes of fellow physicists who would, surely, flock to the medium.

One of the things I feared was that the comments section would be overwhelmed by the noise that long ago made USENET and most Web Forums (cosmoCoffee being a notable exception) hopeless sinkholes.

How did the reality measure up?

One thing I found was that this is harder than I thought it would be.

I was lucky to have chosen what, at the time, was (and, in many ways, still is) the best weblogging platform available for my purpose. Still, creating a system that could reliably take TeX-like input and produce well-formed XHTML+MathML output is much harder than I ever imagined1. It took a long-running, concerted effort to beat the software into submission. A large fraction of my blog posts ended up devoted to documenting my efforts, so that someone wishing to replicate what I’ve done will not have to reinvent the wheel, the rack and the thumbscrew.

I’d naïvely hoped that, in the end, setting up a weblog like this one would be as simple as installing MovableType and adding a few plugins. Someday, maybe that will be the case, but we’re still far from that day2.

The other thing that was harder than I’d expected was the actual physics-blogging part. Early on, I met a colleague at a conference, who said, “Hey, I’ve been reading your blog,” (the first person to own up to reading the damned thing), “but all you do is say stuff like, ‘I just read hep-th/yymmnnn. Looks pretty interesting.’” He was right, of course. If this project was to be worthwhile, I’d have to do better than ‘Looks pretty interesting.’ I would have, to use the Economists’ phrase, to “add value.” Adding value, however, takes thought, effort and, most of all, time. Time is not something I have a lot of, so I post much less frequently than I thought I was going to.

Perhaps, because it’s hard (in both of the above senses), only a trickle of physicists have taken the plunge and started their own blogs.

On the whole, though, I’m pleased with the over 500 posts that I have made, and the over 1500 comments they have accrued. I learned a lot and I gather, from the feedback I’ve gotten, so have many of my readers.

The quality of those comments have exceeded my wildest expectations. When I write about cosmic superstrings, Joe Polchinski and Koji Hashimoto chime in with explanations. When I write about using artificial diamonds as semiconductors, an expert on n-type doping (the hard case) comments. And, yes, when I write about some of the obscure (mis)feature of XML, none other than Tim Bray himself posts a comment.

So far, at least, USENET-style flame wars, trolls and crackpots have simply not been a problem. To the contrary, the comment threads on many of my posts are far more interesting and insightful than the posts themselves.

Comment (and Trackback) spam proved to be a bit of a challenge (and who can forget the crapflooders). But, so far, we seem to be winning the technological arms race with the spammers without hardly even trying.

Another unexpected side benefit of this little endeavour was that I’ve gotten to make the acquaintance of some of the top people in the Web Standards community. That’s been fun and educational, in ways I never expected 3 years ago. I don’t know about the Web as a whole, but this little corner of it has been immeasurably improved by their comments and insights.

All in all, it’s been a fun 3 years. It’ll be interesting to see where the next 3 years takes us.

1 Truth be told, I didn’t even know what the phrase “well-formed XHTML+MathMLmeant at the outset, so how could I have known what difficulties awaited me?

2 You’ll note that I haven’t upgraded this blog to MovableType 3.2. The effort involved in fixing the Administrative Interface to work as XHTML is simply not worth it for the new features of this release.

Posted by distler at October 14, 2005 10:50 AM

9 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Expectations and Reality

It has indeed been a pleasure reading and occasionally understanding whatever little I could (not much outside the area of web related posts, I have to confess). Thanks for the tireless work you have put into making the web a more developed medium for scientific discourse.

A special thanks for helping out with OpenPGPComment. It was fun!

Here is to couple more of successful blogging years!

Posted by: Srijith on October 14, 2005 2:27 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this


It has indeed been a pleasure reading and occasionally understanding whatever little I could (not much outside the area of web related posts, I have to confess).

My physicist readers have the same complaint about my web-related posts. :-)

A special thanks for helping out with OpenPGPComment. It was fun!

Yes, I really enjoyed working on OpenPGPComment. Thanks!

One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether it’s crazy to dream of a bookmarklet or (more likely) a greasemonkey script which would do GPG signing of a text selection right in the browser, without requiring recourse to a separate application.

It would still need access to your keyring and, maybe, the commandline gnupg. But there shouldn’t be a need for a separate GUI.

Anyone tried this? Is it feasible?

Posted by: Jacques Distler on October 14, 2005 5:21 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: OpenPGPComment

Anyone tried this? Is it feasible?

Though I have not tried it, I know of one attempt to use the Javascript function to perform some simple hashing/encryption though I don’t think PK signing will be that easy. But I think it will be feasible. If Aspell can be used from Firefox, it shouldn’t be that difficult to call gpg. The question would be, how safe is it?

Posted by: Srijith on October 17, 2005 2:48 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Cosmocoffee

Though not a frequent poster, I read cosmocoffee pretty regularly. I guess moderated membership makes it faaar better than usenet. Any such attempt for hep-th??

Anyway, congrats on completing three years!

Posted by: Aswin on October 14, 2005 9:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Expectations and Reality

Happy Anniversary Jacques! One thing that always puzzles me is the small number of people commenting, since it seems almost everyone is reading… makes me think maybe I am missing somthing and I should anticipate some big disaster in my future, where I pay for all those half-baked comments. Hope not.

Posted by: Moshe on October 15, 2005 1:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Operant conditioning

One thing that always puzzles me is the small number of people commenting, since it seems almost everyone is reading…

One strong (but, evidently, not much considered) incentive for commenting is the subtle influence it exerts on yours truly. When a certain post receives a large number of comments, I tend to say to myself, “Hmmm… that went well. Maybe I should write more posts like that one …” It’s only half-conscious, but there’s no question that the level of response has an influence on my posting habits.

So, if you want to see more of one type of post and fewer of another, there’s some easy Skinnerian conditioning you can engage in …

Posted by: Jacques Distler on October 15, 2005 1:38 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Expectations and Reality

very good, so I will be looking forward
to more bagel posts…

Posted by: Moshe on October 15, 2005 1:50 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Expectations and Reality

Congratulations on 3 years! I may not understand all of your entries on advanced string theory, but I have enjoyed them none the less. And thanks for all your posts (and help) on introducing mathematics to the weblog universe.

Posted by: Brian on October 17, 2005 8:50 AM | Permalink | Reply to this


Congratulations on three years and especially with pretty narrow focus (web/string theory)!
I must admit I understand very little of the string theory and need a “String Theory for Dummies” type post or site. At the same time it is great to see the net again used for communications of advanced science and math.

Posted by: Eric Heupel on October 18, 2005 10:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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