What I Learned from 2012, and My Topics for 2013

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I’ve had a pretty busy start-of-the-year so far, and I plan to get into a regular posting schedule on this blog for 2013. Currently, the plan is one post every Sunday for the remainder of the year.

This decision was largely based on some past problems. Here are some issues I have identified with my blogging in the past, especially in the years 2011 and 2012.

Problems

  1. Lack of Schedule. I pretty much posted whenever, sometimes three times in a day, and other times not a single post for months. This is ultimately not a good way to attract regular readers.
  2. Incoherency. As I wrote in my reflection The Future of this Blog (2012), there is an issue with the sheer number of different topics. I have already partially solved this problem by making a dedicated math blog, so that on this current one, I do not have to worry about alienating those without an advanced math degree. However, my topics are still quite varied, and because of this, I feel that there is too much breadth and not enough depth.

Solutions

The one-post-every-Sunday rule gets rid of the first problem. The second problem is a bit more difficult, given that I had already tried to solve it, without much success.

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So here is my new solution. I will write about the topics that I am most passionate about and those that I am strongest at writing about. After reviewing my blog history as well as my current interests, I have formulated a new list of topics.

1. Atheism and Religion

I have previously been quite passive about the subject of religion. But the more I read about and watch what happens in the world, the more I realize it is one of the biggest problems right now. The amount of intolerance and violence that is justified in the name of religion is astounding. And even when it is not explicitly invoked, it has caused, is causing, and will cause great detriment to scientific understanding and societal progress unless the discussion of religion is taken more seriously. Towards the end of last year, I started writing a few articles about atheism and religion. I hope to continue this discussion in 2013.

2. Writing

In the past, I used to write plenty about the writing process. Somewhere in 2011 I ended up just dropping the topic. I plan to pick it back up and perhaps make some writing advice posts.

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3. Productivity

Ever since I read Geoffrey Colvin’s excellent book Talent is Overrated, I have spent a lot of time thinking about productivity, as well as what I want to achieve with my life. Plus, I have written about productivity several times in the past.

4. College Life

Who is more qualified to talk about college life than an upperclassman college student? Just kidding about the qualification part. But I do think writing about college experiences can make college less of a mystery to the general community. And it might help convince you that I am an actual human and not some distant automaton on the internet.

5. Multi-Disciplinary Topics

I think one of my stronger skills right now is applying knowledge in one field to another. At least, I can do this on the internet. I played Diablo 3 last year, and was involved on the forums for some time. Using standard research skills, I wrote forum posts on how relevant ideas in probability, statistics, discrete mathematics, psychology, economics, history, and even sociology were responsible for many of the issues or situations in the game or player perception and responses to the game. These posts were all highly upvoted, linked many times and even reposted by other members of the community.

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6. Space: the Final Frontier

My interest in space goes back to first grade, when I first looked out at the skies through a telescope. Recently, some incredible discoveries were made, especially the statistical result that 17 BILLION stars in just the Milky Way have an Earth-sized planet! Moreover, the announcement of Mars colonization from MarsOne turned heads. I will be writing more space posts once MarsOne releases more details, for a human landing on Mars will be sure to provoke scientific curiosity around the world for years to come.

7. Mathematics

Fortunately, you are spared of math topics on this blog. Of course, I will be have them on my new math blog.

Final Remarks

If you have any reactions or topic suggestions, please leave a comment below.

Year 3 and Blogging

My third year of Cornell starts in a just few days!

I’ll try to blog a bit more than before, but that’s not a guarantee. Although, between this and my other blog, I’ve written more in the last 2 months (52 posts) than in the previous 1.5 years combined (41 posts). With luck, that momentum will remain strong and I might catch up in the next few months to my 2010 posting frequency (235 posts in 1 year).

A glimpse at some of the classes I’ll be taking:

  • German 2000 – Intercultural Context: Continuation of my German learning experience. Guten Tag!
  • Math 4330 – Honors Linear Algebra: According to my peers, this is supposed to be a difficult class. I think I’m prepared.
  • Math 4530 – Intro to Topology: This will be interesting. I have always wanted to learn topology. It just seems like one of the strangest things math has created.
  • Math 4810 – Mathematical Logic: Given all the logic posts I’ve written, I think it will be worthwhile to take a class in formal logic. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, here I come!
  • ???: I haven’t decided on a fifth class yet. I was originally planning to take Math 6170 – Dynamical Systems, but it turns out to be the same time as Intro to Topology, and I don’t happen to have one of those magical time turners. With Cornell’s add/drop system, I can wait a while to finalize this. If any Cornellian happens to be reading this and wishes to suggest a good class in any subject, please let me know!

Well, my next post will probably come from Ithaca. Stay tuned!

The End of Year 2 and (My Somewhat Delayed) Start of Nanowrimo

I’ve been so busy with school in the last few weeks that I almost forgot this blog turned 2 years old! It was officially November 4th, but I think I’m not too late to celebrate it today.

Onto a couple statistics. Last November it had 221k views, and it’s at around 320k right now. Thus in the past year, the blog received approximately 99,000 views.

The most popular pages in Year 2 were:

  1. US Census 2010 Win (again) — 10,917 views
  2. The Map of Facebook Connections — 9,274 views
  3. Tumblr vs WordPress: Simplicity vs Power — 8,005 views
  4. Free Will: How We Do and Do Not Have It — 6,134 views
  5. List of Banned Words Constitutes a “Fail” — 5,040 views

This is a much more consistent distribution than last year, when the 1st had over 85k views, and 2nd-5th were all under 5,000. I suppose the law of large numbers is at work.

I suppose 99,000 hits isn’t bad considering I only wrote 94 posts. And these particular numbers are actually quite mathematically intriguing:

  • Year 1: 221k hits in 212 posts = average of 1042 views per post
  • Year 2: 99k hits in 94 posts = average of 1053 views per post

So even though I went for nearly four months without blogging, I somehow managed to achieve an almost identical views per post ratio as last year. This could very well be pure luck, but I find it interesting.

The second topic for this post is that I am doing Nanowrimo again this year, though I did not decide to start until Nov. 3, and I spent the next few days figuring out the plot and characters instead of actually writing. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month,” and the goal is, in the month of November, to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Last year, I kept careful track of my writing stats. By the end of Nov. 10 of last year, I was at 23,412 words. This year, I’m currently at… 5387. I guess that’s what I get for starting to write nearly 6 days late. Nonetheless, I am trying some things differently this year. I am not going to keep careful track of stats, as I feel like it was very inaccurate for smaller periods of time, where I might spend seven minutes thinking and three minutes writing. Instead, I will just look at the final word count on each day, which the NaNo website conveniently tracks.

Not sure how to describe the plot just yet. I think I need to up the word count a little before talking about it.

How Important is Having the Right Mood in Writing?

Let’s face it—there are times when a writer feels like writing, and there are times when he or she doesn’t.

I’m currently stuck in the latter category, after losing interest in writing. It’s weird. The main difference, I believe, is that I have almost no writing in my classes this semester. Last semester it seemed I had a 2000-ish word essay due every week, sometimes two of them in one week; and I kept a consistent blogging schedule through that. This year, the longest thing I’ve written is 1000 words, and the second longest is 500. My blogging has also been random, but still substantial.

February 2011 writing statistics:

  • Word count of school-related works, combined: 1,900
  • Word count of blog posts, combined: 7,100

Compare this with the statistics for November 2010:

  • School-related: 9,800
  • Blog posts: 7,300
  • NaNoWriMo Novel: 50,200

Dang. That’s a total of 9,000 for Feb 2011 and 63,700 for Nov 2010. It means I wrote 7 times more last November than in the past month. Wow, this makes me feel like an uber slacker now.

Anyways, here’s the point of this post: I was supposed to edit the NaNo novel this month, March 2011. It seems, however, that I am just not in the mood for extensive writing. And in case you don’t know, editing and revising is QUITE time-consuming. It’s like writing a piece of Java code in 15 minutes, and then spending the next five hours fixing it so that it doesn’t break anything.

Even worse, now that I look at it, the plot of what I’ve got so far is terrible, and the characters don’t develop at all. It’s incoherent as a novel goes, partly because I wrote an ending to a different novel than I had envisioned when I started it, so that now the beginning and end aren’t cohesive.

It’s bad enough that I almost want to delete the word file off my computer and never see it again. I’m very ambivalent here. I just don’t want to leave it hanging there unfinished. But if I were to continue my plan of “editing” the novel, it would be less “editing,” and more “rewriting the whole damn thing.” Oh well.

So here’s the question: What should I do? I already have another project idea in mind if I’m going to not do the novel, and it’ll be an academic spin on something that is in itself not very academic. Thoughts?

5 Things that Cause Writer’s Block (And How to Avoid Them)

As a blogger, I have run many times into the issue of writer’s block, or when I can’t get myself to write. In 2011 so far, I’ve been blogging far more sparsely and irregularly than I was in 2010. I’m also doing a lot less reading and writing in general. I guess I’m just in a particularly long spell of writer’s block. It began on Jan 1. It ends now. And ironically, the article to end it will be this one, a blog post about the causes of writer’s block.

5. Worrying About How to Write It

Suppose you come up with the perfect idea and it’s Sunday and you have the rest of the afternoon to write about it. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t put your ideas into words. Even though you normally write well, it doesn’t come out right on paper (or on the screen, for bloggers). You spend hours writing and rewriting, but you’re dissatisfied with the result. It’s a week later: the paper is still just sitting there, unfinished.

Finished or not, it is still a product, a work of your own imagination. For a blogger, unless you post it, no one will know that you had ever written it. Here’s my suggestion: If you’re struggling on an article and you’re on the fourth or fifth rewrite, just post it. If you’re rewriting it that many times in the first place, you’re most likely a perfectionist, and your work is bound to be pretty good anyways by others’ standards. I’m not saying that rewriting is bad; if you’re a professional writer, then by all means rewrite as many times as you want! But for a common person like me, after four or five rewrites, it’s time to move on. If you really are unsatisfied, go back to it later, after you have given it a good one or two month break. A lot of times you’ll be able to instantly come up with what you were trying to say before. Overall, this will save time and worry.

4. Worrying About What Other People Will Think

This occurs when you write or want to write about a divisive issue, and you are opinionated on it. Perhaps you don’t want other people to know your opinion or judge you by it. Or perhaps you don’t want people to know that you even had an opinion of it. Or maybe you just came up with an idea, but are afraid that people will mock you for it.

In any case, there exist ways to get around this. There’s no foolproof way, because for anything you might argue, there will always be someone in the world who will vehemently argue the opposite. Nonetheless, here are three solutions, each of which beats not writing anything at all:

  • Write in a less opinionated way, qualifying yourself when possible. Granted, some say that you are either opinionated or not, but I think there certainly degrees of being opinionated. If you qualify yourself in your writing, the reader will know that you at least know what the other side of the debate is, and that you respect it. If you respect them, they will respect you.
  • Go into an all-out rant mode. This is the opposite of the previous bullet, and it works precisely because it is so extreme. If you are just ranting out of your heart, it is again respectable because it is what you truly believe.
  • Just keep it as it is. This is a counterintuitive solution, because it doesn’t solve a single worry you have! Yet that is precisely why it works: it lets the reader know that you are not afraid to state your beliefs.

3. Lack of Motivation

This is pretty self-explanatory: if you aren’t motivated, you won’t feel like writing. And if you don’t feel like writing, it’s pretty damn hard to write anything.

One of the best ways to defeat this is a schedule and a goal. As simple and almost un-writer-like as this may seem, it is extremely effective. The writer Mary Heaton Vorse once said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Last November, for example, I participated in NaNoWriMo, which is a contest with oneself to write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days. For one who is used to writing 2000-word English papers, I found the 50,000 word count daunting, seemingly impossible. What I did was make myself write at least 1667 words every day (50,000 words divided by 30 days is 1667 words per day). Even on the days that I did not feel like writing, I kept on writing. Despite having never written a novel before, I was able meet the deadline.

2. “I’m Too Busy!”

Of course you are. You have other things in your life besides writing, probably. The thing is, it’s always possible to make time. And even when you doing something else, it is possible to write or at least think about writing. “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes,” said writer Agatha Christie.

This one is no excuse for any writer, novice or professional. You just have to set aside time for it. When I was doing NaNoWriMo, on some days I would write both the 1667 words and for example a 1500-word essay. Even on a road trip, I kept up the 1667 words. Right now I’m writing this article on writer’s block while I have an entire math problem set that I haven’t started due tomorrow morning. Sorry, Professor Hubbard. I’ll get started on it as soon as this post is done.

1. Not Knowing What to Write About

If I had a number one enemy, this would be it. You might have encountered this too. A lot of times I would hit the NEW POST button on WordPress and just sit there for the next five or ten minutes not knowing what to write about. Eventually I get sidetracked, maybe check email and Facebook, sometimes StumbleUpon, then abandon the blog post altogether. Even worse, sometimes I’ll think of the perfect idea for an article, then when I get back to my room to start writing, I don’t have the faintest idea what it was.

To avoid forgetting ideas, you should best write them down. To come up with ideas is more difficult. You could try idea-generating sites to start out. WordPress this year started its PostADay project; bloggers try to make a post every day for the year. Each day, the site chooses a topic that bloggers can optionally select for their posts. Today’s topic, for example, is “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?”

There are plenty of other ways to find writing topics. Reading the news is definitely a good way, as there is often bound to be an article that you can write about. Talking with people is great as well. Other people always have great ideas—make sure you cite them though. Other than that, have fun writing!

A Post-Recessionary Blogging Whatever

So I don’t actually know what that title means, and I don’t even know what I’m going to say in this post. All I know is that I’ve been living a very different lifestyle this break than ever before, and this lifestyle is not especially conducive to blogging.

In the last month or so, I’ve accomplished virtually nothing measurable other than leveling a WoW character from 70 to 85. I’m also about 80 pages into a novel I’ve been wanting to read, but I’m so much less far on it than I had planned. There are actually 6 novels sitting on my desk, and I’ve started only one of them. So far my January project of reading has been a failure. I guess that, considering my rather successful November and December projects of novel-writing and daily-blogging respectively, I’m altogether more motivated in writing than in reading. Did college do this to me? Combining the novel and all the essays I wrote, and also blog posts, I think that last semester, I might possibly have, for the first time in my life, written more than I read. The answer is probably yes.

And here I am, writing instead of reading. Writing about what? I don’t know. Writing about writing. So why did I write 44 posts last month and only 4 so far this month? Maybe a burn out. Or that I’m a very anti-habitual person. I never want to do the same thing for a long time. Of course there are ways to spice things up—in the long run, I don’t get bored of blogging because I blog about so many different things. I’m fine with doing the same thing differently; I just can’t stand doing the same thing the same way. And it needs to be differently different, too. Let me explain.

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days. (This is actually pseudo-random, seemingly more random than true random.) Anyways…

I’m reading over the last two paragraphs and wondering, is there something wrong with me? I mean, is that unusual? A randomizing behavior? If anything, it almost seems like an anti-OCD, as I was trying to break a repetition, not to follow one.

Hmm, well it seems I have gone off quite a tangent there. Originally I was going to talk about not accomplishing much. Maybe this break is too long. A 5-week break. Then again, my two weeks of finals were pretty rough. Has it really been an entire month since I handed in my final paper for history? If there’s one thing to be gained, I am certainly caught up on sleep. After averaging maybe 5 hours a day of sleep during my first semester of college, I’m now averaging 10 hours of sleep at home. And meeting with high-school friends has been really fun. It’s interesting to see how people have overall not changed that much, even though that one semester felt like an eternity. (Not without exception, however.)

So what the heck then is the point of this post?! I still have no clue. Maybe I’m lost. After the novel I am currently on, I have queued up Walden, which seems to be the perfect book for me to read right now. I can’t believe I’m leaving Austin in a week, exactly one week. There are still many things I want to do or read or blog about, and at the rate I’m going, I won’t finish.

It’s like life has been preparing you for a race, and when you actually need to run it, you just don’t feel like running.

Okay, bad analogy, I’m not even sure what that was supposed to mean.

Anyway, it seems like my blogging philosophy of no blogging philosophy is turning out some strange posts. I guess that will be my 2011 project: to blog spontaneously, and see what occurs of it.

Why I Am Not Doing PostADay

PostADay is exactly what it sounds like: you post something every day. While this is a great idea, I feel like I’ve already had this experience, having blogged through the entire months of June and December 2010 (minus 1 day). In May/June/July last year, I posted for 42 days in a row. Granted, 365 is a lot more than 42. But for me, this project would be unexciting. Oh—and, I just spent December writing posts on topics chosen by others, which is the same kind of thing.

Now, I looked through some of the PostADay prompts and found them to be quite fascinating even though it is only Day 4 of the year! So I decided I will do PostADay’s occasionally.

Anyways, I still have not decided on a blogging philosophy for 2011; I think I’ll go without one.