The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 08 Jan 2007

State of the Blog 2006
This is the end of the first year of my blog. The dates on the early articles say that I posted a few in 2005, but they are deceptive. I didn't want a blog with only one post in it, so I posted a bunch of stuff that I had already written, and backdated it to the dates on which I had written it. The blog first appeared on 8 January, 2006, and this was the date on which I wrote its first articles.


Not counting this article, I posted 161 articles this year, totalling about 172,000 words, which I think is not a bad output. About 1/4 of this output was about mathematics.

The longest article was the one about finite extension fields of Z2; the shortest was the MadHatterDay commemorative. Other long articles included some math ones (metric spaces, the Pólya-Burnside theorem) and some non-math ones (how Forbes magazine made a list of the top 20 tools and omitted the hammer, do aliens feel disgust?).

I drew, generated, or appropriated about 300 pictures, diagrams, and other illustrations, plus 66 mathematical formulas. This does not count the 50 pictures of books that I included, but it does include 108 little colored squares for the article on the Pólya-Burnside counting lemma.


I incurred the costs of Dreamhosting (see below). But these costs are offset because I am also using the DreamHost as a remote backup for files. So it has some non-blog value, and will also result in a tax deduction.

None of the book links earned me any money from kickbacks. However, the blog did generate some income. When Aaron Swartz struck oil, he offered to give away money to web sites that needed it. Mine didn't need it, but a little later he published a list of web sites he'd given money to, and I decided that I was at least as deserving as some of them. So I stuck a "donate" button on my blog and invited Aaron to use it. He did. Thanks, Aaron!

I now invite you to use that button yourself. Here are two versions that both do the same thing:

I could not decide whether to go with the cute and pathetic begging approach (shown right) or the brusque and crass demanding approach (left).

My MacArthur Fellowship check has apparently been held up in the mail.


The most popular article was certainly the one on Design Patterns of 1972. I had been thinking this one over for years, and I was glad it attracted as much attention as it did. Ralph Johnson (author of the Design Patterns book) responded to it, and I learned that Design Patterns is not the book that Johnson thought it was. Gosh, I'm glad I didn't write that book.

The followup to the Design Patterns article was very popular also. Other popular articles were on risk, the envelope paradox, the invention of the = sign, and ten science questions every high school graduate should be able to answer.

My own personal favorites are the articles about alien disgust, the manufacture of round objects, and what makes π so peculiar. In that last one, I think I was skating on the thin edge of crackpotism.

The article about Forbes' tool list was mentioned in The New York Times.

The blog attracted around five hundred email messages, most of which were intelligent and thoughtful, and most of which I answered. But my favorite email message was from the guy who tried to convince me that rock salt melts snow because it contains radioactive potassium.

System administration

I moved the blog twice. It originally resided on, which is in my house. I had serious network problems in July and August, Verizon's little annual gift to me. When I realized that the blog was be much more popular than I expected, and that I wanted it to be reliably available, I moved it to, which I'd had an account on for years but had never really used. This account was withdrawn a few months later, so I rented space at Dreamhost, called, and moved it there. I expect it will stay at Dreamhost for quite a while.

Moving the blog has probably cost me a lot of readers. I know from the logs that many of them have not moved from newbabe to Dreamhost. Traffic on the new site just after the move was about 25% lower than on the old site just before the move. Oh well.

If the blog hadn't moved so many times, it would be listed by Technorati as one of the top ten blogs on math and science, and one of the top few thousand overall. As it is, the incoming links (which are what Technorati uses to judge blog importance) are scattered across three different sites, so it appears to be three semi-popular blogs rather than one very popular blog. This would bother me, if Technorati rankings weren't so utterly meaningless.


I made a couple of vows when I started the blog. A number of years ago on my journal I complained extensively about some people I worked with. They deserved everything I said, but the remarks caused me a lot of trouble and soured me on blogs for many years. When I started this blog, I vowed that I wouldn't insult anyone personally, unless perhaps they were already dead and couldn't object. Some people have no trouble with this, but for someone like me, who is a seething cauldron of bile, it required a conscious effort.

I think I've upheld this vow pretty well, and although there have been occasions on which I've called people knuckleheaded assholes, it has always been either a large group (like Biblical literalists) or people who were dead (like this pinhead) or both.

Another vow I made was that I wasn't going to include any tedious personal crap, like what music I was listening to, or whether the grocery store was out of Count Chocula this week. I think I did okay on that score. There are plenty of bloggers who will tell you about the fight they had with their girlfriend last night, but very few that will analyze abbreviations in Medieval Latin. So I have the Medieval Latin abbreviations audience pretty much to myself. I am a bit surprised at how thoroughly I seem to have communicated my inner life, in spite of having left out any mention of Count Chocula. This is a blog of what I've thought, not what I've done.

What I didn't post this year

My blog directory contains 55 unpublished articles, totalling 39,500 words, in various states of incompleteness; compare this with the 161 articles I did complete.

The longest of these unpublished articles was written some time after my article on the envelope paradox hit the front page of Reddit. Most of the Reddit comments were astoundingly obtuse. There were about nine responses of the type "That's cute, but the fallacy is...", each one proposing a different fallacy. All of the proposed fallacies were completely wrong; most of them were obviously wrong. (There is no fallacy; the argument is correct.) I decided against posting this rebuttal article for several reasons:

  • It wouldn't have convinced anyone who wasn't already convinced, and might have unconvinced someone who was. I can't lay out the envelope paradox argument any more briefly or clearly than I did; all I can do is make the explanation longer.

  • It came perilously close to violating the rule about insulting people who are still alive. I'm not sure how the rule applies to anonymous losers on Reddit, but it's probably better to err on the side of caution. And I wasn't going to be able to write the article without insulting them, because some of them were phenomenally stupid.

  • I wasn't sure anyone but me would be interested in the details of what a bunch of knuckleheaded lowlifes infest the Reddit comment board. Many of you, for example, read Slashdot regularly, and see dozens of much more ignorant and ill-considered comments every day.

  • How much of a cretin would I have to be to get in an argument with a bunch of anonymous knuckleheads on a computer bulletin board? It's like trying to teach a pig to sing. Well, okay, I did get in an argument with them over on Reddit; that was pretty stupid. And then I did write the rebuttal article, which was at least as stupid, but which I can at least ascribe to my seething cauldron of bile. But it's never too late to stop acting stupid, and at least I stopped before I cluttered up my beautiful blog with a four-thousand-word rebuttal.

So that was one long article that never made it; had it been published, it would have been longer than any other except the Z2 article.

The article about metric spaces was supposed to be one of a three-part series, which I still hope to finish eventually. I made several attempts to write another part in this series, about the real numbers and why we have them at all. This requires explanation, because the reals are mathematically and philosophically quite artificial and problematic. (It took me a lot of thought to convince myself that they were mathematically inevitable, and that the aliens would have them too, but that is another article.) The three or four drafts I wrote on this topic total about 2,100 words, but I still haven't quite got it where I want it, so it will have to wait.

I wrote 2,000 words about oddities in my brain, what it's good at and what not, and put it on the shelf because I decided it was too self-absorbed. I wrote a complete "frequently-asked questions" post which answered the (single) question "Why don't you allow comments?" and then suppressed it because I was afraid it was too self-absorbed. Then I reread it a few months later and thought it was really funny, and almost relented. Then I read it again the next month and decided it was better to keep it suppressed. I'm not indecisive; I'm just very deliberate.

I finished a 2,000-word article about how to derive the formulas for least-squares linear regression and put it on the shelf because I decided that it was boring. I finished a 1,300-word article about quasiquotation in Lisp and put it on the shelf because I decided it was boring. (Here's the payoff from the quasiquotation article: John McCarthy, the inventor of Lisp, took both the concept and the name directly from W.V.O. Quine, who invented it in 1940.)

Had I been writing this blog in 2005, there would have been a bunch of articles about Sir Thomas Browne, but I was pretty much done with him by the time I started the blog. (I'm sure I will return someday.) There would have been a bunch of articles about John Wilkins's book on the Philosophical Language, and some on his book about cryptography. (The Philosophical Language crept in a bit anyway.) There would have been an article about Charles Dickens's book Great Expectations, which I finished reading about a year and a half ago.

An article about A Christmas Carol is in the works, but I seem to have missed the seasonal window on that one, so perhaps I'll save it for next December. I wrote an article about how to calculate the length of the day, and writing a computer progam to tell time by the old Greek system, which divides the daytime into twelve equal hours and the nighttime into twelve equal hours, so that the night hours are longer than the day ones in the winter, and shorter in the summer. But I missed the target date (the solstice) for that one, so it'll have to wait until at least the next solstice. I wrote part of an article about Hangeul (the Korean alphabet), planning to publish it on Hangeul Day (the Koreans have a national holiday celebrating Hangeul) but I couldn't find the quotations I wanted from 1445, so I put it on the shelf. This week I'm reading Gari Ledyard's doctoral thesis, The Korean Language Reform of 1446, so I may acquire more information about that and be able to finish the article. (I highly recommend the Ledyard thing; it's really well-written.) I recently wrote about 1,000 words about Vernor Vinge's new novel Rainbows End, but that's not finished yet.

A followup to the article about why you don't have one ear in the middle of your face is in progress. It's delayed by two things: first, I made a giant mistake in the original article, and I need to correct it, but that means I have to figure out what the mistake is and how to correct it. And second, I have to follow up on a number of fascinating references about directional olfaction.

Sometimes these followups eventually arrive,as the one about ssh-agent did, and sometimes they stall. A followup to my early article about the nature of transparency, about the behavior of light, and the misconception of "the speed of light in glass", ran out of steam after a page when I realized that my understanding of light was so poor that I would inevitably make several gross errors of fact if I finished it.

I spent a lot of the summer reading books about inconsistent mathematics, including Graham Priest's book In Contradiction, but for some reason no blog articles came of it. Well, not exactly. What has come out is an unfinished 1,230-word article against the idea that mathematics is properly understood as being about formal systems, an unfinished 1,320-word article about the ubiquity of the Grelling-Nelson paradox, an unfinished 1,110-word article about the "recursion theorem" of computer science, and an unfinished 1,460-word article about paraconsistent logic and the liar paradox.

I have an idea that I might inaugurate a new section of the blog, called "junkheap", where unfinished articles would appear after aging in the cellar for three years, regardless what sort of crappy condition they are in. Now that the blog is a year old, planning something two years out doesn't seem too weird.

I also have an ideas file with a couple hundred notes for future articles, in case I find myself with time to write but can't think of a topic. Har.


I got a number of unpredictable surprises when I started the blog. One was that I wasn't really aware of LiveJournal, and its "friends" pages. I found it really weird to see my equation-filled articles on subvocal reading and Baroque scientific literature appearing on these pages, sandwiched between posts about Count Chocula from people named "Taldin the Blue Unicorn". Okay, whatever.

I was not expecting that so many of my articles would take the form "ABCDEFG. But none of this is really germane to the real point of this article, which is ... HIJKLMN." But the more articles I write in this style, the more comfortable I am with it. Perhaps in a hundred years graduate students will refer to an essay of this type, with two loosely-coupled sections of approximately the same length, linked by an apologetic phrase, as "Dominus-style".

Wrong wrong wrong!

I do not have a count of the number of mistakes and errors I made that I corrected in later articles, although I wish I did. Nor do I have a count of the number of mistakes that I did not correct.

However, I do know that the phrase "I don't know" (and variations, like "did not know") appears 67 times, in 44 of the 161 articles. I would like to think that this is one of the things that will set my blog apart from others, and I hope to improve these numbers in the coming years.


Thanks to all my readers for their interest and close attention, and for making my blog a speedy success.

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