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I've decided to move on to Distill (colah.github.io)
353 points by apsec112 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

> As colah.github.io has grown in prominence… Well, it’s been very rewarding, but it’s also been a bit uncomfortable.

> For one thing, it’s created very high standards for my writing. Most of my articles took 50-200 hours to write. I feel like I needed to live up to that quality with every post, but that means I can’t put out thoughts without investing a huge amount of energy.

I've done a bit of blogging and this echoes my experience as well. One successful posts precedes another, then you start to feel like you can't put out off-the-cuff type posts. It's tough to follow up a rockstar post with an intermezzo. So you invest more and more energy into each topic and post to ensure it'll be successful in whatever metric, and that mostly works, but then you publish few posts in very specific niches.

If anyone has advice for effectively blowing one's standards out of the water and publishing more smaller general pieces, I'd love to hear that. From this perspective, I admire how Fred Wilson blogs.

Edit: fixed typo

I had this issue too, and realized you can frame it by setting expectations in the title.

Some posts have needed the 100-200 hours of thinking/visualization, labeled with things like "Interactive Guide to the Fourier Transform" (https://betterexplained.com/articles/an-interactive-guide-to...)

Others are smaller insights, written in a day ("Quick Insight: Easier Arithmetic With Calculus" -https://betterexplained.com/articles/calculus-arithmetic/).

Others are more essays/thought pieces, learning strategies, etc.

Setting the expectation up front that not every post is a big thesis-style conclusion can take away the pressure to only create those. (You can have appetizers, entrees, and desserts on the menu!)

Often your big articles are built after working through ideas in smaller ones. (The Fourier Transform emerged after getting insights on e, imaginary numbers, Euler's Formula, degrees vs. radians, etc.).

I struggle with this a lot and here is a truth: nobody cares.

Your blog is not a destination, each post is its own page. Those that are good are going to float and give you recognition and get a lot of traffic and build your brand and your audience.

The others nobody will see and they affect nothing.

The more you publish the more hits you'll have the better you'll get. Here is a fable:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I don't know why you are grayed out. I found your post right on the money. Perfectionism is crippling and it seems to be increasing in our society. So people do nothing, which is infinitely worse!

I'm reminded of a little cartoon Fellini scribbled that I saw in a book about him once, and I have always found it funny and helpful. I'm paraphrasing from memory, but it was a funny little guy and he was saying "I can always do a poo" or something to that effect. One of the most creative minds that has ever existed seemed to be saying that no matter what, you can always at least do a poo.

One of the bloggers I follow is Tim Urban at http://waitbutwhy.com and it has four levels of posts in four distinct categories: Big, long and thorough articles; "minis" for smaller ones; "the shed" for sharing things found on the internet, humor or just whatever that don't fit; and "dinner table" for asking interesting questions frequently and receiving answers from the community.

I have been following up "awesome" posts with less-awesome posts for a few years now. It sometimes feels weird, but my experience is that sometimes off-the-cuff short posts are surprisingly popular, and that even when a blog post isn't popular, sometimes, a year later, somebody I really respect will tell me that they loved it.

for example I worked for weeks on this post: http://jvns.ca/blog/so-you-want-to-be-a-wizard/ and then followed it up with a few very quick thoughts on careers in http://jvns.ca/blog/2017/03/17/career-narrative/. My thinking is that people who read my blog can decide for themselves what to read and what to skip.

My only guidelines for blogging that I follow are basically these: https://twitter.com/b0rk/status/823183090554126336.

Thank you. The blogging principles look great. I hadn't really seen anyone else do zines in tech short of some old school hacker zines. Cool approach!

two bloggers i admire tremendously are james hague [http://prog21.dadgum.com/, now retired from blogging :(] and julia evans [https://jvns.ca/]

while pretty much everything they write is high-quality and worth reading, there are clearly different levels of effort that went into any given post, so there's a good mix of content.

Thanks for sharing. The layout of her posts on the homepage is really nice. I got to see Julia Evans give a great talk at PyCon a few years ago, and I really like her style and approach, so it's great to see she has a blog too.

> If anyone has advice for effectively blowing one's standards out of the water and publishing more smaller general pieces, I'd love to hear that.

Stop measuring whatever it is you're using to define "rockstar" v. "intermezzo" for one. If you're not advertising and you're not trying to grow an email list, there's probably little use in Google Analytics or similar.

It's easy advice to hear and hard advice to do. As a programmer, I just naturally want to measure everything. Something feels so weird about putting a thing into the world and not measuring it, not knowing if or how it impacted people and how the community reacted.

Some successful entrepreneurs like garyvee prescribe similarly not using analytics for the first year of building a blog.

Maybe setting an arbitrary length limit would work.

I don't blog - I'd like to - largely because of the same feeling you're describing. But I use Twitter, sometimes posting random thoughts there (either in single tweets or in small chains). That's a severe length limit, of course, but it does make me more confident posting things without spending a lot of time thinking about them and elaborating. I think this is a big part of the reason for Twitter's success. For a blog, the limit would have to be considerably higher, but still low enough that you relatively quickly get to a point where you're 'done' and can't really add more (without sacrificing something else, at least).

Alternative suggestion: write a script to automatically syndicate your HN comments to your blog :)

> Alternative suggestion: write a script to automatically syndicate your HN comments to your blog :)

It's funny you mention that as it's an idea I've considered several times. I find it so easy to crank out a few hundred word post here in response to an article or its tangential discussion. I agree that the form factor is a part of it, so something more than a tweet but less than a blog post is interesting.

I've also been thinking about a blog post format of summarizing long / deep HN comment threads, similar to what r/tabled does for AMAs.

Perhaps you should set expectations by creating a category literally called "intermezzo", if that fits the voice of your writings. Use a little metadata and UX design to allow a tick-tock-tock-tock cadence.

Paul Krugman handles this by using certain keywords in the title. In particular:





All other blog posts fall into the middle zone that he generally aims for. But the very technical stuff he marks "wonkish" and the personal stuff is "trivial". He does one music post every Friday, which he marks "music".

  > I've done a bit of blogging and this echoes my
  > experience as well. One successful posts precedes
  > another, then you start to feel like you can't put
  > out off-the-cuff type posts.
  > It's tough to follow up a rockstar post with an intermezzo.
I get this but perhaps we should all relax and just create some categorisation to show whether a blog is a full-size article or a small point about something.

Yeah, categorization helps, but how would you address this with respect to a mailing list? Currently I send one message to all per post. Personally, the blogs that mail me multiple small posts per week are the ones I filter (then rarely or never read) or unsubscribe from. Perhaps there'd be value in letting people subscribe to "all posts" or "big posts only".

Blog posts should be very short post-it memos imho, not semi-papers. Any r&d endeavour must go into a proper paper instead: industrial, academic, tutorial or even into a conference poster.

I definitely agree with this. If nothing else, I like the idea of re-using bits of content across mediums. The blog just seems to be the easiest way to hit the masses without the constraint of a once a year conference schedule.

I just keep two blogs: one for the elaborately thought out, and one for everything else.

"I began to worry that, by focusing on exposition, I was failing to do the best work I could. Often, my work felt illegitimate in some way"

This could be worthy of discussion and how the author has responded to it is commendable.

Thank you.

Talking to others in the space, I think a number of people share my experience, and often stopped doing this kind of work. While there's extremely positive feedback from some people, it's kind of "you have a cool hobby" and it's kind of iffy how much it helps professionally.

In some cases, I know people who have had well-intentioned senior researchers, or their advisor, encourage them to switch to focusing on traditional papers. In a smaller number of cases, I know people have received explicitly negative feedback. Sort of, "those who can, do research; those who can not, explain research."

My career has worked out really well, but it's unclear how much of that is luck. I think we can support people better.

Hi Chris, I wanted to applaud your efforts here. The attitude of "those who can't do, teach" misses how we truly internalize and make use of ideas.

Luminaries in a field (Einstein, Feynman, Tao) have "post-rigorous" understanding (https://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/there%E2%80%99s...). Pure research without sufficient explanation doesn't help others build this level of depth and leaves the findings as a black box.

Something that's bothered me a lot through my research career is how much effort it takes to place any particular result in context (and fit all the different pieces together into a coherent whole). And how one can understand the full edifice much better once one has that context in which to interpret recent progress.

Of course, that layout only becomes clear only after the area has developed a little, but IMHO the most important education that can be imparted to newcomers in a field is that "context". It pains me to see that good expository material that share insight seem to be hard to find, particularly on front-line research. Broadly, I feel that research communities ought to do a better job of writing accessible review material -- otherwise they inevitably fracture into sub-communities which start talking past each other.

I think it is worth noting for everyone that this really is a form of impostor syndrome, and people should take note that even someone who is very highly regarded is susceptible to that kind of thing.

For what its worth, having dabbled in some visualizations of concepts, its really difficult, and I didn't find that the available tools were well suited for mathematical visualization. Its really unfortunate that to be able to present something intuitively, there's a very high technical skill floor as well as a relatively high artistic floor.

You are spot on about the impostor syndrome. Colah's confession about being worried bring me some sort of relief given I hold him in really high regard. I am starting out in this area (still an undergrad) and feel really scared at times about what I am doing and at times feel I land up into good internships/projects just by sheer luck. When someone like him who is respected across the community can have these doubts I feel it is completely OK for mere mortals like me have the same issues.

On similar lines, the fact that each of his posts takes 50-200 hours of work is another reality check. I always thought he was writing these on the side in 2-3 hours. This made me believe I could not with years of practice produce such great work. I am still not sure if I would be able to but at least I can now set realistic expectations for myself. Also, knowing it took so much work on his end has made me respect him even more.

> "those who can, do research; those who can not, explain research."

I've rewritten this comment maybe 10 times because I'm struggling to capture how completely myopic this idea is. But here's a quote from Feynman's 5th messenger lecture [1] that I really enjoy, he's talking about the graph of all possible human endeavors:

[The graph] is a series of concepts that we use to understand things at an ever higher level. And going on, we come to things like evil and beauty and hope. Now, which end is nearer to the ultimate creator or the ultimate or, if I make a religious metaphor, which end is nearer to God? Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that the whole structural interconnections of the thing is the thing that we have to look at. And that all the sciences and all the efforts-- not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kind-- are to see the connections of the hierarchies is to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, the man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today, we cannot-- and there's no use making believe we can-- draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other. In fact, we've just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy. And so I don't think either end is nearest to God. And to stand at either end and to look out off the end of the pier only, hoping out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake. And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or the stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world with that aspect alone is a mistake. And it is not sensible, either, for the ones who specialize at one end and the ones who specialize at the other end to have such disregard for each other. They don't, actually. But the people say they do. Sorry. [LAUGHTER] But actually, the great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle. And in that way, we are gradually understanding this connection, this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies. Thank you.

[1] http://www.cornell.edu/video/richard-feynman-messenger-lectu...

This needs to happen in all the fields of science. Academia rewards "complicated and tricky", not anything that makes it look easy. This is a serious problem! The cult of science. Not that I should pick out science in particular, it seems that humanity in general wants to make corrupt little circles of influence out of all its endeavors.

PS. Yay Colah, love your stuff! It makes me happy that people like you see the value in this work.

I would argue that the dissemination of complex information to the masses is of the utmost importance. How can humans make decisions if they don't understand what they are deciding about.

His contribution is extremely important in advancing these fields. We need people to do this outside of academia if the populous is going to be truly informed about such important matters.

Bill Nye and Neil Tyson may be cheesy, but its hard to argue that they aren't important in getting millions of kids into science at a young age, and helping people of all ages understand the science around them.

Neil Tyson is beyond cheesy. He's a pendant and gives the wrong idea of what acting intelligent is to youth. [1] It's a sign of immaturity and a desire to appear profound.

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/704330815321210884?lang...

It's extremely hard to take this comment seriously when everything you fault Tyson for could easily be launched right back at you.

You call Tyson "a pedant" because he tweeted saying "Leap Day" was a bad word choice. But you are also saying the post you replied to shouldn't have the word "cheesy" so doesn't that make you a pedant as well?

Sure, your point is not simply that the word "cheesy" is bad - you're going a bit more in-depth and trying to make a bigger point (specifically that Tyson is harmful). But Tyson is not simply trying to feel smart by saying he doesn't like the name "Leap Day" - he's also trying to make a bigger point (specifically, he's teaching/reminding us that our concept of a year is based on our planets orbit, not an arbitrary number).

Similarly, you comment that Tyson "gives the wrong idea of what acting intelligent is" but did you notice that you said "intelligent" instead of "intelligently" despite the latter being correct? Aren't you giving the wrong idea of what acting intelligently is to the youth by making gramatical errors that the fragile youth may mimic?

Looking at someone under a microscope, as I have just done right back at you, is not the best way to judge them. Your typographical error will not hurt "the youth" just like Tyson starting a tweet off in a clickbait style with "The Leap Day is misnamed" won't hurt us either.

I don't know if I agree or disagree with the comment you're responding to, but I'm pretty sure you almost entirely missed its point.

Tyson was called a "pendant" not a "pedant." A "pendant" as in "symbolic token."

Also, I think the nit pick about the use of "intelligent" is incorrect. You can "act intelligent" as in "act like someone who is intelligent" and you can "act intelligently" as in "take actions that are intelligent." The original post's use of "intelligent" works with his use of "pendant."

I'm pretty sure sdf meant to say "pedant". It would be extremely weird if sdf was actually trying to call Tyson a "symbolic token" (minority?) by referring to him as a "pendant".

> "symbolic token" (minority?)

"Symbolic token" isn't at all interchangeable with "minority" in this context, so I'm not totally sure what you mean.

Cheesiness is an affectation. If someone's "cheesy" they lack originality or individuality. They use canned, inauthentic phraseology in an attempt to appear a certain way. So a "cheesy scientist" would be someone attempting to appear very "sciencey" without substance. This is the sense in which a "cheesy scientist" could be considered a "symbolic token" or, loosely, a "pendant" representing the category "scientist."

I agree "pendant" is a bit of an odd choice, but in the sense I just described it's not ridiculous.

Also, I wouldn't make this argument about Neil Tyson, this is just how my brain put together sdf's argument.

Perhaps I did misunderstand. I didn't see how "pendant" could make sense (I used to wear one, and I couldn't see how a person could be confused with a pendant). But since you thought of it as a "symbolic token", please do explain what you think Tyson symbolizes and how he is a token, like how the user whack mentioned.

As for your last paragraph, I'll admit that I am not great at English and I don't understand its rules, so I'll assume you're right.

Disregard that example and take this one instead: the comment used a source and gave it the number 1 instead of 0. Someone could argue that using 1 instead of 0 "gives the wrong idea of what acting intelligent is to youth" with some pedantic argument like "everything must be zero-based because think of the children/youth, we need to set the right example for them". What I'm arguing is that such an argument, just like an argument about a gramatical mistake, is weak at best. It doesn't provide much insight, it doesn't provide any solution, it just whines

I actually agree with your original argument, and disagree with sdf's as you interpreted it. I just interpreted sdf's argument differently. I described how I came to that conclusion in response to the comment you mentioned.

I think basically I assumed grammatical/syntactical correctness and a weird argument, and you and others assumed the reverse.

I hope sdf clarifies because I'd actually guess I'm prone to making this kind of communication error (if I'm in error, of course).

The difference between Tyson and my HN account is that I do not have the platform to influence anyone of anything. Tyson actively goes out of his way to influence people (with good intentions!) and bring science into their lives. He has the responsibility to not make it seem like all academics walk around with an aura of "i am very smart". Academics have a hard enough time with their public perception.

The behaviour he displays -- and is admired for -- seems overly destructive for no benefit. You may disagree.

I definitely disagree. I don't know how much Neil you've watched, but I have the distinctly opposite impression. He's usually very casual and approachable. My biggest gripe with his version of the Cosmos series was that the cartoon segments struck me as a bit cheesy and over-dramatized. But I took it as an attempt to reach out to a broader audience.

In either case, pegging his amount of 'academic smugness' (or whatever you want to call it) at the level of 'destructive' seems way overblown.

Even if he has his bad moments (who doesn't?), I really struggle with the suggestion that he, in his capacity as public figure, is having a net negative effect on science education, academic interest and intellectualism.

I'm not sure I understand - aren't you using HN as your platform to influence us all, right now, with your own good intentions? Didn't you have to go out of your way to find a link to that tweet to influence people and make them think Tyson is a bad influence?

As for the part about his responsibility, that part sounded like a no true scotsman argument (not sure about the spelling/capitalization of that, sorry). But also, couldn't someone argue that you, as a member of this community, have a similar responsibility to not put down Tyson? Aren't you contributing to the problem of hurting the perception of academics? Honestly, this is what got me to reply to your original comment. Seeing someone say Tyson was cheesy seemed light-hearted, but your comment felt like an attack on Tyson IMO

I don't see how his comments are more destructive than yours. But you are right, the question of whether his comments are destructive or not is subjective.

I was adding my opinion into the mix but I did not expect it to influence anyone.

Would you argue that someone on Hacker News has the same responsibility as, say, Donald Trump? I wouldn't.

I don't think the example you provide really supports your point.

I think the counterargument is that most people don't make decisions based on technical merit (as the goal of technical dissemination is), but in (a) effects on humans, which don't need a technical explanation in the sense we're talking about and (b) emotions, tribal membership, novelty, etc.

I certainly didn't study computer science because I had complex information about some tech topic explained in an easy way.

As a grad student in the field, I 100% agree with the idea of research debt. Arxiv is great, but it has only exacerbated the problem. There's far too many papers adding some small fluorish on an already complex architecture in order to push an accuracy score a couple of percentage points higher, and not that many with insightful examination of some more basic question, even if it's considered a detail.

That is the point of traditional academic publishing. So I don't believe it's comparable to blogging platform.

Congrats on Distill Chris, sounds awesome.

> I also have unusual experiences, like dropping out of university to support an accused terrorist, that I might like to write about. But it feels kind of like an abuse to use the attention the deep learning community has given me as a platform for these other topics.

You've got the attention of the deep learning community because you write about interesting stuff; I hope you write more about your non-DL experiences and I think a lot of people (both inside and outside the DL community) would find them very interesting.

Thanks for your past posts. Looking forward to Distill!

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