Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why I Keep a Research Blog (gregorygundersen.com)
607 points by gwgundersen on Jan 13, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

"Writing is Nature's way of showing you how sloppy your thinking is" [0]

Writing is my primary tool. I keep a blog... and journals. I keep a journal for my reading: what I've read, what I thought about it, choice things I'd like to recall. I keep a journal of my mathematical reading, thoughts, and work. Programming too!

Keeping your writing in a blog and sharing it with others puts a bit of pressure on you to keep a public persona but it's worth doing, as the author points out, to keep one honest. It has taken a while for me to learn this as evidenced on my blog but I have taken it more to heart in recent years.

Be careful writing with an authoritative voice if you yourself have not researched the topic deep enough to convincingly defend your findings! It's much easier for your audience to accept your work if they know you're in the process of discovery when they find an error or omission. It makes you more credible as well.

The more you know, the more you realize how little you know.

[0] https://www.azquotes.com/quote/721037

Re: "Writing is Nature's way of showing you how sloppy your thinking is"

This is why I dislike the down voting capability on sites. There's an impulse the person dislikes what they read or from how they interpreted it, and then they are able to quell that feeling with a single action vs. having to put the effort into thinking and articulating into words what they're feeling, why they are feeling it, and allow it to be publicly scrutinized - hopefully with respectful responses. This allows not only scrutiny and discourse to occur, however it also offers an opportunity for OP to potentially learn something - whether that their language wasn't articulated clearly enough and so interpreted how they didn't expect or other.

What forum rules would you like to see experiments with?

The easiest one would simply be removing the down vote mechanism. If with an existing site then can compare with the years' prior stats - assuming they've been recorded; I don't know if HN does. There are a number of things you could monitor - would be interesting to see if any sets of people with the same behaviour change their behaviour more than just down voting, like if they stay on the site more or less, if they comment more or less; perhaps doing word use analysis on these different sub sets before and after the down vote change, what language are people who are prone to down voting using vs. those who only comment or only up vote but don't down vote, etc.

No downvotes == youtube. People as a whole are too fucking immature and stupid to work in this kind of system because there is no negative feedback for extremism (one-sided views without nuance).

People knee-jerk upvote just as much as they knee-jerk downvote and eliminating one half of the knee-jerks has nasty side effects.

That's a good point regarding people knee-jerk upvoting too. I wonder if A/B testing to see whether there's a difference if weighting upvotes higher from people who comment more and probably taking comment length into account - and perhaps factoring in the upvotes of their comments to the weight of their upvotes.

So like Facebook or YouTube comments (downvotes on YouTube don't really do anything) ?

Do you have evidence for this? It doesn't change the publicly displayed number, but I was under the impression that it does change the ordering. That did seem to be the case last time I experimented with this. On a video with only a dozen or so comments I downvoted a comment with no upvotes, and then opened the video page in an incognito tab, and the comment I downvoted was right at the bottom. Could have been a coincidence, but the probability of that seemed low at the time.

I think his point might be that a YouTube downvote really does do something; it creates in the downvoter an emotion that the point has been addressed and can be discarded without further thought.

You’ve got an old and wise account, but for me, hacker news is a place I can’t downvote.

Upvoted you to counter whoever downvoted you. Do you mind explaining why HN is somewhere you can't or won't downvote but other places you will?

My account can’t downvote on HN.

Some people say it gets unlocked after 500 karma, others say they can do it before then which makes me think a mod can activate it for an account.

It was ironic and surprising to see all these high karma accounts discuss a theoretical forum where users can’t downvote without discussing HN’s existing rules.

Not op, but one idea: Ask for an articulate reason for downvoting. Increases the barrier of downvotes, and if people don't feel that it's articulate they could then downvote the downvote (with their reasons why).

Frequently downvoted reasons could be added to a blacklist that requires additional elucidation before being able to submit the downvote.

This has been an interesting thought experiment. I'd expect the results might besimilar to Robot9000: https://blog.xkcd.com/2008/01/14/robot9000-and-xkcd-signal-a...

Additionally, you could rephrase from "downvote" to "rebuttal", which I think makes it more clear that not only is the opinion/post unpopular, but that there is information that contradicts the OP's post. It could make for a more substantive phrasing

Slashdot has (had? Haven't used Slashdot for years) a reason for up/downvotes, coupled with meta-moderation where you would occasionally be asked to moderate someone elses choice of moderation.

Don't remember how well it worked.

Heck yeah! I had a five digit slashdot account and ICQ accounts. Those were the days. :)

If keeping down votes I like the idea of at least a minimum reply character length - those could then be added and act as comments.

The only voting site I use is HN and here, a good number of the people who down vote will also comment.

That HN hides the votes of each post is useful because you only wind-up with a vague guess as to how other posts are received.

I suspect that not offering down votes would not make people more likely to comment. I will vote and then comment to reinforce my vote.

> "Writing is Nature's way of showing you how sloppy your thinking is"


• "You write to find out what you believe… When I write, things occur to me. It's a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it." — https://web.archive.org/web/20161201164608/http://www.thepar... / https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/09/adam-phillips-paul-...

• "To think, you have to write. If you're thinking without writing, you only think you're thinking. […] Everyone thinks they think. If you don't write down your thoughts, you are fooling yourself." — Leslie Lamport (http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2014/3-642 , 1:30 & 45:34)

• "Turing machines are incredibly more powerful than Finite Automata. Yet the only difference between a FA and a TM is that the TM, unlike the FA, has paper and pencil. Think about it. It tells you something about the power of writing." — Manuel Blum (https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mblum/research/pdf/research02.txt)

"Writing is Nature's way of showing you how sloppy your thinking is"

Great quote, it's actually by Bob Mugele (see earlier cite http://commonplacebook.com/jokes/funny-lists/one-liners-from... ) his website is http://www.junglebob.net/cv.html I exchanged email with him and he confirmed he coined it in the mid-90's

Good to know!

I absolutely love this. It's a great distillation of many of the reasons I myself keep a blog. It's a means, and an end, of learning more, and keeping yourself accountable to your knowledge.

It is difficult to know what you should know when you have a lot to learn and are in an intelligence-signaling environment. A side effect of having written detailed technical notes is that I calibrate my confidence on a topic. If I now understand something, I am sure of it and can explain myself clearly. If I don’t understand something, I have a sense of why it is difficult to understand or what prerequisite knowledge I am missing.

I like this passage in particular, and I divine a second meaning between the lines, and that is: developing understanding, and then putting it out for the world to see, requires bravery. The more you do it, the bolder you become. It gives you some skin in the game. You can't just deceive yourself that you know something. And, if you're doing fundamental research (like the author), you gotta be brave - because there's a good chance you could be wrong. Many people are very afraid of being wrong.

As an aside: I still get nervous every time I publish a post on my own blog.

I don't have a blog, but I find it much, _much_ easier to write comments here on HN. And I greatly improved my electronics knowledge through answering questions on electronics.stackexchange. There are some important questions which are easy to phrase but hard to answer. One day I want to write the a canonical introduction to electron flow models, provisionally titled "Lies you have been told about the electron".

I also plan to dig out my highest-rated HN comments and turn them into blog posts or even an ebook some day. There's probably 10-100k words I've written here already.

One day I want to write the a canonical introduction to electron flow models, provisionally titled "Lies you have been told about the electron".

Ha! I'm just starting to grasp that - been going through chapter 8 of Art of Electronics, 3rd Ed. Getting a hard and fast education on noise. Shot noise is fascinating. I still don't have a great mental model to compare it to. The closes I've come is dripping water vs a continuous stream of water.

I also plan to dig out my highest-rated HN comments and turn them into blog posts or even an ebook some day.

I had this same notion the other day. It's neat how an internet post can inspire such clarity of thought.

If I get into a long conversation on HN I usually turn it around and make it into a blog post, cleaning up the arguments and discussion. I only write for myself and don’t publicize my personal blog but I’ve had some of those then turn around and be posted back to HN by someone else which becomes an interesting lifecycle of internet arguments :)

A great analogy would be rain vs shower. Rain is shot noise, shower is AWGN.

If you don't know it, you may find this interesting: Bill Beaty's amasci.com, with What is Electricity?[0], with a lot of pages explaining misconceptions about electricity, currents, transistors, capacitors etc etc. Or "Science Myths" in K-6 Textbooks and Popular culture[1] - Bad Electricity, Bad Physics etc. There's much more. Even if it all seems wrong to you it may be useful to you as a model or spur! I love his writing. And his stubborn experimentalist's persistence to observe and understand what's actually going on, no matter what the theory or other people say.

Also, he has what I found useful and inspiring advice about writing/putting stuff online, e.g.

"Make your website be your filing cabinet. If you have little projects underway, put them on your website while working on them. Reject the paper-publishing traditions of polishing an article to perfection before publication. DO NOT ELEVATE IMAGE OVER CONTENT. (Perhaps even keep yourself honest by cultivating a deep revulsion for "image.") Instead, let all your flaws hang out, and type things directly into your site in rough draft form (label them UNDER CONSTRUCTION if you really must).

Expunge the fear of embarassment from your life, and instead practice making foolish mistakes in front of thousands of strangers. Stop using your PC to store files, instead use your website as your main storage. Let people poke through your filing cabinet. It will contain far more than a perfectly polished website does."[2]

[0] http://amasci.com/miscon/whatis.html

[1] http://amasci.com/miscon/miscon.html

[2] http://amasci.com/faq.html

@cushychicken: Where can we find your blog?

So glad you asked.


> I hypothesize that jargon is especially susceptible to this kind of misuse because an expert listener might infer a mutual understanding that does not exist. This feeling of verbal common ground can even be gamed. Many of us have done this on exams, hoping for partial credit by stitching together the outline of a proof or using the right words in an essay with the hopes that the professor connects the dots for us.

(Emphasis mine)

You could write an entire book on this.

Off-topic, but Gregory - I was a participant in your C4Q Python workshop several years ago! So good to see that you're doing well in academia, and great article. Agree with many of the points you've made regarding writing-- as an example, one trick I've found for getting better at technical interviews was creating walk-throughs of problems I struggled with.

Thanks for the great read and for helping to kick off my software engineering career!

Hey, it sounds like you're still programming. Glad to hear it's going well!

Are you still putting on that workshop?

Great article and very concise. I've found myself and my writing "addiction" represented. There are many concepts I couldn't grasps until I tried to put them to paper.

On a different note: does anyone happen to know if that's a standard Wordpress theme? I've been looking to find a simple theme and this (or something similarly minimalist and text-focused) would be perfect for my needs.

This seems to be a static site generator.

http://gregorygundersen.com/blog/2020/01/12/why-research-blo... has a HTTP header last updated on 01/13/2020 04:34:31.

http://gregorygundersen.com/blog/2019/12/23/random-fourier-f... is 01/13/2020 04:34:30, or 1 second earlier.

Also the source code has a link to http://gregorygundersen.com/css/markdown.css which 404's.

For his css files try http://gregorygundersen.com/css/ Better still try his GitHub https://github.com/gwgundersen especially his notebook software https://github.com/gwgundersen/anno

Of course, I could have just checked myself. Highly appreciated!

I just use Jekyll to build a static site (Markdown + MathJax). I wrote the HTML/CSS myself, but maybe I can put the "theme" on GitHub later today.

I built a WordPress theme called Independent Publisher that’s intended to focus on the writing and get out of the way of the reader. I was reminded of it while reading this blog, so it may be of interest to you. It’s open-source and maintained by the community on GitHub—suggestions and feedback are always welcome: https://independentpublisher.me/

Very cool, thank you. I will try it out.

> On a different note: does anyone happen to know if that's a standard Wordpress theme?

Not sure if it was this comment that prompted it, but I was looking for the same and noticed he pushed an empty repo about an hour ago on Github — https://github.com/gwgundersen/blog-theme

Hah, coincidence or inspiration? We'll never know (perhaps we'll know if we ask). Anyways, thank you!

Due to some frustrating policies of the company I work for, I was told that I can't blog about anything technical, without the risk of being fired and possibly even sued due to some ridiculous non-compete that I really shouldn't have signed.

I still write the posts, they just live on a hard drive in my basement, because there's still value in writing. I just wish I could give back to the community and/or benefit from people auditing what I'm doing wrong.

You should probably quit.

You're probably right, but these kinds of insane, all-encompassing non-compete clauses are pretty common in most large corporations (at least in my understanding), and if I were to leave I'd be sacrificing all my stock grants and the like. There's no point in me quitting if I don't think I can get something better.

I could of course go to a startup or something, but I have a wife in school and a mortgage to pay. I don't really mind upheaving my life to take a bit of a risk on a startup, but I think it might be a bit selfish if there's a risk of it causing problems for other people.

There may be many that have non-competes, but I think you will find that many of them would allow blogging (or at least be willing to make an exception). Stopping engineers from blogging is typically not the reason they have the non-compete.

Alternatively you could try to convince your employer to add an exception to the non-compete. It's not unthinkable that they would allow it, if it's just for blogging.

They make it pretty clear that I need to get approval to do anything code-related outside of work. I had to go through a ton of forms to get permission to teach coding at a public library here.

That said, you're not wrong; I probably could harass someone to be allowed to blog, but after being declined twice from contributing to open source (both taking around 4-5 hours of talking to legal teams and managers), I'm just a bit burnt out from the experiences.

I should probably find another job once a bit more stock vests.

The trick is declining to sign them, provided you have enough tact to do so in a way that doesn't signal that you're hard to work with in general.

Any reason why you couldn’t renegotiate your contract? I’m sure you could frame it in a non threatening way and get the bit that bothers you redefined

Fantastic article! All true and well-explained. This Grothendieck quote

If you don’t see that what you are working on is almost obvious, then you are not ready to work on that yet.

reminds me of

Live in the future, then build what's missing


The way I see it, both are saying that if you want to be creative, then you can't just think, study, or hope for inspiration. You have to immerse yourself and your mind in a different environment, in a different frame, and then new problems and solutions will be in plain view.

Another way to say it is that half of the problem is choosing the problem, or formulating the problem. But if you start from the same situation or frame, then you're likely to come up with the same problems as everyone else.

"Learning with intention" sounds like a reworded way of saying "deliberate practice" which is something highly motivated people have been doing from time immemorial (one notable example being Ben Franklin's rule of spending one hour per day reading or learning something new). It's excellent legacy advice because it works.

Just a small nit pick here--your example does not match the definition of deliberate practice.

In general, deliberate practice is about how you practice (e.g. focused on most useful things; w/ quick expert feedback), rather than how often.



This is my understanding of deliberate practice as well.

Interestingly, The GP mentioned Ben Franklin and Franklin did use deliberate practice to improve his writing:


Really enjoyed reading this, thanks.

While I'm no way near mathematically capable (yet) of understanding the jargon the author uses later on in the post (e.g. "randomized singular value decomposition"), I'm glad he puts links to at least show he's not bluffing.

One quote that stood out to me was this one

> I appreciate that most of my writing is me, like an ant, simply following someone else’s trail.

I think you could apply that to most things in programming/computer science too

I don't understand any of the specialized concepts in this blog post but I am no stranger to this:

"Under pressure, my mind, like a cart on a well-worn path, finds the same old ruts. Once again, writing breaks this cycle because it requires more active participation."

Being in medicine, I sat on a paper for over a month because I knew that on the last week I would be able to just jump-start writing in the same way I have done so for the last few years. It is embarrassing to think that in any realm of science there is this autonomic system that just takes over when the deadline draws near and poorly thought and researched concepts full of jargon fill the pages.

I've not found it super useful myself.

Maybe I was trying to use it for the wrong things?

It seems like a good way of creating better understanding for yourself, a less good way of building a community. That seems to be best done off-line.

Thank you very much for sharing this. This answers a very specific question I've had for awhile now: do I understand what I think I understand?

The answer is: "no."

I deeply appreciate the main concept here, and I've tried several ways to get the benefits of writing.

I have two hangups, one makes blogging hard, and one makes keeping an organized notebook hard. If anyone has some thoughts/philosophy about it, I'm very much interested.

The first hangup for blogging is that I find it very difficult to choose a 'technical background cutoff'. I very much like ELI5 attitudes but the issue (that everyone has to deal with) is choosing which topics not to explore. It's difficult not to wander off on tangent "pre-req" topics not only because I want clear explanations, but also because of my second hangup. I tend to "overthink" things and when you question deeply enough, you always wind up at something too difficult to figure out in a day/week/month. Repeating that 10x times per 'blog post' just doesn't work.

One possible work around that I've gleaned from this discussion is to have blog posts presented as WIPs, and work on them progressively almost like a notebook.

If anyone else has some thoughts on how I might handle these things, I'd very much appreciate it.

"Writing is Nature's way of showing you how sloppy your thinking is" This is exactly the reason that I have started a blog recently. Before, I have only read the material and got a feeling of understanding while it is far from the truth. When I start writing, I know I can gain a deeper layer of understanding in a way that is not impossible with just reading. Really appreciate this.

Wow, I'm very glad to have discovered your blog as of today. I'm really enjoying your posts and clear writing style. I just read your "Proof of the SVD" blog post. I can tell I am going to learn a lot already. Thanks for putting in so much effort!

I don't blog (anymore), but I keep a personal diary and "guides". The diary is to note down various insights and random thoughts. My guides are consolidated learning around a particular topic and key information that I will know I will need to come back and refer to. I make guides for anything, principles of design, languages, frameworks, specific tools, specific websites, books, and games. Some are purely informational, some capture my thinking about something

As I was reading this, I had two thoughts:

1. The author must be young. That's a really small font.

2. The same could be said for teaching a class. No matter the class, even a basic undergrad class, I always try to work a few new research results (not necessarily my own) into the lectures. Edit: I was specifically referring to "Learning with intention" in this part of my comment.

I have been looking for a blogging environment for this kind of topics for some time. So, my question to the author:

What kind of software / tools /styles are behind this blog in the technical sense? I see mathjax, probably some static site generator(?), what else are you using?

Also not the author, but if you want minimum hassle and don't care most of the blog-like features, you can:

- Write in Markdown using your favorite editor (I like Typora[1]; StackEdit[2] is also great)

- Render them in-browser with Docsify[3] (so that you don't even need to worry about setting up a separate build step)

- Deploy to GitHub pages or GitLab pages for free


[1] https://typora.io/

[2] https://stackedit.io/

[3] https://docsify.js.org/

Not the author, but IMO the form should follow the content. So I would write the content first (e.g. in text or Markdown) and then if people read it, improve the formatting.

FWIW I wrote my own scripts to generate static HTML over 3 years, but people were reading it from the first day. So it was just gradually improved over time, Unix style. (It even works on mobile now, after I learned how to do that in the last week :) )


If I can give my 2 cents, think about how you would like to write and publish, and where do you want to focus. I've tried to use static site generators (mostly Hugo), but in the end, I've realized that I spent way more time making little tweaks to my theme, creating short codes "to help me create content", than actually writing.

Now, I plan on just having a blog to myself, to post what I've been reading, with some highlights/notes, and for that, a free wordpress.com is way better than anything else, as it's very easy to add different types of media/embed content without a worry, and to use their android app to write on the go if I want.

So really, whatever you use, first decide on your ideal workflow, and then find the solutions :)

I didn't want to make the post overly long by adding a section on "failure modes," but certainly one of them is: spend a long time building and tweaking a blog rather than writing. I've done this too and work to avoid it.

I write drafts in Markdown + MathJax and then build everything into a static site using Jekyll. I didn't use a theme or template, since I found most were too noisy. It's just custom HTML/CSS.

Remarkable stuff Greg - no surprise to see your work on the front page of HN - always inspiring.

Thanks Chris!

What are the software/tools to use to write notes/journals? I personally use github.io but it does not seem to be efficient.

getting feedback from people smarter than me is another reason to publish

hearing 'you're wrong' publicly from a world-class expert on my topic is the fastest way to advance my knowledge on a topic -- it's basically free college

Applications are open for YC Summer 2021

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact