Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Endless Talking

Yesterday, I read that Chad Orzel decided he won't read any blogs for Lent. I'm not Catholic, so can't really relate to the religious aspect of the decision, but some of his remarks might resonate with you:

"[T]his is really part of a larger disillusionment with the medium as a whole that's been growing for the past several months [...] I'm coming to doubt the idea of blogs as a conversation medium [...] "conversation" implies something more than a series of alternating lectures. For a real conversation, you need some give and take-- each party needs to give the other's arguments serious consideration, and ideally, there should be some development, some evolution.

And more and more, I'm finding that this sort of conversation doesn't take place on or between blogs. People just trade position statements over and over and over.

The most obvious and direct example of this is the well known comment section phenomenon in which the latest commenter doesn't bother to read the 17 previous comments before posting the exact same thing that has already been said a dozen times.

I'm finding this more and more irritating as time goes by. I find myself walking around wanting to punch something, all because people on the Internet are pissing me off. And, you know, this isn't good."

Having met Chad, I can tell you the idea that he's walking around wanting to punch something really isn't good ;-) But more seriously, I consider myself a nice and peaceful person but even I can understand the sentiment. A sane comment to a provocative blogpost is like the drop on the hot stone.

For a while I was quite frequently commenting on blogs. But over the course of time I realized I'll have to make a choice: I either comment to what others write, or I take care of my own blog. I decided focusing on this blog. I read a bunch of other blogs, but rarely read the comment threads and even more rarely comment myself. Part of the reason is that a lot of what one finds in the blogosphere is very repetitive and I'm not patient enough for that. I don't want to comment without having read a post, but if it's not a topic that's currently in my mind, I have a tendency to only read partially and guess the rest. I have a quick finger on the scroll wheel. As a consequence, I'm exactly the kind of commenter I wouldn't want myself. On the other hand, there's people around who make excellent commenters - that's you! - and provide the glue in the blogosphere.

The other reason I'm rarely reading comments is that I realized most people just blog and comment for entertainment. It just isn't about conversation, it's not about learning or changing an opinion. It's to hang out with others, share good and bad news, comfort a friend, or pick a fight. And for some it's to show off. (Look how many comments I get! Look how many visitors I have!) Blogging makes their life interesting and relevant, it provides appreciation. It barely matters if what they write makes a lot of sense, as long as it sparks attention. (No comment.) Or in other words, the blogosphere is just a reflection of the real world. Maybe my "disillusionment" with communication in the blogosphere was limited because I find communication works generally badly. (I'm not weird! It's just that nobody understands me!)

So far about the disillusionment. Let me however mention something remarkable that occurred to me recently: The LHC has meanwhile seen the first collisions. They've been at collision energies higher than what has previously been reached in the lab. I haven't noticed a single newspaper proclaiming the world is going to end. I believe that one of the reasons for this silence is the outcry earlier scary stories caused on many science blogs, and that the tireless repetitions why these stories are scientifically unfounded eventually reminded editors of their responsibility.

It's not that conversation entirely doesn't work. It just works very slowly. It takes a lot of water drops to cool a hot stone. So keep on droppin'.

    "Walk in silence,
    Don't walk away, in silence.
    See the danger,
    Always danger,
    Endless talking,
    Life rebuilding,
    Don't walk away.

    Walk in silence,
    Don't turn away, in silence.
    Your confusion,
    My illusion,
    Worn like a mask of self-hate,
    Confronts and then dies.
    Don't walk away."


  1. On the other hand, there's people around who make excellent commenters...

    You're not talking of anthony, I guess ;-)
    Cheer, Stefan

  2. In my opinion, your blog comes close to the ideal of dispelling ignorance in a fun and lively way. I know of very few other blogs which consistently provide such high-quality content without becoming too dry or predictable.

    My own very modest effort tends to be more like a series of lectures, and there certainly is no conversation taking place, much to my regret. Still, it gives me some satisfaction to compose an entry that is coherent and nontrivial, since effort, thought and a little research are required. I'm also glad to put a smidgeon of real information in a public place, especially about my own area of expertise.

    I hope you never follow Chad's example and turn off your blog for any extended time.


  3. /*..latest commenter doesn't bother to read the 17 previous comments before posting the exact same thing that has already been said a dozen times...*/

    This is because people tend to be creative rather then educated. It's a good property for laymans, but scientists, who are payed by society for original research should always make sure, their ideas weren't checked by someone else already. It's a question of economy of research.

    On the other hand, linear character of many threads (like this one) supported by narrow column formating really don't attract people to read it first. The branched threads are better, but not still quite good.

    Ideal organization of internet threads is invention, which we are still waiting for.

  4. /* proč tyto příběhy jsou vědecky nepodložené */

    Why it shouldn't be, Bee?



    "Curiously, nobody had ever shown that the prevailing theory of gravity, Einstein's theory of general relativity, actually predicts that a black hole can be made this way. Now a computer model shows conclusively for the first time that a particle collision really can make a black hole."

  5. /*..why these stories are scientifically unfounded.. */

    Why scientists are so sure about it, if A) they never computed it explicitelly and B) just first computer simulation done so far proves the opposite...?

    It's a STABLE BLACK HOLE, which is formed during it!

  6. Secret danger of steady-state models:

    Relativity predict, every sufficiently dense object should collapse into singularity fast. But the main problem of Schwarzchild black hole model in relativity is, it's a steady-state model. It doesn't care, how much time it would take to create true singularity for such dense matter. As the result, true singularity can never exist in Universe of finite age.

    The same, just dual AdS/CFT problem exist in quantum mechanics, which predicts, every sufficiently dense wave packet should evaporate fast, the faster, the smaller is. In this theory no dense object could really exist inside of Universe...

    Well, in Universe of infinite time, again.... But can our Universe wait for it?

  7. "I'm coming to doubt the idea of blogs as a conversation medium [...] "conversation" implies something more than a series of alternating lectures. For a real conversation, you need some give and take-- each party needs to give the other's arguments serious consideration, and ideally, there should be some development, some evolution."


    Just like the politicians we are in permanent campaign mode?

    For a blog conversation to develop, and not be a set of lectures, one has to be willing to write about things where one is not the expert, and one has to implicitly admit ignorance, and maybe some other blogger or commenter will be able to add something.

  8. Cornell University abuts a kimberlite dike lacking 1 ppm of impurity. It solicits alumini donations rather than requires five credits of undergraduate digging. Cornell's kimberlite has no diamonds.


    If you have that 1 ppm, dross is tolerable. Open pit mining discards non-ore overburden. Then again... An alluvial diamond mine accumulated a muck pile of small hard metal nodules that damaged equipment. A new engineer eventually came in. He offered to truck away the garbage after work.

    The guy drove off with hundreds of pounds of native platinum-iridium alloy. Sometimes the garbage isn't all garbage.

  9. Mediocrity need not be a strange attractor for all blogs.

    Woit's "Not Even Wrong" maintains quite high standards because it is moderated diligently and with an "iron fist".

    The evolution of the blogosphere has been rather organic, like a berserk patch of vegetative growth: weeds, flowers, fruit and fly traps. Fascinating to watch.

    Cosmic Variance is an interesting case, with some fun, interesting and high quality posts, followed by comments that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

    Perhaps that is the key to a successful blog: emphasize the primary posts, and make the commentary of secondary, or tertiary importance. Or strongly moderate the commentary.

    Most blogs are somewhat of a waste of time. I have been subtracting one/week from my list. All things bloom, ripen and rot. There is real work to be done.

    By the way, someone blogged: "“The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” ~Sir William Bragg"

    May I infer from this that the author likes to think about unorthodox ideas and would like to encourage them? Hmmmm. There's talking the talk, and then there's walking the walk.


  10. Robert: Of course I encourage ideas generally, including "unorthodox" ideas. The problem is that too many people believe "unorthodox" to mean "neglecting all scientific results of the previous century," because they can't be bothered to reach the knowledge required to actually make a new contribution. Best,


  11. Zephir: You already posted that abstract previously, and I alrady told you that you misunderstand its content. This study does of course not show that black holes that would be produced at the LHC are stable. Repeating wrong statements does't make them true, so would you kindly stop it. Thanks,


  12. Dear Arun,

    Yes, I had a similar reaction. There's two points to be mentioned about this.

    One is that most scientists who blog write about the topic they are experts in. It is unsurprising they will rarely change their opinion if they explain what they've been working on all their life, since most of the commenters will not be experts. It is in this case somewhat besides the point to complain they're not changing their opinion when they are mostly reproducing textbook knowledge.

    The other thing is that blogging about a topic one is not an expert in can, unfortunately, be a very bad experience. Nobody wants to be ridiculed for lack of knowledge and the atmosphere is not forgiving enough to feel uninhibited. (Come to think about it, that doesn't seem to stop me from writing about papers in fields I know next to nothing about, which doesn't seem problematic to me, so I don't know.) Best,


  13. Zephir: Your comments are entirely off-topic, please omit further demonstrations of your confusions about black holes. A black hole is characterized by the horizon, not the singularity, and while the Schwarzschild metric is indeed static, there are many collapse models that have been studied, both numerically and analytically. Look it up in any textbook if you don't believe it. I will delete further comments that are not on topic. Best,


  14. Muon: Thanks for the kind words. Blogs who are more like a series of lectures have a slightly different, more timeless, value than those offering a place to discuss. Both have their place. I suppose this blog is somewhere in the middle. The nice thing about blogs is that the format is very easy yet flexible so it's useful for many different purposes. Best,


  15. Hi Bee,

    Are those song lyrics in your article, or an original poem?

    When I was a kid, I told my Mom I was giving up yams, that is sweet potatoes for Lent. She said I couldn't do that, since I hate yams. "So?" I said, "why can't I give up something I don't like? I'll be killing two birds with one stone. That way, you can ship the yams off to India where you always tell me the starving people live, so nothing's wasted."

    "Because," she said, "you have to give up something you like. Those are the rules."

    Dayam, I thought. Silly religion. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me.

    I don't think Chad will last. He's a blog addict, by all accounts. Me too, I admit it, and I've only been blogging seriously for a few months! Christ, this stuff is more addictive that nicotine. Is there a 12-step program for blogging addicts, somewhere?

  16. Steven: It's the lyrics of a song called "Atmosphere" by Joy Division, it says so at the bottom of the post. I never understood the Catholic desire for self-mortification. But yeah, good point
    ;-) You should tell Chad he's not supposed to give up something he doesn't like anyway. What do you feel is addictive about blogging? Best,


  17. In my opinion, an excellent blogging party needs both an excellent blog maker + excellent commenters. There is a great turn-over of commenters swarming throughout the Internet, so a good blog should finally find his commenters, but the blog is a stable node in the graph and it is up to it to attract them.

    What I find at the Backreaction blog is what I could not find in the real world and that I wished to find in Strasbourg, I mean some sort of "Café des Sciences" or so.

    Bee and Stefan, you have quite succeeded in making an interesting blog. It is probably so (I suppose) because what you were expecting to get out of it was not a miracle, but simply debates and discussions.


  18. Jérôme: It is good to hear you like the discussions on our blog. It might sound funny but I didn't really have any expectations when I started writing this blog. I hadn't even been reading blogs before I started writing one. I just liked the idea of having an "online journal" but quickly noticed I'm way too introvert to publicly discuss my private life, anonymous or not. So I basically went with the flow of things to come: there's things I want to talk about with you, and from the comments I notice there's things you want to talk about with me, so one topic often evolves into the next. This of course only works if there's sufficient returning visitors. Btw, one thing I should have mentioned in the post is that on our blog, and I am sure on most other blogs as well, the vast majority of readers never comments. I somethings find this a bit creepy to be honest, there's hundreds of people following our exchange here, and you have no clue who they are or what they think. Best,


  19. Bee:It is unsurprising they will rarely change their opinion if they explain what they've been working on all their life, since most of the commenters will not be experts

    That's it! This is exacly the kind of spirit I felt to be not at the Backreaction blog when I came into it (does one say: on, into, at, into, onto?).

    Chad did not understand that blogging is socializing, and not clustering people into an elite.

    As a professional researcher making a own blog, what you may learn by blogging with people who are not experts in your field is how universal your knowledge can be. I think the point is here.


  20. Jérôme: Well, I guess one of the reasons is that my default starting point is "I'm wrong and just don't understand what they're saying." I've learned many things on this blog from our commenters and I'm very grateful for that. Best,


  21. Btw, one thing I should have mentioned in the post is that on our blog, and I am sure on most other blogs as well, the vast majority of readers never comments.

    @Bee: I guess you are using Google Analytics or so, and saw some of them roaming around. I saw this for my own little blog: Google analytics shows you where they have clicked, which country they come from, and so on. I call them blog-ghosts.

    To resume, you're right. It might be that future collaborators or employers come here and spy on you. I fear that you could get blacklisted here or there for having written something unfair that your blacklister has come across.

    So, be careful anyway.


  22. Well, I'm a ghost on some other blogs :-) I appreciate your concern, but if my future collaborators or employers have a severe problem with opinions I express on this blog, they better find out sooner than later. I find they better get an impression about me from my own blog than from less reliable sources. Best,


  23. You should tell Chad he's not supposed to give up something he doesn't like anyway. What do you feel is addictive about blogging? Best,

    I'm not telling him anything, though I can tell he's in denial about not liking blogging. The fact he's giving it up shows he likes it, since he's an intelligent man so I'm sure he knows the rules, even if he's forgotten them (there is no such word as "forgettery," only "memory." The thoughts are in the gray matter somewhere ... just takes a while to fish them out.)

    What is addictive about blogging? Hmm. Well, for me, it's knowledge. I can't get enough. But learning takes away from doing, and I wish to "do" most of all. I totally love your sidebar lectures and expositions btw, but haven't got CLOSE to reading all I wish to there.

    Sure, "there's time", but how much? We have limited lifespans, and besides, we have responsibilities as well. I'll bet Mrs. Orzell and Steelykid and Emmy especially don't mind any time Chad takes away from the computer.

    I mean, I could live here, on-line. I think some people who play/earn at Second Life do exactly that. In Sci-Fi, there are people in the future who go comatose intentionally and for life, just to live virtually.

    I prefer the real world, but the virtual world is extremely seductive, and always will be.

  24. Steven: Thanks, that's interesting. Chad isn't giving up blogging, he's giving up reading blogs. Best,


  25. Hi Bee,

    Yes for sure we should not walk away and yet in some respect I can identify with Chad when he complains that blog comments don’t often result in constructive dialogue. However as you point out this has as much to do with the writer(s) of the blog as the commentors it attracts. As for myself I don’t read many blogs on a regular basis, other than this one and the reason for that is first I find yours has a broader subject base than the others, yet more importantly I find its authors to be more approachable from a personal perspective. Yet moreso I find that it has given me the chance to read and consider the thoughts of many that I otherwise ] wouldn’t have access to in my life as it normally presents itself. Before media such as this the only source of original and interesting thoughts I found to be restricted to books with never a opportunity to offer comment as to tell the author how I appreciated it or share with them or others what thoughts it had provoked. So I guess you could say for me a good blog represents to be a living book for which the author(s) and commenters are more than simply a collections of worthwhile words, thoughts and ideas. So perhaps if Chad could see it as I do he would find blogging more rewarding and productive then he does currently.



  26. @Steven:I mean, I could live here, on-line.

    I guess what you would miss being full-time on line would be playing football :)

  27. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/newscripts/88/8807newscripts.html

    Chemical & Engineering News praised the wonderfully awful pun-ditry of Angewandte Chemie International Edition (English). The German edition was found wanting. See what happens when the Freude is not floated by the Schaden?

  28. What happened to the Backreaction blog lay-out? The sidebar on the right has completely fallen underneath the posts column !!!

    I think you may sooner or later fix it.


  29. Jerome: I didn't change anything on the layout and it looks fine with my browser (Google Chrome). There are two applets in the sidebar, the one showing recent comments, the other one my twitter status. They both have a problem with linebreaks. If there's a long link in a comment, it doesn't fit into the predefined width and the column expands, which might - depending on your screen resolution - totally wreck the arrangement of the site elements. I'm sorry about that, but I hope the problem has resolved by now. If you know a good fix to that problem, let me know. Best,


  30. Bee: I have just given it a try with Mozilla, and it works fine with it! It seems like the problem comes from Explorer, which I use most of the time.

    Hint:It was not so before Valentine's day, when you changed the motif behind.

    Statistically speaking, most visitors may have Explorer, so I guess it may have some importance for the Backreaction blog.


  31. Hi Jerome: Thanks, I'll check this when I have the time. The template is exactly the same as before Valentines day. In any case, believe it or not, but the majority of visitors to this site uses Firefox (almost 50%) and not MSIE (20.5%) with Safari third (15.3%), and Google Chrome fourth (10.6%). Best,

  32. Jerome: Can you check again whether it looks better now? Best,


  33. Now it doesn't work anymore... Weird stuff indeed :(

  34. Now it works!

    okay, it's not that stable, but it's better than before.


  35. Ah okay, it works only when you have selected one post + its comments. It doesn't work when you have a whole column of different posts without the comments.


  36. Jerome: I tried with MSIE 8 and just tried again, it works fine. What screen resolution do you have?

  37. This comment has been removed by the author.

  38. This is a good sentiment from Chad. I appreciate hearing it. I wish he, I, and others would live up to it more often:
    For a real conversation, you need some give and take-- each party needs to give the other's arguments serious consideration, and ideally, there should be some development, some evolution.
    OK ... Of course people aren't going to always agree, but we need to read other arguments carefully or they aren't going to even be understood. Yes, that is often the major fault of the writer making it difficult. I admit to sometimes dashing off something without taking proper pains with composition and notation (in the IMHO execrable Blogger composition process. I surely don't appreciate how to best use it.) That can make for some confusing stuff. I also reach into my memory about someone's positions too much, and have to later find that was misleading (e.g. pleasantly surprised they aren't so enthralled with some ism I thought they were.) But regardless of the fault there, posts need to either be correctly understood or just left alone. I know we don't usually have time to do that right but it's a problem all around.

    He also wrote there:
    The same misrepresentations of positions, misunderstandings of arguments, ...
    Yes, it's sad. I appreciate Chad acknowledging doing that too. I do it, and so do most readers here. We just have to work harder on that. I think less ad hominem concern for who is doing the talking and their "station" in life would also help enormously.

    But I think blogs should be a good way to have give and take about ideas. Perhaps an easier way to add symbols etc, and even a simple drawing program to allow basic diagrams from commenters would help (presumably doable with today's bandwidth.)


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