15. June 2009 · 1 comment · Categories: blogging · Tags:

Ever since I passed about 20 posts, I’ve been wishing for a contents listing for the blog. I think one of the weakest parts of blogging software is poor navigability. The dominant mode of access for most blogs is the (reverse) chronology. Which is fine, because that matches the dominant design metaphor. But it’s implemented badly in most blogging tools – by default you can go backwards one page full of posts at a time, with no ability to get a preview of what’s further back. Some people choose to add shortcuts of various kinds to their blogs: a calendar (actually a month-based index), a list of popular/favourite/recent posts, a list of recent comments, a tag cloud, etc. And of course, you can always search for keywords. These all help to address the navigability problem a little, but none of them really provide the missing synoptic view of past contents.

I think the net result is that blogs have an enforced ephemeral nature – once a post has scrolled off the bottom of the first page, it will probably never be seen by the casual visitor to the site – the only likely paths to it are hardlinks from other blog posts, or google hits.

Which is why I’ve always wanted a contents listing. A page with the titles (&links) to all the past blog posts, arranged in some convenient order. So that casual visitors to the blog can see what they’ve missed. And get a sense of what the blog is all about – a bit like wondering up and down the shelves in a library, except that nobody does that anymore.

Today, I found a tool that does most of what I want. It creates an automated sitemap, for human consumption (as opposed to the machine oriented sitemaps that Google feeds on). It makes use of the category labels, and I think it might take some time for me to figure out how to use the category headings for best effect. But I like it so far. See for yourself

04. May 2009 · 3 comments · Categories: blogging · Tags: ,

After that massive burst of liveblogging at the EGU, I took a week off from blogging. Which gave me time to reflect on the whole blogging experience, and what I want this blog to be. Some thoughts:

  • When I started this blog, I set myself the goal of writing something every (work) day. It’s been very good discipline: the act of writing stuff down on the blog helps me firm up my thinking, and means I have something to show at the end of each day – even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs. I wish I’d had this when I did my PhD.
  • I’m also using the blog to keep track of web links and published papers that I find interesting. For this alone, the blog is worth its weight in gold. (I used to write notes down on paper, but I found I would never look at them again!). I’m also find I’m keeping a long list of unpublished posts around for this too – I start a post when I find an interesting link, and a few weeks later when I have something interesting to say about it, I finish it off and post it. Sometimes, I save it until I have other related stuff to make a post on a cluster of related items (usually involving a serendipitous relationship!). And some things seem to stay in my “unpublished post” stack forever, but at least I know where they are if I ever need them.
  • The blog turns out to be a great way of capturing and sharing ideas at conferences. I especially like it when people I talk to then go on to blog about some of the ideas later – it opens up the discussion in ways that otherwise aren’t possible.
  • I also like it when my students blog about their research ideas, especially when they’re not so sure about something. It helps me to get a good sense of where they’re at, and where I might be able to help with advice.
  • Liveblogging a conference was brilliant and crazy. It kept me focussed during talks, but perhaps too much so – after all the main point of a conference is really the face-to-face discussions between talks. Finishing off my posts into the start of the coffee break definitely gets in the way of this. I need to find a better balance, but I do like the record I now have of all the ideas & links I encountered.

But there’s a bunch of stuff I don’t like, mainly to do with the linear structure of a blog. I miss having traditional navigation tools like an index and a contents list. The categories and tags are nice, but don’t really help me find the older material easily. If I want the posts to be accessible as an archive, I’ll need to impose some more organization on them. Many bloggers set up their blogs with no clear indication of who they are, and no easy way to browse their blogs other than scrolling through the linear sequence. And I still find it laborious to put weblinks into a blog post (drag’n’drop would be nice).

Finally, blogging is time consuming. Several people have told me this is why they don’t blog. But actually, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for me – each blog post represents a small chunk of research that I would do anyway – the only difference is that now I’m sharing my notes in the blog, rather than keeping them to myself. One of the hardest parts of doing research is that its very easy to let the “playing with ideas” part get endlessly encroached by things that have short term deadlines. The discipline of blogging daily means I then don’t let this happen.

We had a discussion today with the grad students taking my class on empirical research methods, on the role of blogging by researchers. Some students thought that it was a bad idea to post their research ideas on their blogs, because other people might steal them. This is, of course, a perennial fear amongst grad students – that someone else will do the same research and publish it first. I argued strongly that it doesn’t happen, for two reasons:

  1. the idea is only a tiny part of the research – it’s what you do with the idea that really matters. Bill Buxton has a whole talk on this, the summary of which is:  The worst thing in the world is a precious idea; The worst person to have on your team is someone who thinks his idea is precious; Good ideas are cheap, they are not precious; The key is not to come up with ideas but to cultivate the adoption of ideas.
  2. even if someone else works on the same idea, they will approach it in different way, and both projects will be a contribution to knowledge (and therefore be worthy of publication).

After the class, Simon sent me a pointer to Michael Nielsen’s blog post on the importance of scientists sharing their ideas via blogs. It’s great reading.

Note: I’m particularly chuffed about the relevance of Neilsen’s post to climate science, as the Navier-Stokes equations he mentions in his example lie at the heart of climate simulation models.

09. March 2009 · Write a comment · Categories: blogging · Tags:

Okay, so now I got the difficult second post out of the way, I’m exploring what else WordPress can do. First up: themes. Excuse me while I try out some themes to see what suits me.