To All the Posts I’ve Blogged Before
A self-involved reflection on why I have this section of my site. Blame Manish.
Estimated reading time: .
I’ve had this blog for, according to git, almost two complete years. The first commit was October 12th, 2016, as was the first post, about a Ruby tool I wrote.
I don’t write as much as I mean to, and my working folder is littered with unpublished, half-written drafts of posts I think are good ideas that I lost momentum midway through writing.
I don’t ever get asked what it’s like to write, because I don’t have much of an audience aside from a core group of people onto whom I push my work, so I can’t relate to Manish’s rationale for writing this genre.
I’m writing this because he asked me to review his, and I figured I had time to kill and might actually make it to the end.
So, here’s my love letter to all the posts I’ve blogged before, all the posts I totally promise I’m currently blogging, and all the posts I’ll blog to come.1
Writing Helps Me Think
It’s “easy” to understand something when it’s only in your head – or, at least, it’s easy to think that you understand something when you don’t have to explain it to anyone else and only vaguely have to explain it to yourself. But the act of writing something down, even if it’s in a
love letter hidden in your closet <ins>a draft article you never published</ins>, helps order thoughts and provide structure and clarity and, if need be, closure, in a way that leaving them unwritten much less unsaid does not.
If you read my Type Theory trilogy (in the past tense; don’t go do it now if you haven’t), that’s an excellent example where writing something down that I was vaguely contemplating gave me a more concrete understanding of the topic about which I was trying to think, and what I actually wanted. The second two articles were rewritten in the back half as I reached a point where I realized what I was actually hoping to accomplish and the concepts about which I was writing solidified and organized in my head. If I hadn’t written them, I wouldn’t have gained the clarity in my own thoughts, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to adequately communicate my thoughts to others.2
On a personal, wholly non-technical, note, writing the article DV (note: absolutely not required reading) was an incredibly difficult experience, that cost me several days of effort and energy just to publish and had weeks of aftershocks as people read it and responded.
But writing it out like that, with so much all in one place in ink and pixels, connected pieces in my head that I hadn’t before, gave me the chance to see the larger picture both in what I wrote and what I kept to myself in contrast to having lived it minute-by-minute at ground level, never looking at the summary from far above. And though it took almost a year after writing it, and some in-person shocks and reminders, I finally found a sense of closure built on the foundation of writing it.
Writing Helps Me Remember
I majored in Computer Engineering in university, which in the American curriculum means I spent a lot of time learning about the electrical science underlying modern digital machines. I learned the physics of electronic components, I learned the base assembly and layout logic of transistor circuits, and I learned the theories of how to cobble basic self-governing switches into tiny logic elements and how to build those into memories and manipulators and how to turn those into processors and peripherals.
And then I got a job that required none of that knowledge, and even though as I write it has barely been two years since I last studied all that, I can already feel the knowledge atrophying. I don’t know the exact equations for determining clock skew or instruction throughput, much less determining the delay window of combinatorial elements or the parasitic capacitance or phase shifting of signals in analog circuitry. I’m throwing these terms out there to prove to myself that I still know what to use as my landmark if I had to go look these things up!
How Computers Work is, or I guess was, my effort at codifying the information I learned in university that I found fascinating and useful into something I could use later to remind myself or to teach others, because I knew my own biological memory was an imperfect vessel and would be leaking it away. It already is; I remember knowing the things I wrote in that series, but I could not rewrite them again today. And I didn’t go far enough, and now I don’t know if I can.3
Write things down that you learn; in school, at work, in life. Keep a journal, and you won’t need to remember much more than where to look and how to use it. Our ability to retain knowledge is profoundly amplified by removing it from the mind, setting it in the written word, and retaining just the key to look it up and enough general awareness to use it upon rereading.
Writing Deduplicates Labor
Whenever I find myself having to give the same talk or explanation multiple times, I swiftly find myself writing it down in some form. Often, lately, this means too-long Twitter threads. But for things about which I feel strongly that I need to write down in a formal manner, that means blog articles. Then in the future, I can casually throw the link at someone if they ask something I’ve already covered, such as “why do you want to mangle type systems” or “what are your thoughts on safety”. Beyond just “I already did that once, read this”, though, the articles also provide a foundation and springboard for further discussion. They’re a nicely packaged piece of information that anyone can read without requiring that I recreate it each time, and so everybody who reads it gets things from me for free, from my perspective, and that’s good! It means my effort can be spent elaborating or doing other things, rather than rehashing things I’ve already done and don’t need to manually repeat.
My field in particular is all about deduplicating labor. Blog articles are a phenomenal way to accomplish that for information sharing.
On that note…
Blogs Don’t Need to Be Unique
It’s not at all a requirement that you write about something about which nobody else has. If you can find such a topic, and you’re not publishing your personal diary, congratulations! That’s uncommon.
Blogs aren’t about the topic. They’re about your understanding of the topic. They’re about how you, the author, think about things and what you know and all the various facets of your personal existence and prior understandings and knowledge play into that.
Look at On Safety. The technical information, about lifeguarding or programming, is nothing new, or even comprehensive. The point of that article is how safety culture has impacted the way I think and work, and that kind of writing – an exploration into the individual workings of your mind and how that shapes your worldview and work – is always useful and worth writing down. At the minimum, readers will be able to better understand you; ideally, they will be able to learn from you.
Blogs Don’t Need to Be Theses
This is a trap into which I often fall, but: your blog posts absolutely don’t need to be ground-breaking, edge-pushing, boundary-shattering explorations of advanced or novel technical merit. I write about weird, fringe things I want out of programming, as a means of expressing vague thoughts I have that I don’t know how to communicate otherwise and aren’t well served by what I already know, but that’s just a quirk of mine and one on which I need to work.
A record of things you do that you had fun doing or found interesting or just publishing your lab notes is still a valuable and worthwhile thing to do. I plan on doing more of that, as much as I can, and my
cosmonaught pages are attempts at describing some of my work in ordinary and mundane detail.
When I first started this blog, it was pretty much just for myself. Then I wrote down some things I wanted to be able to use in larger discussions, and now it hosts a combination of my personal diary and my technical journal. Both aspects have proven useful to me alone, and to an audience.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but if you’re reading this and you don’t have a blog, I highly encourage you to give one a shot. Since my work doesn’t go viral, I am highly certain that if you’re reading this, you’re someone close enough to me that my offer of review and help if you want it is one that will be okay with both of us.
Write your stuff down. Share it. I can’t promise anyone else’s attention but I, for one, cannot wait to read it. And I hope that you’ll find mine worthwhile, whenever I manage to actually publish them.
Credit to Manish for asking me to review his article on this topic and motivating me to write this companion piece, and to Arshia for telling me what a good choice I made in my title.
Title reference is the book and movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”.
Granted, said communication has largely resulted in the reader screaming in terror, but to be fair that is the correct response and indicates successful communication.
The draft of the next part is about booting a microcontroller and running programs on it. I can probably write it, but honestly, I’m no longer certain of what I know.