Ten Years of Blogging

As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. In this time I’ve written 302,000 words across 343 articles — a rate of one article every week and a half. These articles form a record of my professional progress, touching on both “hard” technical skills and “soft” communication skills. My older articles are a personal reminder of how far I’ve come. They are proof that I’m not as stagnant as I sometimes feel, and it helps me to sympathize with others who are currently in those earlier stages of their own career.

That index where you can find these 343 articles is sorted newest-first, because it correlates with best-first. It’s a trend I hope to continue.

History

Before blogging, I had a simple Penn State student page showcasing a few small — and, in retrospect, trivial — side projects (1, 2, 3), none of which went anywhere. Around the beginning of my final semester of college, I was inspired by Mark Dominus’ The Universe of Discourse and Andy Owen’s Friendly Robot Overlord (gone since 2011) to start my own blosxom blog. It would be an outlet to actively discuss my projects. Some time later GitHub was founded, and I switched to a static blog hosted by GitHub Pages, which is where it lives to this day.

It’s been more challenging to manage all this content than I ever anticipated. It’s like maintaining a large piece of software, except it’s naturally more fragile. Any time I make a non-trivial change to the CSS, I have to inspect the archives to check if I broke older articles. If I did, sometimes it’s a matter of further adjusting the CSS. Other times I’ll mass edit a couple hundred articles in order to normalize some particular aspect, such as heading consistency or image usage. (Running a macro over an Emacs’ Dired buffer is great for this.)

I decided in those early days to Capitalize Every Word of the Title, and I’ve stuck with this convention purely out of consistency even though it’s looked weird to me for years. I don’t want to edit the old titles, and any hard changeover date would be even weirder (in the index listing).

With more foresight and experience, I could have laid down better conventions for myself from the beginning. Besides the universal impossibility of already having experience before it’s needed, there’s also the issue that the internet’s conventions have changed, too. This blog is currently built with HTML5, but this wasn’t always the case — especially considering that predates HTML5. When I switched to HTML5, I also adjusted some of my own conventions to match, since, at the time, I was still writing articles in raw HTML.

The mobile revolution also arrived since starting this blog. Today, about one third of visitors read the blog from a mobile device. I’ve also adjusted the CSS to work well on these devices. To that third of you: I hope you’re enjoying the experience!

Just in case you haven’t tried it, the blog also works really well with terminal-based browsers, such as Lynx and ELinks. Go ahead and give it a shot. The header that normally appears at the top of the page is actually at the bottom of the HTML document structure. It’s out of the way for browsers that ignore CSS.

If that’s not enough, last year I also spent effort making the printed style of my articles look nice. Take a look at the printed version of this article (i.e. print preview, print to PDF), and make sure to turn off the little headers added by the browser. A media selector provides a separate print stylesheet. Chrome / Chromium has consistently had the best results, followed by Firefox. Someday I’d like for browsers to be useful as typesetting engines for static documents — as an alternative to LaTeX and Groff — but they’ve still got a ways to go with paged media. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)

With more foresight, I could have done something better with my permanent URLs. Notice how they’re just dates and don’t include the title. URLs work better when they include human-meaningful context. Ideally I should be able to look at any one of my URLs and know what it’s about. Again, this decision goes all the way back to those early days when I first configured blosxom, not knowing any better.

URLs are forever, and I don’t want to break all my old links. Consistency is better than any sort of correction. I’m also practically limited to one article per day, though this has never been a real problem.

Motivation

For me, an important motivation for writing is to say something unique about a topic. For example, I’m not interested in writing a tutorial unless either no such tutorial already exists, or there’s some vital aspect all the existing tutorials miss. Each article should add new information to the internet, either raw information or through assembling existing information in a new way or with a unique perspective.

I also almost constantly feel like I’m behind the curve, like I don’t know enough or I don’t have enough skill. As many of you know, the internet is really effective at causing these feelings. Every day lots of talented people are sharing interesting and complicated things across all sorts of topics. For topics that overlap my own desired expertise, those projects have me thinking, “Man, I have no idea how to even start doing that. There’s so much I don’t know, and so much more I need to learn.” Writing articles as I learn is a great way to keep on top of new subjects.

This is tied to another problem: I have a tendency to assume the things I’ve known for awhile are common knowledge. This shows up in a few ways. First, if everyone knows what I know, plus they know a bunch of things that I don’t know, then I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. That’s another source of feeling behind the curve.

Second, when writing an article on a topic where I’ve got years of experience, I leave out way too many important details, assuming the reader already knows them. When an article I regard as valuable gets a weak response, it’s probably related to this issue.

Third, after three years of teaching, it seems like it’s becoming more difficult to put myself in the student’s shoes. I’m increasingly further away from my own days learning those early topics, and it’s harder to remember the limitations of my knowledge at that time. Having this blog really helps, and I’ve re-read some of my older articles to recall my mindset at the time.

Another way the blog helps is that it’s like having my own textbook. When teaching a topic to someone — and not necessarily a formal mentee — or even when just having a discussion, I will reference my articles when appropriate. Since they’re designed to say something unique, my article may be the only place to find certain information in a conveniently packaged form.

Finally, the last important motivating factor is that I want to spread my preferred memes. Obviously the way I do things is the Right Way, and the people who do things differently (the Wrong Way) are stupid and wrong. By writing about the sorts of topics and technologies I enjoy — C, low-level design, Emacs, Vim, programming on unix-like systems, my personal programming style — I’m encouraging others to follow my lead. Surely I’m responsible for at least one Emacs convert out there!

“Formal” professional writing

Despite having three or four novels worth of (mostly) technical writing here, my formal workplace writing leaves much to be desired. I’m no standout in this area. In the same period of time I’ve written just a handful of formal memos, each about the same length as a long blog post.

Why so few? These memos are painful to write. In order to be officially recognized, the formal memo process must be imposed upon me. What this means is that, compared to a blog post, these memos take at least an order of magnitude longer to write.

The process involves more people, dragged out over a long period of time. The writing is a lot less personal, which, in my opinion, makes it drier and less enjoyable. After the initial draft is complete, I have to switch to vastly inferior tools: emailing the same Microsoft Office documents back and forth between various people, without any proper source control. The official, mandated memo template was created by someone who didn’t know how to effectively operate a word processor, who had a poor sense of taste (ALL CAPS HEADINGS), and who obviously had no training in typesetting or style.

At the end of this long process, it’s filed into a system with no practical search capability, and where it will be quietly purged after five years, never to be seen again. Outside of the reviewers who were directly involved in the memo process, somewhere between zero and two people will have actually read it. Literally.

Arguably the memo might more polished than a blog post. I’m skeptical of this, but suppose that’s true. I’d still much rather have written ten less-polished blog posts than one more-polished memo. That’s also ten shots to produce, by chance, a more valuable article than the single, precious memo.

Let’s broaden the scope to academic papers. Thanks to some great co-workers — all three of whom are smarter and handsomer than me — a year ago I finally got a published academic paper under my belt (and more to come): ROP Gadget Prevalence and Survival under Compiler-based Binary Diversification Schemes (and I said memos were dry!). A ton of work went into this paper, and it’s far more substantial than any memo or single blog post. The process was a lot more pleasant (LaTeX instead of Word), and the results are definitely much more polished than a typical blog post. It reads well and has interesting information to present.

This all sounds great until you consider the impact. According to ACM’s statistics, the paper has been accessed 130 times as of this writing. (Yes, providing an unofficial link to the paper like I just did above doesn’t help, but I ran out of those crappy “free” links. Sue me.) Sure, the PDF might have been passed around in untrackable ways, but I also bet a lot of those accesses were just downloads that were never read. So let’s split the difference and estimate around 130 people read it.

What kind of impact does a blog post have? Talking about these numbers feels a bit taboo, like discussing salaries, but it’s important for the point I’m about to make.

Note that all but the last has been published for less than time than our paper. The average time on these pages is between 5 and 6 minutes, so these are actual readers, not just visitors that take one glance and leave. Thanks to the information age, a technical blog article on established blog can reach an audience 100 times larger than a journal for a fraction of the effort and cost. There are other benefits, too:

  1. I get immediate feedback in the form of comments and email (open peer review).

  2. The content is available for free (open access). It’s trivial to link and share blog articles.

  3. Even more, this entire blog is in the public domain. If you don’t believe me, check out the public domain dedication in the footer of this page. It’s been there for years, and you can verify that yourself. Every single change to this blog in the past 6 years has been publicly documented (transparency).

  4. When I write about a topic, I make it a goal to provide the code and data to try it for yourself (open data and materials). This code and data is also either in the public domain, or as close to it as possible.

  5. Link aggregators and social media are great at finding the best stuff and making it more visible (censorship resistance). When I have a big hit, it’s often Reddit or Hacker News driving people to my article. Sometimes it’s other blogs.

In 2017, a blog is by far the most effective way to publish and share written information, and have more scientific quality than journals. More people should be publishing through blog articles than traditional forms of publications, which are far less effective.

Since this has proven to be such an effective medium, I’m going to make a promise right here, right now. And as I explained above with transparency, there are no take-backs on this one. If you’re reading this, it’s on the public record forever. I promise to deliver another 10 years of free, interesting, useful content. This stuff is going to be even better, too. On this blog’s 20th anniversary, September 1st, 2027, we’ll see how I did.

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Chris Wellons