Sorta Insightful turns six years old today!
If you’re new, every year I do a meta-post about how my blogging went that year. I’ll be honest - I’ve had a lot less motivation to write this past year. There isn’t a single reason for this. It’s more like a few reasons compounding together.
More Time on Social Media
I haven’t checked how much time I’ve been spending on YouTube and Reddit, but it’s definitely rising. Recommendation algorithms keep getting better.
I know these systems work well on me, so I try to avoid adding social media streams. I don’t have a TikTok or Instagram or Snapchat, since I don’t want to add any many mindless scrolling into my life if I can help it. We’ll see how long that lasts. For better or worse, those are the communication mediums of today, and culture goes forward with or without you.
This past year, I’ve been doing more work for puzzlehunts. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.
I see puzzle construction as trying to tell a story where you have minimal control over how the story plays out. You’re trying to convey a solve path, but if you make it too obvious then the solve is no longer interesting.
The more relevant part re: this blog is that puzzle constructing is time consuming. It’s like game development. You place the solver in a system, they’ll stretch it in ways you never thought of, and you just have to run around patching up all the holes that become apparent. It’s also a team project with a hard deadline where I can read comments from people who are looking forward to participating. In comparison, this blog is a personal affair, with no strict deadlines or hype trains. That means I’ve felt greater feelings of responsibility and urgency for puzzlehunt writing compared to blogging.
To put hard numbers on this, based on my time tracker, last year I spent about 100 hours on blogging and about 435 hours on puzzlehunt construction. It’s a pretty stark difference.
Interest in my Hobbies are Cooling Down
A number of my posts were me writing about something I was passionate about. I had a post about a My Little Pony x Doctor Who crossover, a post about a My Little Pony x Euclidean geometry crossover, and a post about Neopets. It made sense for me to write them at the time, but I’m less into MLP now, and I’m less into Neopets ever since the site redesign, and I’m just not into fandom as aggressively as I was in 2015 or 2016. I still like MLP and Neopets, and keep up-to-date on what happens in those spaces, but they’re a smaller part of my life.
So when I think about writing a grand post explaining why I got into My Little Pony, it’s a lot harder to do so. When I consider starting a post about why you should read Gunnerkrigg Court, it’s hard because I think about Gunnerkrigg a lot less. There’s always Dominion, but at this point I’m basically retired.
What I’ve realized is that most of my posts are not long-burning posts. They’re works of passion - I bash them out in a few days, or I don’t finish them at all. Sometimes, that passion is a function of the time, rather than anything intrinsic about myself. I told a few people I was going to write an “offline RL manifesto” back in 2018, since I thought it was criminally understudied, but it’s since become a reasonably sized research area and that manifesto no longer feels as important. The post I wanted to write about measurement feels less important now that fairness / interpretability / AI safety is more widely accepted.
I know I just said blogging is a personal activity, but I guess one of my personal activities is writing up hot takes, and takes can’t be hot if you feel they’re already known. I somehow find it more rewarding to create a new point of discussion, rather than adding to or emphasizing an existing one.
I realize this isn’t how writing has to work. Preaching to the choir is fun, after all. However, it’s how I’m approaching writing right now. This is likely why I’ve found puzzle construction to be nice - puzzles deliberately aim to be novel.
Settling Into Patterns
I feel like more of my life has “normalized”, for lack of a better word. By this, I mean that if I picked some arbitrary week 1 month in the future, and made a prediction for what I would do that week, it’d be more accurate than if I did the same exercise a few years ago.
There’s just fewer surprises. I’m not meeting as many people, and I’m doing fewer new things. This is all quite terrifying, to be honest. I’m still figuring out what to do there, but seeing less means I’ve had less inspiration for blogging.
It doesn’t do you much good to draw unless you have something to draw, and the only place you’re getting anything to draw is out of that head. And the only way you can exercise the mind is by bringing new ideas to it so it’ll be surprised, and say “God I didn’t know that.” That’s the greatest thing in the world, that “Gee I didn’t know that.” And there you are, you know?
(Chuck Jones, director of several classic Looney Tunes cartoons. I recommend this Every Frame a Painting video, if you haven’t seen it before.)
I am spending more time on social media…but that doesn’t seem to drive much inspiration for me.
General Tiredness with COVID-19
I stopped blogging about COVID at some point, but I remember believing that things would go back to normal after vaccines were widely available. However, I didn’t account for the degree of vaccine hesitation, as well as the slower rollout of vaccines worldwide enabling evolution of variants that (might) escape vaccines developed so far.
My expectation is that things are and will get better, but last year, I could point to a clear future event (conclusion of widescale vaccine trials). Whereas this year, I don’t have anything to point to besides rising vaccination rates (yay!) and new variants (boo), with an unclear sense on how both will evolve. That’s sapped a lot of energy out of my life in general.
* * *
I’ve considered whether all this means I should stop blogging. As an exercise, I’ve tried imagining the world where I never update this blog again…and it feels really bad. I do care about blogging, so I’ll try to slice out more time towards working on it.
Last year, I wrote 32,161 words. This year, I wrote 26,955 words.
I wrote 9 posts this year. Some were quite long - this year I averaged 3000 words per post, compared to about 2500 words per post last year.
These are the view counts from August 18, 2020 to today, for the posts I’ve written this year.
This mostly tracks what I expected, although I’m surprised the post about Flash games has so few views. Maybe my nostalgia about Flash games is narrower than I thought.
Time Spent Writing
I spent 100 hours, 11 minutes writing for my blog this year, which is about 20 hours less than I spent last year.
That rounds to 16-17 minutes per day, which is actually not too bad for a time commitment (although in practice my blogging is very bursty, rather than writing a few minutes each day).
Posts in Limbo
Post about measurement:
Odds of writing this year: 20%
Odds of writing eventually: 30%
If I don’t write this next year I’m going to remove it from my list of pending ideas.
Post about Gunnerkrigg Court:
Odds of writing this year: 45%
Odds of writing eventually: 50%
Basically I am saying that if I don’t do it this year, I don’t think it will ever happen and will remove it from this list.
Post about My Little Pony:
Odds of writing this year: 50%
Odds of writing eventually: 90%
I cannot see myself never writing about the My Little Pony fandom. It was a huge part of my life, but I’m ready to describe it as was, rather than is. Of course I say this when a lot of my music history is pony EDM…but outside of a few music artists I found via MLP, I’ve stopped caring about a lot of the brony fandom. Much of my enjoyment of MLP was derived from seeing how new episodes were interpreted by the fandom, and so far I have zero hype about Generation 5.
Post about Dominion Online:
Odds of writing this year: 25%
Odds of writing eventually: 50%
Post about puzzlehunts:
Odds of writing this year: 70%
Odds of writing eventually: 90%
Why doesn’t this blog have ads? Well, the answer’s simple: at my current view count, it isn’t worth it. And I don’t mean that it’s not worth the time to set it up. I mean that if someone offered to do it for free, I would still turn them down.
Let’s do a very rough Fermi estimation of how much revenue I could get. Google Analytics says I get about 5000 sessions per month. According to this blog, the clickthrough rate of display ads is 0.05%, but is 8.8x higher for native ads. I don’t want to do native ads, but let’s get an upper bound by assuming I did use native ads, and they have 10x clickthrough, so 0.5%. Average cost per click is $0.58. In total, the optimistic estimate is:\[5000 \times 0.5\% \times \$0.58 = \$14.50\]
Sure, that’s some money. However, ads also come at a cost to readership. Based on analysis by Gwern, running ads drops views by about 10%, and a drop of that size has been replicated independently across several organizations.
So really, the question is, would I rather earn at most $14.50 a month (likely much less), or would I rather have 500 more readers? Seems pretty clearly in favor of the readers side to me.
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If finance has taught me anything, it’s that you can always take the inverse of a bet. If I value readers more than money, why don’t I pay money to run ads to direct people to my site?
At first, I thought it was dumb and stupid, but when I thought about it more I realized I didn’t have a good argument for why it was dumb, and I needed to take it seriously. I have free unclaimed AdWords credit, which Google offers to new accounts. Ads would increase viewership. They wouldn’t even affect the reader experience, because the ads would be on other people’s sites, not my own.
I think the main problem is that ads don’t really work for a personal blog. If your blog has a specific focus, you can advertise towards that specific form of content. My blog deliberately has no focus besides the things I want to write about, and I have no interest in changing that. There’s no clear search queries I’d want to sponsor. If someone searches my name, they find this site with ease (the benefits of having a novel last name), so it’s not like I need to pay for better placement. As for a banner ad, I don’t even know what image I would use. It’s like asking me to come up with a picture that summarizes my entire life.
There also could be follow-on effects, where someone views my blog differently if they clicked a sponsored link to get there. For example, I lost all trust in mattress recommendation websites after learning how online mattress advertising works. Most importantly, you can pay for views, but the rate isn’t great. At the previously mentioned price of $0.58 per click, a budget of $14.50/month only leads to 25 clicks per month. Much worse than the 500 views sacrificed if I did it the other way around! In retrospect, given how ads work, the price per click has to be based on the revenue of the products people advertise, and if I don’t sell anything, I’m priced out by everyone who does.
Given that I’ve never ever seen an ad for a personal blog, it probably doesn’t make sense to do so. Still, fun exercise to think through.
Once, a friend asked me what I expected to happen in the next 10 years. When I made my best guess, he observed that it sounded like I was narrating the work of other people, rather than placing myself in the narrative.
I’d say this is one of the main mental blocks I’ve been working on.
Normally, I mentally bucket everything into two categories: things I can change, and things I can’t. If I can’t change something, it’s not worth thinking about, so I push it out of my mind. Then I just focus on the things that are under my control and do the best I can.
And I mean, this isn’t an awful strategy. It works fantastically for video games. You can’t change how video games work. Everyone gets the same source code, and although there might be exploits within that code, you can’t change the code itself. The systems of the game are God, and what happens happens. If you have disagreements with a game’s systems, you’re better off finding another game instead of trying to change them.
In the real world, the systems are not God. They could be fair or cruel, well-reasoned or nonsensical, but they aren’t static. We made those systems, and we can change them too. Sometimes I forget that and overoptimize according to rules that shouldn’t exist.
I think some people don’t have this issue. They have some base level of arrogance that if the world doesn’t work the way they think it should, then they’ll spend their time trying to change the world until it aligns with their expectations.
Here is an example: suppose there’s a person that only cares about squirrels. They think they’re super neat, and want more! They want squirrels everywhere.
Most people do not care about squirrels. The world is not set up to reward squirrel enthusiasm. And this hypothetical person could accept that the world just doesn’t work the way they want it to, and go on their merry way, and honestly, their life will probably be just fine. Alternatively, they could write essays and give speeches and cold-email environmentalists explaining why squirrels are excellent. This will probably piss off a bunch of people who don’t want to listen to the crazy squirrel advocate give Yet Another Squirrel Stump Speech, but it’ll drum up support too. Maybe their dreams of a squirrel-filled world will come true. Maybe they won’t. But no one can say they didn’t try to make the world care more about squirrels.
Yes, okay, this is a silly example. However, to me the broad strokes describe pretty much every successful political movement. At its core, politics is a contest over how the world should work.
Basically, if the status quo sucks, you don’t have to just complain about it with your friends. I mean, you should totally still complain about it. Complaining is fun, and if you have friends that push back on your BS, you’ll learn if your complaints are justified. But after you’re done with that, you can (and should) take agency to fix it. Like, actually fix it. Don’t stop after you come up with the first reason things can’t be better. Or the second, or third.
My guess is that most people reading this have more power than they realize. Not every battle is worth fighting, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the battles you could be fighting.