The Best Blogs Are Very Good

From It’s Raining Noodles:

Before the next batch of snapshots and corresponding captions [on a screen at a fast food restaurant in Singapore] were revealed, a simple message against a plain background read, “To all the great and wonderful mothers out there…” as a sort of enigmatic prelude to the marvels to come, and because I am a cynical bitch with a very gloomy worldview, I asked out loud, “What about the other mothers?” To which Maria put on an affected frown as if she’d been hurt that her loved one was being left out by the onscreen message, and gleefully responded, “What about MY mom?”

More. Not to mention this:

The past three hours can only be adequately described by the word SIGH. Thinking that I was taking a step towards improving my relationship with God, no this is not a long preachy thing so please stay with me, I agreed to sit through a session thingy with a very Christian Mrs. In-Law and a very reluctant Neptune. . . . The sharing session was led by a heterosexual couple (why I am highlighting the heterosexual part will become evident later), and it was interesting because they had a different take on the religion from most that I’ve heard. In many ways it felt like a lecture in literature class, and for the most part I enjoyed it because of the different perspectives on the same ol’ concepts. . . . The only revelation for me, though, arrived when the female half of the heterosexual couple went on to preach that God gives up on people who insist on pursuing sin, such as idolatry and YES YOU GUESSED IT, homosexuality. She was all, “YES, HOMOSEXUALITY IS WRONG! God has given up on people like that.”

And I realised in that moment that God had probably just punished me by making me sit through three hours of this thingy thinking that MAYBE I had a shot at heaven when actually? ACTUALLY? NO CHANCE AT ALL. God has abandoned me to begin with right from the start. I’m damned forever. So I looked at Neptune and said, “God has given up on us!” and I was very sad. I find it very difficult to wrap my head around exactly why I deserve to go straight to hell when all I’ve done is fall in love with another person.

Blog Power (three parts)

Part 1

Irena Briganti is a widely-feared Fox VP of media relations:

Though one of Briganti’s favorite pastimes is leaking to blogs, she’ll come to find that her detractors can do the same thing just as easily. Blogs are far less likely to cower in the face of a threat of “denied access.”

 Part 2

Before I became a blogger, I spent my entire 20’s trying to become an academic (English and critical theory was my focus). While I struggled to produce a handful of conference papers or publishable articles during that decade, in my four years as a blogger I have published about 4,400 articles that have received about 50,000,000 direct page views, 46,000 incoming links, and over 100 Lexis Nexus mentions. Had I stayed in academic, none of this would have been possible, and I would have continued to receive an endless series of rejections from the gatekeepers. The “experts” that Appell describes did not see the same value in my writing huge numbers of other people clearly have.

From Chris Bowers.

Part 3

Yoely made some compromises. He miscalculated, however, when he wired his home with Internet access. “He thought, If I give her this, then she’ll shut up and be satisfied,” Gitty says.

“Once I read blogs from people who had gotten out of places like KJ, there was no turning back. Yoely begged me to stay. It is humiliating for a Satmar man to have his wife leave him. But it was too late,” says Gitty, who would start her own blog, 1 Beautiful Stranger, where she wrote about her misplaced life in Kiryas Joel.

From New York.

The Difference Between Being Fat and Not Fat

I have never read a better description of the difference between being fat and not fat:

I had a gastric bypass and ate 750-1000 calories of liquid meal replacement a day. I had complications and couldn’t swallow food.  I lost over a hundred pounds.  I regained it over a number of years.  Once I lost weight and was normal, my life did change for the better.  It’s the only reason I had my child.  For the first and only time in my life it was easy to have people in my life.  People wanted to be around me.  I had boyfriends who treated me well for the first and only time in my life.  I got married.  All this happened very quickly and easily with no effort on my part.  Being fat is completely different.  I think the way people treat a fat person is similar to being disfigured or in a wheelchair with your legs cut off. In many instances it is better to be dead than to be this fat.

From an anonymous blogger who weighs about 280 pounds. She isn’t trying to sell anything, make a journalistic or academic point, appear to be this or that. The post goes on:

My daughter had a fat friend over for a sleep over the other day. It’s the second fat friend she’s ever had over.  The difference between these girls and the thinner girls is striking.  The fat girls are obsessed with food. They are more driven to eat, more interested in food, more hungry than the thinner girls.  The thin girls are interested in food far less. It’s not that they are better than the fat girls, they are simply less hungry.  My daughter first fat friend got up all through the night to raid our refrigerator.  This child acted as if she were starving.  She ate until she was literally ill and threw up on the sleeping bags.  Then later she peed on my daughter.  My daughter is fastidious and she was completely revolted.  That was the end of the friendship.

I came across this because she is trying the Shangri-La Diet.

Bloggers Can Say the Truth

As I blogged earlier, Tyler Cowen said that on his blog he can say what he really thinks, unlike other economists, who are often unable to say what they really think. Here is another example of the same thing from a blogger who writes about stuttering:

At least four [researchers] have told me that they try not to provoke or openly criticize work by a big name [researcher], because they are scared of having a paper rejected or getting no funding. Actually, they like me because I say what they do not [dare] to say [for] political reasons! So view my blog also as the voices of some in the research community!

This blogger isn’t a researcher so his situation isn’t the same as Tyler’s. But my point is the same: Blogs allow uncomfortable truths to be said that otherwise would not be said.

In the past this was much harder. To say some uncomfortable truth about this or that field of expertise (such as stuttering research or economics), the truth-speaker had to be (a) close enough to the field to understand it (which usually omitted journalists, with a few exceptions, such as Gary Taubes and John Crewdson) and yet (b) outside the field, so as to not suffer professional damage. There was also the problem of publicizing the uncomfortable truth. These requirements were hard to meet. Richard Feynman’s O-ring demonstration was a rare example where they were. Feynman knew what he was talking about yet was outside the industry, so he could say what insiders could not. (His criticism came from insiders.) Saul Sternberg’s and my criticism of Ranjit Chandra is another example. We knew enough about the sort of data Chandra had collected to criticize the work but were outside nutrition so we could say what we wanted to without risking professional harm.

A Philip Weiss example.

Blogging: Megaphone and Microscope

If I had said to someone twenty years ago, “In twenty years there will be a way for you to say what you really think about everything related to your job, with a big audience” they would have looked at me as if I were crazy. Now, as Tyler Cowen pointed out, that’s actually the case, thanks to blogs. It’s a kind of psychological miracle. It’s due to technology, sure, but the achievement is essentially psychological.

It’s not the only psychological miracle that blogging provides. Consider this account of being in a mental hospital:

K, so since the night I got there, I would get a whiff of this nasty smell. It ‘s hard to describe, it was just nasty and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.
One day, I’m in my room with two roommates and I smell it.
“There it is again!” I yelled.
“It always smells like this.” The older lady said.
“OmG, you’ve been here so long, you’re used to it,” I said, repulsed. However, I still couldn’t figure out where it came from. Some times I would smell it, then go back to that same place and it would be gone. It was making me (excuse the pun) feel like I was going crazy.
After using the bathroom, I went to wash my hands. Maybe it was the soap? No.
Later, I took a shower and sniffed the shampoo that came out of the pump on the wall.
It was the friggin shampoo! No wonder I got a whiff here and a whiff there. Everyone in the building (32 people) had that crap in their hair!

Vivid, easy to read, even enjoyable to read. Now you know a little — very little, but more than zero — about what it’s like to be in such a place. I read Girl, Interrupted. Lots of movies include scenes in mental hospitals — as stylized as a Dove ad. I didn’t see Titicut Follies. Maybe Sylvia Plath wrote about it, I don’t know. It’s been nearly impossible — or actually impossible — to get an accurate idea of what it’s like to be in a mental hospital without actually visiting one. But now it is.

The Greatness of Mondoweiss

Day after day I read Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss’s blog, even though his main subject — Israeli treatment of Palestinians, how this is enabled by Jewish Americans, what a mistake that is — is not something I read about elsewhere or think about when I’m not reading Mondoweiss. It would be too self-congratulatory to say now I care more about it but it is undeniable that now I know a lot more about it. Without any effort at all.

It’s like a really great column in a newspaper or magazine except it’s much better than that: Weiss can write anything he wants at any length at any time, unlike any columnist. The whole thing has a raw and impassioned and narrow and personal aspect unlike any column I’ve ever read. And it’s so easy to read, even though it’s unfamiliar and complicated. Here’s an example why:

I heard a crushing story about Aaron David Miller. He’s from Cleveland and a big Jewish family. He went to a synagogue there recently and spoke from the pulpit and said, The problem’s simple, two peoples fighting for a disputed piece of land, there will have to be a compromise. There was dead silence in the synagogue and the rabbi came up and said, “In Numbers 34, God promised the land of Israel to Moses, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean….”

What a chilling story.

Before There Was News, There Was Gossip

Did the professionalization of science — people could make a living doing science — cause harm because although more science was done scientists — the professional ones — were no longer free to pursue the truth in any direction? Because their jobs and status were at stake? It’s plausible. Recall that Mendel and Darwin were amateurs. A more recent example is Alister Hardy, the Oxford professor who conceived the aquatic ape theory of evolution. He didn’t pursue it because he feared loss of reputation. The more sophisticated conclusion, I suppose, isn’t that professionalization was bad but that loss of diversity was bad. We need both amateur and professional scientists because each can do stuff the other can’t. Right now we only have professional ones. No one encourages amateur science; there is no way they can publish their work. (Unless, like Elaine Morgan, who wrote several books about the aquatic ape theory, you’re a professional writer.)

These thoughts were prompted by this remarkable blog post, which has nothing to do with science. What an amazing piece of writing, I thought. I don’t even agree with it, and here I am staring at it. A work of genius? No, lots of blog posts are really good. This one was merely better than most. Would something this brazen and effective appear in any major magazine, newspaper, TV show, radio ad, etc.? No, not even. Do we realize that, all these years, stuff like this has been missing from our media consumption? No, we don’t. Before there was news, there was gossip, I realized; news (such as newspapers) was a kind of professionalization of gossip. The blog post I admired was a bit of riveting creative gossip. Blogs are just new-fangled gossip. Bloggers are endlessly scandalized, indignant, judgmental, just as gossips are. Just as gossip is usually “passed on,” most blog posts have links and many posts consist almost entirely of “passing on” something. Just as gossip can be anything, bloggers can say what they really think, as Tyler Cowen pointed out. That’s why they’re so successful, so easy to write and read. Gossip is good for our mental ecology, just as science is. Mark Liberman’s Language Log blog is a blend of (good) gossip and science; as you can see from my interview with him, it filled a gap. I hope blogs will provide a kind of support structure on which amateur science can grow.

Interview with Mark Liberman about Blogging

Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs at Language Log. Recently I asked him a few questions about blogging.

ROBERTS Why did you start Language Log?

LIBERMAN Several reasons. First, I had started reading blogs and enjoyed them. Second, I was spending quite a bit of time exchanging email with friends. They were like long-distance dinner-table conversations. Each email was a couple of paragraphs. I was spending quite a bit of time on that. It was interesting and fun, a way of keeping up with friends and former colleagues. I realized that many of these emails were close to blog entries that might be interesting to a wider audience. Some of them could have been blog entries. I thought to myself: If there was a weblog, instead of sending this to 1 or 2 people I could put it on the weblog and send a link to those people. Third, I had felt for a long time that linguistics, in our current culture, was in an historically atypical and irrational place. Almost nobody learned about linguistics, got any intellectual information about language. It was undertaught to the general public. It has been valued much more in the past. Now we’re in a situation where many English professors have never taken a course that teaches anything about the analysis of language. They don’t know how to do it. One small way to improve that situation would be to put stuff out there that people could read.

ROBERTS How has blogging affected you?

LIBERMAN Three things. First and most important, I’ve met — mostly digitally — a large number of people that I would never otherwise have met. They send me email. If I look over my email logs, there are probably 5 or 10 people that I correspond with frequently whom I’ve met that way. Most of them are not linguists; I wouldn’t have met them otherwise. Some of them are not even academics. Second, it has allowed me to influence the conversation inside linguistics and related fields in a way that I hadn’t really expected. It wasn’t my motivation. I’ve always thought of writing for people outside the field. Issues that I’ve raised within the field, including how the field ought to view itself, people respond to. I was invited to give a plenary talk at the Linguistics Society of America meeting about the status of the field in academia. I had blogged about such things. Third, I get a lot of calls from journalists asking me to comment about this or that. A lot of things they ask me to comment on I don’t know about. It made me someone that journalists call.

ROBERTS How have your views about blogging changed since you started Language Log?

LIBERMAN There is a spectrum of blogs; some are just sets of links — minimal comment and a link. When I started I thought that was what I was going to do, along with email-to-friends kind of pieces. Along the way I learned that a blog entry is a good way for me to learn things. If there’s something that I’m interested in, I may write a blog-like essay about it. I compose quite a few blog entries that I never publish. When I’m working through some ideas, I often organize my thoughts an awful lot like an blog entry. Like an annotated bibliography but with more structure. I don’t publish some of those things because I don’t think the general audience of Language Log would be interested in them. They’re too difficult. They take the form of an extended blog entry — links plus evaluation and discussion but more informal than a paper. Very helpful in organizing my thoughts. I read some things, put in some links, quotes, weave it all together into some structure. I produce an html document. It’s a way of taking notes. Something I do at the very beginning of an intellectual enterprise. A journal article is what you do at the end. For example, I’ve become interested in auditory texture. I’ve been composing a few things that are like weblog entries.

Once a month or so I try to do what I call a breakfast experiment. Some issue has come up in the world that I want to comment on. There’s an experiment that I wouldn’t want to submit to a journal. Better than an anecdote. For example, a few months ago somebody wrote that a journalist who had been living in Japan had been learning girl Japanese. Is it true that there is more gender difference in pitch in Japanese than in other languages? At the Linguistic Data Consortium we had conversations in many languages, including Japanese and English. I could select appropriate conversations, throw values into R, look at quantiles. (There were a few issues you’d want to clean up for a journal article.) I got up early, set up scripts, made coffee, had cereal, plotted quantiles. By 7:30 am I had some pictures. It was true that there was more gender polarization in pitch in Japanese than in English. The analysis involved 18 Japanese conversations and a similar number of English conversations.

I had been abstractly aware for a long time that there’s a lot of value in doing experiments on published data. One of the problems in doing empirical linguistics has been that gathering data takes a lot longer than anything else. For English we’ve now got about 10,000 extemporaneous telephone conversations, with demographic info about the speakers. I thought of experiments on that sort of data where someone had to spend a lot of time gathering the data, but once it’s gathered and published, there are a lot of ideas that you can try out very quickly.

How Things Begin (I Got UGGs!)

Mohamed Ibrahim, the New York schoolteacher who does Behind The Approval Matrix (which I have blogged about) also has a blog called I Got UGGs!. I asked him how the Ugg blog began. Here’s what he said:

I have a fetish about Uggs. Whenever I see a girl wearing Uggs, it’s the sexiest thing in the world to me. It drives me crazy. You know how they say “do what you love and the money will come later”? I read an article in Time about bloggers and blogging. One of the blogs they profiled was by two ladies who post pictures of kittens and cats and write little blurbs about them. This gave me an idea: I’ll do the same thing about girls in Ugg boots. They got $5-6000/month from ads and all they do is post pics and write blurbs about them. I’ll take pics of girls wearing Uggs. Not only will I enjoy it but maybe I can also make some money. I went to Best Buy, got the cheapest digital camera, and hit the streets. The first place I went was Times Square. Initially I would approach people and ask them if I could take their pic for the blog. I discovered later it’s better to just take the pic and put it up. That’s what I do now. Now I get people sending me pics — they take a picture of their friends or they send me pics of celebrities. We’re getting over 500 page views/day. It’s only been about 4 months.

The Gawker link Mohamed got by telling them some crazy guy was taking Ugg pics and blogging about it.

Tyler Cowen on Blogging

“I can say what I really think,” said Tyler about blogging a few days ago. Not only that, (a) this truth-speaking is on a topic he cares about, (b) what he says is based on considerable knowledge (what an ignorant person “really thinks” about something isn’t helpful), and (c) a lot of people listen. This is a potent mix.

The magic of blogging is that when you start you can tell the truth because no one is listening. With zero audience, it makes sense — it feels good — to tell the truth. If you are an expert like Tyler, this sort of thing is irresistible to readers (economics confidential) so your audience grows. Now it is too late to start censoring yourself; people are reading your blog because you tell the truth.

Tyler’s blog.

Useless Data and Me

Odd Numbers, an excellent blog by Jubin Zelveh at, recently listed a few findings from the American Time Use Survey, which is in danger of being ended. They included:

– First-born children receive 20 to 30 minutes more quality time each day from parents than second-born children.

– Married couples have very little influence over each other when it comes to how much time each spends on leisure, child care, and chores.

A comment was:

Valuable information?

You can’t be serious. What can possibly be done by anybody about these “observations”?

This seems like a welfare program for economists.

Time use data — from 13 countries, including America — had a huge effect on my research and I suppose my life, since I applied my research to my life. The time use data I’m referring to showed that Americans were awake an hour later than people in the 12 other countries. They also watched TV an hour later. In other words, America was an outlier in two distributions: time of going to sleep, and time of stopping TV watching. I knew about research that showed that exposure to other people controls when we sleep. The time use data suggested that watching TV can substitute for ordinary human contact in the control of when we sleep. I wondered if seeing faces in the morning would improve my sleep; so I tried watching late-night TV early in the morning (via tape). I did that on a Monday morning. On Tuesday morning, I felt exceptionally good. Thus began the self-experimentation behind my pretty-face post. My best work. (The self-experimentation, not the post.)

Thanks to Marginal Revolution.

The Greatness of Behind The Approval Matrix

What I like most about magazines is their ability to open new worlds to me. Books — unless by Jane Jacobs — rarely do this. Music, TV, and movies almost never do this. Paintings and other visual arts never do this (to me). Magazines do this regularly. Entertainment Weekly — the best magazine with a dull name — tries to do this (and succeeds). I am now reading The Golden Compass because of EW. An issue of Colors made me visit Iceland. Spy made New York fascinating. (E.g., an NYC map of smells.) It’s the best kind of teaching: you open a door and make what’s inside seem so interesting and wonderful that the student voluntarily decides to enter and explore.

Which is why it isn’t completely surprising that Abu Ayyub Ibrahim, who writes Behind the Approval Matrix, is a teacher. New York magazine’s Approval Matrix has a wonderful way of introducing new things: with humor, poetry (if well-written short captions = poetry), a dash of outrage (calling stuff “despicable”), and an attractive layout. When it calls something Brilliant, I’m instantly curious — thus fulfilling the best function of magazines with remarkable ease. The problem for me, and I assume many others, is that the captions are often obscure. Behind the Approval Matrix — which might have been called The Annotated Approval Matrix — explains each item.

The creators of The Approval Matrix had a great idea and didn’t quite pull it off. It’s often too hard to figure out what they’re talking about. Ibrahim has supplied what is missing.

It’s a bit like my self-experimentation. Previous (conventional) research, for various reasons, couldn’t quite reach practical applications (e.g., omega-3 research couldn’t figure out the best dose); my self-experimentation, building on that research, was able to cover the final mile.

Blog Power (continued)

What Jonathan Schwarz calls “the Lost Kristol Tapes” is a taped debate between William Kristol (the new NY Times columnist) and Daniel Ellsberg about the invasion of Iraq. The debate was on C-Span’s Washington Journal, of which I have fond memories; I watched it for years to get morning faces for my self-experimentation. Schwarz called Kristol’s comments “a double album of smarm, horrifying ignorance, and bald-faced deceit.”

The debate has been watched about 5000 times. Three days ago, just before Schwarz’s piece, it had been watched four times, three by Schwarz himself. My long self-experimentation article would have been read by almost no one had not Andrew Gelman blogged about it. Now it’s been downloaded thousands of times.

More blog power: here and here.

Addendum. Funny coincidence: The day after I posted this, the formerly-obscure Wikileaks hit the news for a super-charged version of the same thing. Wikileaks exposed Cayman Island tax shelters.

More Blog Power

From the London Telegraph a few days ago:

Peter Hain has made history: his is the first British ministerial scalp to have been claimed by a blogger. Kudos, as the Americans say, to Guido Fawkes [a blogger], who first sighted his tomahawk at the Hain campaign 12 months ago when he posted Hain’s campaign strategy.

Hain’s crime was failure to declare campaign donations. A downfall timeline. “Guido sees himself as a journalist, a campaigning journalist who publishes via a blog. He campaigns against political sleaze and hypocrisy,” says Guido. His comparison of food allowances.

Blog Power

Philip Weiss:

It’s not just that the Times is spot-on about Giuliani’s character. It’s great to see a big newspaper take the gloves off and really let someone have it and not worry about sinking the guy’s campaign. The editorial wasn’t fair or balanced, but it for-damn-sure knew what it was talking about. I feel that the Times was influenced by the blogosphere in those rhetorical liberties, and I hope the trend continues. Can you imagine someone saying what they really think about the Israel lobby on the Op-Ed page, instead of saying what they’re supposed to be saying? Now that would be progress.

New Yorker abstract

On September 8th, two million people in two hundred and twenty cities across Italy celebrated V-Day, an unofficial new national holiday, the “V” signifying victory, vendetta, and, especially, “Vaffanculo” (“Fuck off”). The event had been organized by Beppe Grillo, Italy’s most popular comedian, to protest endemic corruption in the national government. . . . Grillo has galvanized Italians by talking about corruption with irreverence and humor”indeed, by talking about it at all. The country’s mainstream press is controlled, or owned outright, by political parties and corporations. Since 2005, Grillo has addressed the public primarily through his blog. . . .V-Day grew out of Clean Parliament, which Grillo launched in 2005, when he posted on his blog the names of the convicted criminals serving in parliament.