Exciting news: I now have a Twitter account (@biancasteele66)! If all goes well, this post should appear there automatically!
This is the last day of school in Framingham, since we only had two snow days this year—last year the district was threatening to run school into July. The main library has reopened, as of last week; it had been closed since February, when a fire started during work on the building. The new branch library opened in April, with a lot more space (the old building wasn’t much bigger than the first floor of my house), though I’d kind of liked the way the jammed-in nature of the children’s room made it easy to find things. The building next to the library, which dates from the nineteenth century and houses an art museum and school, a music and performing arts school, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, has recently been declared uninhabitable and will be closed on September 1. The various schools that were damaged by burst pipes and flooding over February vacation will hopefully all be repaired before then. The biggest of the bridges that led to the old mill area in the Saxonville section (and to the old branch library) has been re-opened after only a year and a half.
I see I’ve gotten a lot of page views in the past couple of days. I guess the things that get attention are (a) writing about science fiction, and (b) getting into a fight at Crooked Timber.
I started this blog while I was on bed rest while pregnant with my daughter. It was something to do besides reading and felt more productive than just reading and listening to the radio, and slightly more productive than either posting comments or writing drafts of things nobody would see. I didn’t have enough time to write anything polished or long, but I did have lots of time to listen to NPR and to think.
When my daughter was small, I had blocks of time that were just the right size for writing the things I had time to write about. Now that she’s in school, I have larger blocks of time that could be filled with things that are more productive, or that call for more reading, revision, and thought. I don’t want to write about things that could identify her or the school she goes to. I also don’t want to post about medical issues that are taking up my time, about the brand of shoe I bought that seems to help, the various pieces of amateur medical advice I’d give a friend face-to-face with the understanding that I’m not a doctor, how boring my physical therapy is.
People use blogs in different ways now than they did eight years ago. Facebook and Twitter are now bigger than they were when I started. Reddit and the chan systems are, too. Online versions of print publications are now taken much more seriously than they were eight or ten years ago, and online-only publications have become much more mature. Blogs are now respectable ways for professionals, as well as commercial entities, to communicate in a serious way; indeed, they’re often mandatory. Writing online isn’t mostly a hobby anymore, but a way for young professionals to break into the business. Book and film blogs that started out small are now increasingly professionalized. Bloggy subcultures have hardened along professional lines or turned into youth subcultures. Much of the vibrancy that remains in the general atmosphere is devoted to outrage culture of one kind or another, whether GamerGate and its like, or the prosecution of various political campaigns. What this means is that I don’t really want to post about my take on an analysis published by some twenty-something on some social or political issue; I don’t want to write about books or movies in the ways currently done on the existing fan and book-culture sites; I don’t want to spend my time researching men’s-rights groups so I can get angry about them.
The few dozen silent readers of this blog, and the somewhat minimal page views (hopefully, soon, no longer to be inflated by the annoying automatic systems that try to get blog owners to click through and sign up for their services) are appreciated but it is entirely opaque to me what they take from my writing.
I looked at Twitter last week to see if it might be worth signing up for it, and found that the writers I might most want to follow spent a lot of time, much more time than I cared to spend reading, posting about cats and jokes and what they did the night before. Or rambling about topics they have no expertise in. It seems like a good way to build a personal brand, if you wanted to do that, and a mediocre way to recreate some of what Usenet used to be: without any promise of being more satisfying than Usenet ever was, and with extra tools for ostentatiously enforcing cliques and in-groups. Those who don’t partake in that part of the online universe, conversely, seem too often under the spell oftheories about their sub rosa participation in a worldwide logos via double-secret apprenticeship to Great Thinkers they’ve never met (and, too often, with trying to enforce a boys-only and perhaps a white-Christians-only rule without anybody much noticing).
Maria Farrell wrote today (discussing the shooting of the English M.P.) that
writing is just another narcissistic act in an aggressively subjective culture.
I don’t think I’d go that far. It isn’t subjectivity that I see being enforced, by and large. True, it can be hard to tell the difference. But to the extent writing is narcissistic (whatever that means) it seems, to me, the existence of an audience makes writing less so. Feedback makes a difference. (And also lack of feedback. And assuming the audience isn’t reacting overtly in such a negative way as to turn continued writing into, itself, a sheer assertion of will for its own sake. And keeping in mind the overwhelming mass of Internet verbiage that consists of telling other people to “grow up”: to learn precisely the lessons the writer herself or himself has already learned.) But the question is, is it more “narcissistic” to write about one’s reading and show it to nobody, perhaps for years, even without any likely prospect of ever finishing it, or to publish that writing before it’s ready, just to get it “out there”?
 For obvious reasons, I’ve always had a back-of-the-mind feeling that “White Wedding” and “Sister Christian” are the same song, and I have to hum them both to myself to be certain they’re not.
It is now officially dark enough during the day that I like to turn on the Christmas tree before the school bus gets here in the afternoon, for the extra light. Only a month ago I was thinking of writing about how the leaves had suddenly all fallen off the trees in the week after Halloween, when I’d been hoping to get out and enjoy the sunny weather and fall foliage after I’d finished the rest of my October tasks (and let my ankle heal a little bit more), and now had missed my chance. Now I have to find something to wear for a holiday party, when I’ve bought very little new clothes since my daughter was born, and almost nothing dressy, and probably also get my hair cut, and sign up for volunteering and buy gifts and so on.
A little while ago I visited the Columbia campus with my family, where I hadn’t been in several years. I discovered the following places, surprisingly, are still there:
Koronet Pizza, my favorite place for getting two slices for two dollars, probably the best dinner deal around except on those Sundays when Whoppers were 99 cents.
Logos Bookstore no longer has the same name but is still a bookstore.
Amir’s Middle Eastern restaurant, which had changed its tables and chairs.
Häagen-Dazs. At the time, gourmet brand ice cream were new. I always liked Häagen-Dazs better than Ben & Jerry’s, which you found more of in New England, though the fad for those stores has faded a little.
UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve gone back and forth on this, but finally decided that Columbia Housewares is on the same corner where Columbia Hardware used to be (where we all trooped down during freshman orientation to buy desk lamps after seeing how poor the dorm lighting was), and therefore is probably the same store.
There are some honking big new buildings in the physics corner of the campus, and little tables and chairs in front of the engineering building near biology, which along with the scary Le Mineur statue being raised on a plinth and surrounded by shrubberies (also, I guess, the opening of the space behind the new business building, which was a construction site most of the time I was there), makes that corner much less scary and isolated.
(This post is going to have a kind of hypertext feel to it, with two different versions overlaid, one on top of the other, due to the length of time I took writing it.)
I’ve I had been trying to post every couple of days, and see if I can keep up the pace. I missed a day when I went out of town for the weekend, and another day over Halloween weekend, and this week it’s been four eight days since my last post instead of two (and as I’m writing this, I’m not certain I’ll actually finish it today).
I think it was two years ago that I posted about the fact that this is probably the busiest time of year for me, or at least it feels that way. (“This” meaning October/November, when I started writing this. November/December is the busiest time of year for a lot of women, I think. This is the time when magazines that encourage women to put a lot of effort into things, the rest of the year, start chiding their readers for trying too hard.) At my daughter’s school and elsewhere, the October and November calendars are full of school activities, at night and on weekends, with volunteer opportunities (which too often I remember after the deadlines have passed), for Halloween parties, fall festivals, holiday dinners for the needy. There are holidays and birthdays to get ready for, seasonal clothes shopping to do, last year’s clothes to try on. This year there were broken household appliances and a badly sprained ankle, and physical therapy to be done. The hours when my daughter’s at school pass surprisingly quickly, and what kind of things it’s possible to get done after school, when she’s at home, vary from day to day.
So I knew this was the time when that posting schedule would most likely break down, if it would. And as time goes on, I start wanting to do something that will take longer to write, and would have to be balanced with banging out three or four five-hundred page word posts a week, to maintain that pace. But hopefully I will have more again soon . . .
Well. In the two days since I put up that last post, traffic has been very significantly higher than usual. Is there a connection between the two events?
Between 9:00 and 10:00 this morning, there were nine clicks on what’s by far my most popular post, the one on Ray Bradbury’s story, “All Summer in a Day.” Yesterday there were at least a dozen clicks on the same post (as well as several on other posts—thanks!). This story is apparently taught to middle school students in US-run schools all over the world, so that’s not so surprising, and based on TypePad stats (assuming these are accurate) I get references from search engines in a wide range of different countries. It’s also not unusual for the Bradbury post to get several extra clicks (statistically speaking) apparently through search engines, right after I put up a new post on a different topic, while the new post gets one or two or none—though I haven’t done a real analysis and this might be an observer effect. Eight downloads in less than five minutes, from the same Google search, is a little odd, though. What could I attribute it to? Who would click on the same old post several times, as a result of the appearance of a different post? Why? Is there a connection between my discussion about traffic and the generation of extra traffic? How could that be, when as far as I know, nobody read that discussion? It’s probably a coincidence.
This blog gets an average of between five and 10 clicks a day. The number goes up occasionally, when someone clicks around the blog a while and looks at different pages or at the archive, or when I post a comment to a different and more popular blog on a broadly appealing topic like science fiction. It goes down during universities’ winter break and during the summer, and then eventually increases again throughout September and into October. Traffic seems to have increased slightly since I started the blog, nearly four and a half years ago.
Those statistics come from TypePad’s basic statistics function, which tells me what pages people viewed, what other page linked to those pages (if any: usually this is Google Reader, a search engine, or a comment thread on a more popular blog), and at what time. It doesn’t tell me the IP addresses of the people who clicked, or how long they continued looking at the page. I could install Google Analytics and get some more information, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I’d have to set up an account with them, I think, and poke around to see how to use the tool, and from what I’ve seen, Google Analytics can slow web page loading.
I also use FeedBurner. A couple of years ago, I switched the link at the side of the blog to allow the RSS feed to go through FeedBurner, instead of using the feed supplied by TypePad directly. FeedBurner has some additional stats, which have also gone up very slightly over time. Right now, it reports between 35 and 40 subscribers using RSS readers, plus between 15 and 25 subscribers using browsers. The split between different applications varies, and it seems unlikely that anyone is switching back and forth between Firefox and Chrome from one day to the next, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the numbers are slightly higher than that. There’s also a smattering of spiders and search engine builders. Anyone who gets at the feed before it goes through FeedBurner isn't collected in those numbers (as far as I know, there's no way to get that kind of data, the people subscribing to and reading a raw RSS feed, much less their identifying data). And it's possible that there are ways of reading the blog that bypass all these statistics-gathering mechanisms entirely, which I'd learn about if I really researched how to build and promote a blog, but which I don't know about, so conceivably a handful more. Sixty people on the entire World Wide Web who are looking at the blog isn’t really a lot, but as an increase from thirty a year ago, on a blog that’s really only a hobby (or at most an experiment), it’s mildly satisfying.
BUT. Experimenting with releasing only excerpts on my RSS feed has had exactly ZERO effect on the numbers above. (I’m currently releasing only excerpts, but I’ve switched this back and forth a few times.) This means either that nobody is actually reading the posts, or that there’s a way to get around the excerpts-only mechanism. As a matter of fact, from fooling around with a family member’s iPod Touch, I seem to remember, Google Reader (which made the blog much more readable than the default browser settings did) displayed the entire post without going into a separate browser app, regardless of the “excerpts” setting. And it occurs to me that everyone one of those subscribers could all be scripts, for all I know. There may be ways to figure out how best to use these features and how to distinguish between different users’ ways of accessing them, but finding those ways turns out to exceed the available Quality Assurance/Systems Engineering budget and personnel schedule.
MOREOVER. For a while the number of subscribers to this blog used to go up dramatically, to judge from FeedBurner’s stats, the day after I put up a new post, though it would drop back down again the next day. This was incredibly gratifying. But at some point, it stopped. In fact, at least three times, the day after I put up a new post, the number of subscribers dropped to zero, only to rise again the next day to exactly the point it had been at before. This is almost certainly a bug in FeedBurner, and not real data. In fact, it’s actually possible that FeedBurner detected a sudden increase, assumed it was “noise” or in some other way fake, and tried to compensate for it—but in compensating for what it assumed wasn’t real data, threw out all the data available. It might even be the case that the data really was fake. I used to see similarly transient, extremely high spikes in usage—up to 100 or more in a single day—from the basic TypePad statistics. In some cases these spikes were easily traceable to some script or other that seemed intended to drive up usage. In other cases they might have been legitimate attempts to randomly select new blog posts and increase their visibility. I don’t see these anymore at all. But the fact that I can no longer see subscriber statistics that might result from a new post is frustrating.
ALSO. I guess everybody knows that Google Reader is going away: Google won't be improving it or fixing bugs, and at some point won't be providing the service on their end anymore. There have been rumors that FeedBurner is going away, too. The FeedBurner API, which I think permitted more detailed stats than what’s available on the basic dashboard page, is now unsupported, and TypePad no longer offers the option I used a couple of years ago to provide the FeedBurner feed in place of the basic RSS feed. Apparently the intermittent “zero statistics” bug is one people have been seeing for a while, and at some point last fall, for some customers, FeedBurner ceased to work entirely. I’ve put the link for the vanilla feed back on the side of the page.
Upshot: For you: if you’re using FeedBurner to get an RSS feed for this blog, you might want to re-subscribe, to the RSS/Atom feed, using the link labeled Subscribe to this blog's feed that’s now on the side of the main site page.
For me: I seem to have a choice of believing there are a few dozen readers of this blog (at least potential readers of any given post), or the half dozen I actually know about. This isn’t a complaint. It’s only a hobby, after all. But it makes me feel ridiculous to be giving advice about getting an RSS feed, if the actual RSS “subscribers” are in fact bots.
Thus ends the first summer after my daughter’s first year of preschool (preschool). It’s funny how suddenly it feels like fall. It’s funny, too, how much difference a year makes, how much difference there is between almost three and almost four. I’ve been compelling her to rest for an hour or so every afternoon—she rests with books and music, and lately hasn’t been lying down even a little bit—since she suddenly stopped napping late last fall. It seems like time, now, to do more activities and errands in the afternoon, but I don’t want her to forget about “quiet time,” for the days when she needs it. Or when I need it. It’s also funny how much I was relying on having two hours or more, most days, when I could decompress. An hour is barely long enough to have a cup of coffee and a surreptitious unhealthy, unshared snack, much less a nap of my own.
On the other hand, now we begin the classes where I sit outside in a lobby or in the hall, instead of going inside and playing with her. We had one of those in the summer (plus swim class—which is so much easier when I don’t have to change afterward, too—but where the parents still sit by the pool and watch). It was very restful. At the beginning I got a lot of reading done, and later I managed to finish some writing. But then things happened. I got sick, and my daughter got sick and missed a class, and then came the two and a half “quiet” weeks at the end of August when all the classes are over and there’s nothing at all going on.
So now that it’s September, there will be a couple of those, and an extra morning of school, and—except when I have to go to the dentist, or work out, or do some extra shopping—I should have an extra half hour to an hour, sometimes more, to get some writing done. Only somewhat canceled out by the looming end to all naps, and my daughter’s newfound wish to cook absolutely everything in the cookbooks she’s found.
After finishing a few novels at the beginning of the summer, during that downtime, I noticed a pattern in what I was reading. I decided to continue that pattern for the summer, and read only books that were written by people who live in the Boston area. And after finishing that project, I decided to catch up on some blog posts, especially about my reading, before I start reading any new fiction. (The long-promised post on women’s Templar novels! Maybe even chapter three of Bright-Sided.)
I can sometimes dash off a blog post in an hour or so, plus a little time for polishing, but only if I’ve been thinking about it all day and know exactly what I want to write. If I only kind of know what I want to say, I need at least another hour to write it out. And more complicated ideas, or something that requires notes and thoughts and outlining, obviously, takes much longer.
So a not-too-long post about a movie I’ve recently seen, based on my thoughts about it over the weekend, is fairly easy to dash off. Something about a book, which I may have been thinking about over weeks, requires a little more organization. Right now I have a few enormous Word documents that contain uncategorized notes on my reading, unfiled ideas, and notes and drafts for new blog posts, but I’m trying a new way of organizing these. Hopefully, I’ll be able to separate better things that are close to being finished from things that need a lot more work, and to try to keep track of things I want to spend a lot more time reading, without relying either on huge numbers of open browser tabs or on wall-shaped clumps of links interspersed with drafts.