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by Jacob O'Bryant

Be indulgent

I 100% honestly was not planning to spend the entire week on this, but... my personal website has been renovated.

After my discussion of Michael Nielsen's post How to use a personal website to enhance your ability to think and create? three weeks ago, I started mulling over how I'd prefer my site to look and be structured. A week ago it reached what you might call the "boiling point"—I couldn't stop thinking about it and I had some concrete ideas about what I'd like to do. Every once in a long while I reach one of these boiling points with a particular idea, and I have a personal policy to "be indulgent" whenever that happens.

That's how my web framework Biff got started, in fact. I paused working on my then-current startup idea for several weeks while I implemented the first version. The indulgence paid off, too; Biff has long outlasted that startup idea and several that came after it. I often thought about how hilarious it was that Biff was probably a more valuable project than anything I built with it. (Things have evened out a little with The Sample and Yakread; those projects at least have been genuinely valuable.)

The importance of one's personal website

Anyway, back to the site: I see it as one of those important-but-not-urgent things. The website is a portal into my thinking and an invitation to collaborate. On the former, the big change is that the site is no longer structured as a chronological list of posts. Instead there are three main sections—My Projects, Unbundling Social Media, and Software Invention—which together encompass most of what I spend my work + thinking time on. Each of those pages has a short explanation with links to various essays that explore the ideas/projects in more depth (most of the essays are mine; some are external). They're glued together by the top-level Start Here section/home page, which also has various other links like the resume/work with me page.

The goal here is that someone who lands on my site (whether through a particular post or the home page) can quickly gain a broad understanding of the work I'm doing, enough to know if it's something they're interested in as well. And then if so, there are various actions they can take; whether it's simply subscribing to the newsletter, or emailing to say hi. It's a form of networking, particularly important when you work in a home office by yourself in an organization of one.

An unexpected effect of restructuring my site like this is that this newsletter feels easier to write. Rather than thinking of writing as "gotta write a new post each week," it feels more like... a piece of software, like Biff. I have a particular objective in mind (explaining my work), and I'd like to reach that objective in as few words as possible. Most of the things I've written are not listed prominently anywhere on the site; instead I've cherry-picked the few important posts.

As such, my writing actually feels complete in a sense. Not finished, but complete, or whole. The site already communicates the main ideas in my head. I'll continue to refine it, and I'm sure there will more restructurings every now and then. But the site doesn't have to be fed with new posts every week. It doesn't need them. So my weekly writing can just be for the fun of it.

What is research?

I've been reading a bunch of posts about independent research lately, going down a rabbit hole started by a single article which I had bookmarked a while ago and which just resurfaced in my Yakread feed a few days ago. This memo from Jim Gray has a particularly interesting tidbit:

What is research?

Perhaps I should begin with a very personal statement: I aspire to be a scholar of computer science. All fields of scholarship, from religion to medicine emphasize three aspects: meditation, teaching and service. Meditation (called research by scientists) is the official part of research. But, teaching (writing papers, explaining your ideas, and transferring technology) and service (making computer systems and helping people use them) are also major aspects of the scholarly process. They keep the scholar in touch with reality.

Martin Kleppman expanded on this in the context of his own work:

I don’t want to just work on open source without doing research, because that only leads to incremental improvements, no fundamental breakthroughs. I don’t want to just do research without applying it, because that would mean losing touch with reality.

Wow. These really hit me. I've put a lot of thought at various times over the past seven years into the question of "is research a good fit for me," each time returning to an emphatic "no." I'm a builder; I don't want creating software to take a backseat to knowledge production and writing papers. But this conception of research is something that maybe even I can get behind: learning, building, and teaching as equal parts; none of them being subordinate to the others.

I think Martin's quote also works if you substitute "open source" with "entrepreneurship." Sometimes, starting a startup can be a valuable use of time for the ambitious. But, contrary to the beliefs I developed as a teenager reading through all of Paul Graham's essays, perhaps that's usually not the case. I suppose if you have a startup idea that's reached the "boiling point," then yes, go for it. But if you're not quite there yet with any particular idea, if you haven't reached the point where you absolutely cannot stop thinking about it—if all you know is that you're ambitious and you want to do something big with your career—maybe research is actually a good default path, for some definition of research.

Of course, whether or not existing research institutions are a good fit for doing that kind of work is a whole other can of worms.

Published 3 Apr 2023

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