Irrational Exuberance!

Reflections on a Year of Blogging and Japan

July 21, 2008. Filed under japanreflection

I realized recently that I had been blogging on lethain.com for about a year, but I had to go back and check the archives to figure out the date. Apparently the first article I wrote here was on July 1st, 2007. Since then the site has been completely redesigned, the software behind it has iteratively grown, and suppose I've grown as well.

My father once told me that learning is a two stage process: first you go out and do things, and afterwards you reflect upon what you've done. So, I suppose its time to reflect upon the last year.

Teaching in Japan

The overshadowing event of the last year has been me teaching English in Japan. If you saw my application I submitted to the JET Program you'd imagine that this was a well planned and entirely intentional trajectory: took a year of Japanese freshmen year, studied abroad in Japan for four months sophomore year, the next two summers took intensive Japanese language courses, took a Japanese history course.

But, if you were one of the many people to ask "Why did you come to Japan" or "Why did you start studying Japanese?", then a different picture begins to emerge. I remember the first time that I was seriously asked that question. It was the end of my study abroad in Yamaguchi prefecture, and we had to do a short speech in our Japanese class. I don't remember what my speech was about, but I do remember one of the teachers asking in an extremely earnest manner--I think it was a puzzle piece she desperately needed to understand me--why I came to Japan. I didn't know how to answer.

These days its a question that comes up not infrequently as well. The short answer is that it was a mistake. The longer answer is, not much clearer, but at least a bit more honest.

It takes us back to the summer before freshman year. I am registering for courses on a form which firmly instructs me that my course selections are purely hypothetical, and the my curriculum will actually be chosen by my advisor (by which they mean, the academic dean's office, by which they mean a computer program written by some student who gets paid minimum wage to work for the campus IT department).

So, I guess I chose Japanese I as one of the courses I wanted to take. My college was really impressed with itself having a few Japanese courses, and they made it abundantly clear that they had Japanese courses just waiting to be taken. I mean, I don't remember selecting the Japanese course, but I guess I must have.

My honed explanation routine explains my enrollment in the Japanese I course by saying "I had already studied French, and they had Spanish at my high school, but I had never studied Japanese." That might even have been why I chose to study Japanese. I don't know1.

The summer months passed and fall semester began. I started taking Japanese I. My classmates were somewhat insane. I did okay, but didn't really love it. Then I signed up for Japanese II. Then I signed up to study abroad in Japan. In retrospect I got something intensely valuable out of studying abroad, but at the time it wasn't a uniformly great experience. Then I signed up for an intensive Japanese course. Then I had one of my worst summers, ever, at the intensive Japanese course. Then I signed up to go back to the same goddamn place and do the same thing the next year. Of course, it kind of sucked the second time around too. Then I was looking for a job, and everyone who studies Japanese knows about the JET Program. People outside of the JET Program operate under the illusion it is fairly prestigous (preferably pronounced in the British manner: press-tige (rhymes with fridge)-us) program, and my life was built to master their application process.

Only, I never made a single deliberate decision along the entire course of living that immaculately construct. That leaves us with two summers, one fall, one winter, three college courses, and the first year of my post-collegic life, all giving themselves to nurture the momentum of one haphazard decision I don't remember making.

To be honest, though, I'm comfortable with that. I don't believe I would have picked a better path for myself otherwise. This year has given me a much clearer grasp on how I want to live. Its given me a clearer grasp on what is important to me. Its given me things I wouldn't have chosen for myself, and sometimes those are the best presents, as long as you remember how to grow into them.

So, returning the topic at hand, teaching in Japan, I didn't love it, but I am indebted to the experience nonetheless. A teacher I worked with's last words to me were: "I hope this becomes a good experience. Not now. But that it becomes a good experience." Those are good words, and even before she spoke them they were coming true: this has been a good experience.

Something deep inside of me snapped a bit, or perhaps finally connected, when I studied abroad four years ago. I don't know if a similar metamorphosis has occurred this time--the butterfly has a much more awkward job of it than the caterpillar--but the pieces inside of me have changed a bit.

Blogging

Like I said, I've been blogging for over a year now. Throw in the couple of months I had a blog over at willarson.com, and I've been blogging for about fifteen months. Gathering together the numbers and I've written 164 articles on lethain.com, at the rate of approximately 0.45 articles per day. A while back I wrote a Ruby script that lets me do word counts on directories of Markdown files (the markup I wrote blog entries in), and it gives some interesting food for thought.

I wrote 4763 words in my poorly named and short lived attempt at a novel: Zen and the Art of Teaching English Poorly. I wrote 15505 words about Japan, and 23658 about more general non-programming topics. I wrote 46577 words about programming. All summed up it comes to 90503 words, or about 248 words per day. Using the imaginary number of 300 words per page, its about 301 pages.

If I had started blogging with a clean defined zone labeled as success, I guess I think I have probably hit it, at least in terms of raw quantity of material being written. I'll make up a new statistic while I'm at it. Lethain.com gets about 10,000 unique visitors per month. Which means my word per monthly unique visitor ratio is about nine. I'll be curious to see where that number ends up in another year.

Early on I imagined that blog readership traveled on some kind of exponential curve. That it would be really hard to get the first one hundred readers, and then about as hard to get from 100 to 1000 as it was from 10 to 100. Then, it would be about as hard again to get from 1000 to 10,000. From there you can imagine my mental image of imminent wild success. Over time that estimation has gotten retooled a bit.

Instead, I'd say that populist blogging--the stuff written by Scoble, TechCrunch--is exponential until it hits an extremely inflexible ceiling where it simply cannot grow any further. Tech bloggers who write relatively populist material as well, like John Gruber or Steve Yeggae, experience mostly exponential growth as well until they hit that glass ceiling. Once they hit the top their situation is largely akin to that of syndicated comic strips: quality becomes irrelevant, and people will continue to consume what they write.

On the other hand, stuff that I write2--mostly technical articles and tutorials--has an extremely flat popularity curve. If you write helpful technical articles, Google will index them, and people will come. But, you'll always be hitting a small niche of interested individuals. Coupled with it being more time consuming to write technical articles and tutorials, and its pretty easy to understand why so many bloggers write populist entries targeting the Reddit and Digg crowds.

However, I've gotten to have some really interesting conversations, made some valuable connections, established some minimal proof that I can program my way out of a paper bag, had fun playing with a bunch of young technologies, and along the way haven't made any decisions I feel shady about. Blogging has been a good experience, and turned into something I enjoy doing. Hopefully it'll continue getting better from here.

Peanut Butter Jars

Okay, I realize this is kind of a ridiculous thing to mention, but its basically my number one priority before leaving my apartment for the final time on Thursday: recycle all the glass peanut butter jars and their metal lids that have accumulated over the past ten months. I did a test recycling run of the jars about a month ago (they only pick up glass recyclables once or twice a month here), and everything went according to plan. I haven't tried recycling the lids before, but I'm optimistic.

I've been spending about an hour a day for the last three or four days cleaning these jars, and there are only about eight lids (have to be recycled tomorrow) and fifteen jars (day after tomorrow) remaining to be cleaned. This will be my great victory against insurmountable odds, but unfortunately know one will know about it, and those who know will be unable to comprehend the vastness of cleaning several hundred small glass peanut butter jars and their metal lids.

Conclusions

I am intentionally skipping out on talking about programming over the last year, there is too much mental movement there to write it out quite yet, but if I had to summarize this year, I'd give it this: its been a year well worth living. Its been a year I'll look back on for many years to come. It won't be a year, like some of those from high school, where I look back and can't remember what I was doing (disclaimer: I don't think my memory, nay perhaps my entire brain, fully worked until approximately when I began college).

If the measure of a year is personal growth, it's been a good year. If the measure of a year is starting the next year with a clearer plan for life and living, it's been a good year. I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in a decade or two I'll look back at this year as something formative and wonderful back when I was "really living with exuberance" (that is, if I am having a mid-life crisis in a decade or two).

However, standing here at the precipice of a new life, what I'm really excited about is the next year. And that is perhaps the most complementary thing I can say about this past year.


  1. I guess its a variant of my explanation for why I took three semester of Spanish my junior and senior years, which I used when I had to defend my decision to take additional language after already satisfying the language requirement: "I just like studying languages."

  2. Early on, when I had just started, I intended to maintain a much more even balance between populist and technical programming content, but it just hasn't quite work out that way thus far.