A brief reflection on stats blogging

by Justin Esarey

The really great reaction I had to yesterday’s post about bias in published relationships got me thinking some “deep thoughts” about blogging as a statistical researcher.

Good news: the post I made yesterday got a lot of attention!

Bad news: there were a lot of (fortunately minor!) errors and bugs in the post that didn’t interfere with the overall point, but certainly were annoying!

Worse news: every time I tried editing things to clean up these errors, I often created even more formatting hassles such that I eventually strained my eye muscles from staring at the screen too hard!

I’ve been thinking about the blog as a written window into on-going research that I and my current graduate student(s), are working on. For me, it’s a way of setting out some ideas and thoughts in a systematic way that provides the initial structure for more formalized publication, with the added benefit of making that ongoing research available to the public and open for improvement and commentary by the scholarly community. It lets me gauge how important or interesting what I’m working on is to that community, and gets me suggestions on what to read and how to improve those ideas.

Concordantly, the things that I post are a lot more crystallized than an offhand conversation I might have at lunch with a colleague, but substantially less vetted and error-checked than they would be in a working paper or a publication.

So what happens when something I say catches the imagination and gets shared and re-posted? What, exactly, are the editorial standards for a blog post? Am I allowed to be a little wrong, or even totally wrong? Obviously any writer’s incentives are to be as precise and correct as possible in all things, so this is not a moral hazard issue.

I think that, on balance, I like the idea of blogging about research “in real time,” as it were, including some degree of mistakes and false starts that inevitably arise along the way. There are limits, of course–this isn’t Ulysses. But hearing people’s reactions to ideas and getting their suggestions as the project comes together is extremely helpful and also makes research a more social, enjoyable process for me.

Which leads me to issue #2: boy, I’m having a hard time finding desktop software that I really like! I’ve been using Windows Live Writer 2012 up til now, but I tried writing yesterday’s post with Word 2013’s blogging feature. It worked… except that all the MathType equations I used got blanked out, and so I had to go back and manually rewrite all the math equations using \LaTeX notation. Which was delightful.

I also discovered the sourcecode feature of WordPress, which allows you to do stuff like:

set.seed(1239281)
x <- runif(20000, mean=0, sd=1)
plot(density(x))

Which is great! Except that I’ve had a hard time making Windows Live Writer play nicely with that kind of thing (it appears to want to insert all the usual HTML tags and what not into the code, which of course messes it up). So I’ve had to post it with WLW, and then go back to the WordPress client to clean up the code later. Not cool.

I ultimately figured out that you have to edit the HTML source in WLW, add the <PRE> and </PRE> html tags around your source code, and type the code directly into the HTML. That seems to work. I did try a plugin that supposedly handles all this for you, but wasn’t satisfied with the results.  EDIT: Nope. That didn’t work either because WLW wants to escape a < character as its HTML equivalent, &lt;, and apparently that doesn’t get interpreted correctly. So I’m back to using the WordPress on-line editor, which I guess is where I’m going to be stuck for the foreseeable future.

So I’m still waiting for a math/code enabled WYSIWYM platform for WordPress that’s as good as LyX is for writing papers in \LaTeX. And I guess I’ll just have to go on waiting…

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