Exciting news, readers! I’ve started a new section of this blog called Blair’s Science Desk. I’m going to use this section to post tips about doing data-driven science.
In creating Science Desk, my goal is to separate two aspects of my writing. On the one hand, I like to write long pieces about original research. On the other hand, I also like to write short notes about doing science. When I started Economics from the Top down, it contained an equal mix of both types of writing. But over time, I’ve leaned more towards deep-dive posts, as the figure below makes clear.
My impression (and I could be wrong) is that readers are hungry for long-form content that is written accessibly. That’s good, because I enjoy writing it. And don’t worry, my post length isn’t going to continue heading north. I’ve found a happy medium with posts that are about the length of an academic paper, but are written in a way that is …. readable.
Still, I’m left with a problem. In addition to writing long form content, I like to write short pieces about research methods. But it is disjointing (for readers and myself) to intersperse the two types of writing.
That’s why I’ve started Science Desk. My intent is for it to function more like a traditional blog, with short posts about whatever crosses my mind. I know that this kind of technical babble isn’t for everyone, which is why I want it in a separate section. But hopefully some people will find it useful. A big part of doing empirical work is scouring the internet trying to learn how to solve your particular problems. I’ve spent countless hours doing that, and Science Desk is my attempt to pay it forward.
On a technical note
Speaking of technical stuff, I’m creating Science Desk using Hugo, an engine for building static websites.
What’s a ‘static website’ you say? I’ll tell you in a second. But first, some internet history. The internet is built on HTML, which is short for ‘hyper text markup language’. It’s a language that tells your browser how to render the content of a website.
In the beginning, people built websites by hand coding HTML. But as sites got more complex, this task became unwieldy. And so developers created systems for managing content. WordPress is probably the most famous such system. Instead of containing HTML, a WordPress site consists of a database that holds the website’s content. When someone visits the site, WordPress uses the database to render HTML. (Along the way, it applies various themes and styles.) Then it sends the result to your browser, which you read.
This content management approach is incredibly flexible. But it’s also complicated, and can be quite slow if not configured properly.
Enter static site generators. What these engines do, essentially, is move the content management from the web server to your home computer. In other words, you render your website before you upload it to the server. Then the server just has to send static HTML files to readers.
Now, you could hand code these HTML files. But that’s a lot of work. Static site engines like Hugo generate the HTML for you. And along the way, they can apply themes and styles, just like you would in WordPress.
Self hosting made easy
With easy-to-use blogging sites like Medium and Substack, why would you want to build a static website yourself? The biggest reason (at least for me) is that you have complete control over the site. Usually, though, this control comes with a cost, which is that you’re responsible for everything, including web hosting.
One reason that sites like Medium and Substack (not to mention WordPress.com) are so popular is that they take care of running the backend for you. And that’s great. Let’s face it, very few writers want the hassle of running a web server.
Here’s where static sites really shine. They give you complete control of your site, and yet they are extremely simple to host. To run a static site, you don’t need a traditional web server. All you need is cloud storage that can be made public. There are plenty of solutions for that, but I chose Linode, which is a medium-sized cloud company that is reasonably priced and has great customer service.1
Yes, there was a bit of a learning curve. But with a bit of coding, I can now spin up a site in minutes. I’m excited by the possibilities here, especially for teaching. Want a course website filled with content for students? No need to go through university bureaucracy. I can host my own site the way I like it.
No bells, no whistles
Back to Science Desk. When I started blogging, I was a total newbie, and so took the easy option of using WordPress.com. But today, I know more about how websites work. And, thanks largely to Cory Doctorow’s writing on Pluralistic.net, I’m aware of the perils of web centralization. I like Doctorow’s vision of a federated internet filled with content that is decentralized yet interoperable.
In many ways, Science Desk is an homage to the simpler, decentralized internet of the past. It’s got no bells and whistles and no distractions. That’s the way I like my science.
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