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By Robert Rapier on Dec 30, 2009 with 1 response

What I Learned This Decade

In this, my last posting of the decade, I thought I would write something profound. Then I realized I don’t really have anything profound to say today, so at the risk of violating Point 9 below, I thought I would summarize some of the things I have learned since starting this blog.

I am closing in on the 4th anniversary of R-Squared. This essay is my 895th. Based on recent trends, 2010 should bring the one millionth viewer here as well as the one thousandth essay.

I had no high hopes for the blog when I started it. As I told a friend at the time, I looked at it as more like a place to archive some of the research I was doing. My thinking was that there are a million blogs out there, and it would be hard to differentiate mine from the others.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of energy-themed blogs covering the specific issues I was looking at. I knew because I was trying to do research on some topics, and ran into a wall of misinformation. So, I would write the stories, mainly for my own reference, until I ran out of things to write about. But on the topic of energy, I would soon find that it is hard to run out of things to write about.

I remember in the beginning that I would get 1 or 2 viewers a day. That changed pretty quickly after Andrew Leonard at Salon linked to one of my ethanol essays. From then on, the number of viewers increased. Shortly after that, one of my essays ended up in the #1 slot on the first page of Reddit. That was only a few months in, and 5,000 viewers linked in from Reddit in a single day.

Of course I have learned a lot since starting the blog. My breadth of knowledge across the energy sector is much greater now than in the beginning. Even so, energy is a huge field, and if I tried to cover all of it the coverage would necessarily be superficial. This is one reason you don’t see more stories here on wind and solar; they are not my core area of expertise so they don’t get a great deal of coverage.

In no particular order, here are some of the other lessons I have learned since starting the blog.

1. Choose my words carefully

I remember this lesson well. The blog readership had grown quite a bit, but I did not really appreciate the diversity of the audience. At that time I was still prone to write blistering, no holds barred critiques of energy companies making outrageous claims. I had written a bit about Coskata, and I felt like their claims were dubious. But then I finally looked a bit deeper, and I wrote Coskata: Dead Man Walking.

Of course I was being flippant with the title, but hey, it’s only my blog. It’s not like I am writing a news story. People know it is my opinion, and thus I can say pretty much what I think. Right?

Then the floodgates opened. I got contacted by the media. I got contacted by investors. I got contacted by the DOE. I even got contacted by Coskata. With the exception of the last one, the others all wanted to know “Are their claims really invalid?” Of course Coskata wanted to let me know that their claims were valid.

But the episode was a turning point in the way I write. I can remember at the time doing a media interview on the story, thinking “Holy Cow! I have to be more careful with my phrasing in the future. That was unnecessarily antagonistic and there are apparently a lot of people reading this stuff.”

Since then, I have tried to exercise more caution. I still maintain that there is no way that Coskata can make ethanol for $1/gallon, but I have to keep in mind that if I write an overly critical story of a company it could influence some investors which could influence the fortunes of the company. (A long shot, but something I have to keep in mind). Thus, I am potentially impacting people’s livelihood with what I write, and as such I have a duty to be very sure about my statements before I make them. No more flippancy or unnecessary antagonism.

2. Don’t make it personal

A friend once said that it is OK to disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable. I try to keep this in mind as I debate and engage people. Check the personal stuff and the ad homs at the door. Let’s debate the data, and if the data dictate that my position should move, then it shall move.

3. Not everyone cares about the data

I have learned a lot about how people behave. I have learned that not everyone is interested in objectivity; some are only interested in a very specific viewpoint. In these cases, inconvenient data are either to be rejected outright (That’s absurd!) or discredited (the guy who did the research has a cousin who works for ExxonMobil; thus the study is no good).

Dealing with people like this is never a fair fight, because I am interested in looking at their data. They are only interested in looking at mine if it supports their point of view. Otherwise, they go into the mode of defense attorney attempting to exonerate their client.

4. I love to write

That should be obvious, given that for the past 4 years I have averaged 4.5 essays per week. People often ask “Where do you find the time?” I find the time the same place people find the time to watch TV or play video games (and I do some of that as well, but not so much TV). The fact is that I can type out what’s in my head very quickly. My routine is that I wake up early, read through the latest energy headlines, and write if I see something that I want to comment on. I spend less than an hour on the average essay, so it is not a major time commitment each week. Answering e-mails is a different story, which is why my e-mail address disappeared from the front page.

5. I don’t write well to deadlines

I am prolific when the subject is wide open and there is no schedule involved. When I am writing an article for a website or a publisher, and there is a specific deadline involved, I find that it is much harder to get motivated. There is a different dynamic involved in waking up, seeing a story of interest, and making a post on it than there is if the subject is defined and I have a week to fill in the details.

I have been asked twice about my interest in writing a book, but it would take me 10 times as long to do a book as it would to do enough essays to fill a book. So right now I do a book chapter now and then (I have three that are either published or in process, with another two due next year) and in the back of my mind I hope eventually to pull those chapters together as the basis of a book. But to just sit down and start writing a book? Not at this point in my life.

6. Trying to predict which essays will get a lot of hits is futile

I found out early on that I could spend 3 hours on an essay, pepper it with references and links, and yet another that I spent 10 minutes on may get 5 times as many hits. The essay that ended up on the front page of Reddit was a puzzle to me. I had under 20 essays under my belt at that time, and in fact it was well after I published it that it claimed the top spot on Reddit. But I thought I had written essays that would have been much more deserving. To this day I am puzzled as to why that one made it to the top, and not some others that I think are much better. Here it is: Fuel Efficiency and Lessons from Europe. (Another one claimed the top spot a year or so later, but I don’t even remember which one it was).

In fact, probably the most read essay in the history of this blog is one that I wrote just a couple of months ago. I buried it on the 2nd page of my blog and locked the comments on it. It was off-topic and I didn’t want regular readers to be distracted by it, but I wanted to document something. It was again picked up by Reddit and a number of media outlets, and was read almost 20,000 times in under two weeks. It hasn’t fallen out of the Top 10 since I published it. For the curious, here is that one: Exposing a Two-Bit Scammer. I must warn you that it has zero to do with energy, and should only be read if you are bored and have nothing else to do.

7. Keep an open mind

I pride myself on my objectivity. I consider it a critical aspect of my job and my writing. But I have to constantly guard against slipping into a bunker with a particular ideology, defending against all outsiders. I recognized early on in my blog that most of my essays were anti-ethanol, and that I was starting to come across as an ethanol foe. But that is not a universal truth. I am against aspects of our ethanol policy, and in speaking out against those I sometimes appear to be anti-ethanol without qualification.

But that certainly isn’t the case. I see ethanol as I see other fuels. There are trade-offs. There are vested interests. Some will gain and others will lose. But with this, as with any position, the question I try to keep in mind is “What would cause you to shift your viewpoint?” If the answer to that is “Nothing” then you are truly in the realm of dogma and there is no point discussing data. As I stated earlier, it wouldn’t be a fair debate. But I try to always have an answer to that question in mind. For ethanol, I attempted to answer that question very early on: Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol

8. Sometimes you are going to make enemies

I don’t like to make enemies, but when you are speaking out against vested interests you are going to make them. Reasonable people sometimes disagree, but vested interests aren’t necessarily reasonable and their disagreements can quickly become personal. A corn farmer in Iowa isn’t necessarily interested in data that argues against more corn production. (In fact, I got a death ‘wish’ from a corn farmer once; one of maybe half a dozen threats/wishes I have received).

So if you have convictions, even if they are data-based, you are going to make some enemies if you speak out on them. This is especially true when dealing with vested interests. It is simply impossible to please everyone.

9. Don’t force content

While I have written a lot of essays over the past four years, I have had some periods of time in which I didn’t really have anything topical to put out there for a week or more. That has led me at times to post guest essays or 3rd party content that really weren’t up to the standards I have set for this blog. Worse, I have been occasionally guilty of that myself by quickly throwing something together and publishing it. I can avoid this by refusing to listen to the inner voice that says “It’s been a week. You really need to publish something.” If I maintain discipline, then I will only post when there is something worth posting, even if that means I don’t put anything up for a month.

10. The spam bots are getting much better

It won’t be long before I have to start locking comments on the essays that scroll off of the first page. The spam bots – those that write something like “Great blog” with a link to some off-topic business – have gotten much better at breaking through the word verification than they were even a year ago. I get an e-mail of every single comment posted, so I am able to catch and delete all spam, but it is taking more of my time every day.

11. I learn a lot from the comments

The blog would not have continued had it not been for so much good feedback that I received. I find myself learning an awful lot from reading comments. Often, it is through the comments that I first learn of a new development or a new research paper.  The comments also frequently force me to reevaluate my positions, which is something I value greatly.

12. Self-link to my previous essays

Some people may have noticed that I almost always link each essay back to a previous essay. That isn’t so much about self-promotion as it is about maintaining a connection when others pick up and republish an essay. I have given permission to many other websites to republish content as long as there is a note that indicates the origin of the essay. Still, some websites will grab essays and republish content as their own. By putting links in, readers can be linked back here, and since I have a StatCounter that indicates where visitors came from, I can spot the websites that are republishing content as their own.

13. There is no money in this

If I was trying to make a living at this, I would have to move to one of those countries where you can live on $2 a day. Of course I am not doing this for money, nor have I ever tried to write in a way that would maximize ad revenue.  If I was trying to write for a living, I would have picked a different topic, like Hollywood Gossip. Of course then I would have to start watching TV, and who has time for that?

On the other hand, there have been a lot of opportunities that have arisen as a result of the blog. I have had numerous job offers/inquiries since I started this, I have been asked to write for books and magazines, and I have given media interviews and made presentations. This increases the audience that I can reach.

14. People’s interest in energy goes up and down with the price of oil

It is really hard to get people engaged on energy unless prices are climbing. To this day, the query that most frequently brings readers in for the first time is “Why are oil/gas prices rising?” If prices aren’t rising, people don’t care and there isn’t much interest in energy policy. But we have lived through interesting times since I started the blog; prices steadily climbing for the most part. When they level off, the number of readers falls.

So that’s a bit of what I have learned, and hopefully those lessons have improved the quality of the essays over the past four years. May we continue to live during interesting times, so there will be lots of new stories to report on.

Happy New Year to everyone.

  1. By Eddie Devere on March 8, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog.
    You have inspired me to start a blog on alternative energy and physics.

    Also, I'm glad that you have the courage to be critical of companies that over-promise. (I left one of theses companies in part because of a series of blogs you wrote about the company and the difficulty of separating ethanol from water.) I'm a physicist, not a chem engineer.

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