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Incomplete Essays

When I first started putting this site together, one of the first problems I ran into was that it was very difficult to find a place to start—every essay I wanted to write seemed to depend on some other essay already being present.

Contrast this with what would happen if I tried to write, say, a textbook on abstract algebra. I'd discover that fields depend on rings, rings on groups, and groups on sets, but that sets are are fundamental, and don't depend on anything else. As a result, I'd be able to write a first chapter about set theory, then work forward from there.

By the way, the same kind of dependency problem shows up in computer software. The term “levelization” (which I got from Large-Scale C++ Software Design) is a nice one—it refers to the division of a system into modules that exist on different levels, with each module depending only on the ones underneath. Maybe it would improve the reusability and maintainability of my ideas if, after the site is well developed, I go back and levelize it?

Since the word “depend” comes from the Latin “pendeo”, “I hang”, and “de”, “from”, the above imagery is exactly upside down, but it still makes sense, perhaps by analogy with physical construction, where for example the second story of a building depends on the first. The derived word “pendant”, meaning a thing that hangs, is a nice example of a present participle used as a noun … but I digress. (And have you noticed that essays with digressions have a tree structure?)

The problem that I faced, then, was that I wanted to start writing essays, but didn't know enough about the dependencies to levelize the essays, or even to tell whether levelization would be possible. The solution I adopted was to allow the essays to be incomplete. Once that conceptual barrier was broken, I was able to create a bunch of incomplete essays, accumulate notes that linked one to the other in a big tangled mess, then gradually convert the notes into prose.

In theory, it would be possible to finish all the incomplete essays and then add new ones only in the correct dependency order, but in practice it's far more convenient to allow incomplete essays as a steady-state feature of the site. For one thing, when creating new essays, I often still find that there are several interrelated ones that need to be added all at once; for another, I prefer to work on whatever I have enthusiasm for at the moment, and that doesn't always lead in the direction of the incomplete essays.

Although I had decided to allow incomplete essays, I didn't want to put my working notes on public display, so instead I made a standard incomplete-essay message and had it point here. Since it's frustrating to run into these standard messages, I do try to reduce the appearance of incompleteness by suppressing as many incomplete essays as possible before the release of each batch. However, I can't suppress ones that are referred to by other essays, so there are always a few left over.

A final note: I honestly meant to write this essay about incomplete essays for the first batch, but … well, I just didn't get around to it in time, and as a result accidentally created a pleasing recursion effect. I regret having to destroy such a nice thing; my apologies to those of you who were amused by it. As a poor substitute, I offer the isomorphic recursion joke.


  See Also

  Essay Status
  Exceptions to the Backlink Rule
  How to Keep an Idiot in Suspense

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