2016-12-09

Writing Is Bullshit

Originally published December 20, 2015

Ugh, the only visible response to the hastily-written, not researched and not-reflected-upon post, why would you even think that, was praise. I want to take into account the silent responses, hopefully some of which were people agreeing that the post was not good and not worth reading, but that's impossible.


Yeah what the fuck is wrong with me, having a contrarian position as regards what is worth reading. How dare I have an opinion about my own writing. This is the world I live in.

You! who is reading this post now, suppose that you'll get to the end of it, and suppose also (this stretches the imagination, but suppose) that you read the post I began by discussing. Ask yourself, why? You could have been reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, but you read poorly-written haphazard rants. Heck, you could have reread one of my earlier essays, some of which are actually good, but you chose that one and this one! Why? The real reason is probably that you have a habit of clicking on links you see. Did you decide to have this habit? Does it serve you well? Does it make you a better person? Of course not. Most of your habits have no good reason to be there, and came unbid, inexorably, from your brain's interaction with the world you live in. If your arm is full of sin, cut it off and throw it away. If your habit is dead weight, cast it from you.

I digress by mentioning sphexishness and biodeterminism and self-threshing. I hate people's reading habits. I read somewhere on overcomingbias that some ridiculous portion, something like 95%, of what people read, was written in the few weeks prior. I can't find the source but it rings true, it even rings true with myself, though I try to read old things. I did find Against News, though:
Bryan Caplan raises a neglected but important issue: are important issues neglected for news of the moment? Bryan quotes Delos Wilcox from 1900:
But we must deplore and, so far as possible, overcome the evils of habitual newspaper reading. These evils are, chiefly, three: first, the waste of much time and mental energy in reading unimportant news and opinions, and premature, untrue, or imperfect accounts of important matters; second, the awakening of prejudices and the enkindling of passions through the partisan bias or commercial greed of newspaper managers; third, the loading of the mind with cheap literature and the development of an aversion for books and sustained thought.
Bryan also quotes Thomas Jefferson:
Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. …
I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it. …
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
Just as fantasy typically substitutes for reality, news typically substitutes for insight – in both cases by diverting attention. The same risk applies to reading blog posts of course, which is why I try to focus on reading and writing posts on relatively deep long-standing issues, and not current news fashions. I avoid posts that should not be nearly as interesting a year before or after.

Yes, in a world where everyone was trying as hard as possible to contribute to long term insight and progress there would be a place for news of recent events of wide interest. And in that world it would make sense to track the news that others also track. But we do not live in such a world.

It seems to me that in our world most track the news to talk intelligently with others who track the news. By coordinating to talk on the same recent news topics, we can better evaluate how well connected and intelligent are those around us. If we tracked very different topics, it would be much harder to evaluate each other. If our conversation topics were common but old, it would be harder to distinguish individually thoughtful analysis from memorized viewpoints, and harder to see how well-connected folks are to fresh info sources.

But if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news.

Added: Stuart Buck quotes C.S. Lewis:
Those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.
I hate having to blockquote entire articles like that, but it's necessary because humans, including the relatively elite clasm that is my audience, very rarely follow through on the links on the articles they read. This is annoying because, for instance, sometimes people ask me questions about The Monster that they'd know the answer to if they had clicked the hyperlink on the text they're asking about. I'm digressing again. You asked for more, this is what you get.
I made a twitter poll, "should I tweet more, optimizing for signal, or less, optimizing for signal to noise ratio". The results:
  1. more (11 votes, 61%)
  2. less (2 votes, 11%)
  3. dichotomies are bad (5 votes, 28%)
With "dichotomies are bad" being the stupid troll option, thinking that my stupid troll respondents would be too sophisticated to pick "muffins". I jokingly commented "study shows people don't care about tweet quality," but deleted it because someone felt the need to miss the point. So it goes. The point is that there's a tension between showing people the best of what you have, and having things to show people. There's a big reason most people miss this tension, and I think I've got my finger on it.

The big thing that I do with tweets and what I decide to read, that others mostly don't, is thinking in terms of marginal utility and opportunity cost. That's it. I'm not the only one who consciously, deliberately decides what to read and what not to (though it is worth noting that this is a tiny minority), but it sure feels like I'm the only one who applies those basic economics concepts to that decision. The marginal blog post, or worse, the marginal blog comment, does more harm than good, by way of taking up scarce attention that could have been better spent elsewhere, just like the make-a-wish foundation does more harm than good by redirecting charitable donations to something with negligible impact.

Look, I'm not knocking your taste, see next paragraph, but it's *frustrating* to watch people mindlessly click the latest outrage porn and bicker about it on my facebook feed for half an internet-century before forgetting about it and moving on to the next outrage porn when they could READ A CLASSIC. Now I know that time is not fungible, that one cannot spend all one's waking hours catching up on Plato and Sipser, but would it kill you to try? to cut some of the proverbial empty calories out of your information diet? Do you really have to keep your criticisms of the hated enemy constantly up to date? Can't you just ignore things that waste your time? You'd be better off staring at a wall and thinking about triangles. I'm completely serious. Triangles are cool. Did you know the sum of the angles of a hyperbolic triangle is less than 180°? What's up with that? I'm digressing again. Where was I? Ah, yes. Politics. Not even once.

Some people just lose the lottery of fascinations. I know that you are going to concern yourself with plenty of stupid, unimportant things. Humans are imperfect. It's okay. Go ahead and reblog that dumb image with some smart sarcasm pasted over a politician's portrait. see if I care

Another reason people rug-sweep the tradeoff between quality and quantity (or more technically, total quality versus average quality) is that encouragement is encouraged while discouragement is discouraged; i.e., there's a taboo on discouraging people from undertaking anything, including writing. This is partly because encouragement is seen as associating, which is "nice", while discouragement is seen as dissociating, which is "mean", and partly because encouragement is a low-cost bet: if they succeed with their endeavor, you win some apparent prescience and a valuable ally. Conversely, someone might resent you for discouraging them, and at least other people will think worse of you. Who needs the hassle? Alas. This asymmetric equilibrium has terrible consequences. It serves no one to tell talentless hacks that they should waste time and effort on some leisure activity they'll soon abandon. You want to begin writing a novel you'll never finish? Fine. But failure begets failure. You'd do well to do only things you can reasonably do.

But there's a critical problem with the idea of not making things unless they're good, which I didn't begin to notice until I in 2014 looked upon what I wrote in 2012 and earlier, and saw that it was garbage. You can't start out by making good things. And you can't improve easily without feedback from people outside yourself. So at some level, for there to exist great writers and thinkers whom the general audience can consume without needing to heed even a single mediocre thing, someone has to start by showing someone else something subpar. There's something about making more things that instills practice much better than trying to make better things. Quoth Paul Graham:
Working on small things is also a good way to learn. The most important kinds of learning happen one project at a time. ("Next time, I won't...") The faster you cycle through projects, the faster you'll evolve.
You can't write as much if you spend effort on rigor or on writing style. I don't have much motivation to spare. So that is why I am trying to lower my standards and write more, even though I'm not proud of what I write in this mode.

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