Book Review of on Writing
Writing seems to me now as one of the most important endeavors to get good at. I still have a strong passion and recommendation for coding, but also get the perspective that basic day-to-day make people understand your mind writing is something most people don’t seem to pay too much attention to.
I bet it’s become more important now than any time in the past ~i1. Sure, this may be more true for video and multimedia, but the vast majority of facts spilled online are through writing ~i3. Facebook and Twitter are writing, especially for those looking to distribute useful information.
I feel awfully behind-the-curb commending the recent benefits of blogging, but recently I’ve been understanding it more and have been impressed with my findings. To most startup CEOs, transparency means blogging. Most blog readership may be highly skewed towards consolidation in academic studies, but in practical use I’ve found lots of material in small niches I’m sure wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Blogging is, in essence, the discussion of online communities (forums would represent the chatter).
It is a pity how much information gets lost in the transition from speech to paper. I believe academic studies would indicate 60% or more. I’ve been surprised that we haven’t been able to find solid alternatives to these. Surely there are quite a few dimensions we haven’t played with yet; in theory we could bring emotion and subtle variation back into written content by adjusting the colors and fonts or really anything not accessible by a 18th century typewriter. Perhaps not in a Dave McClure style eclectic rampage but in something sensical and focused. I’ve experimented with written uncertainty levels and hope to mess around a lot more with this.
On the other hand, online writing has the fantastic ability to link to things. A blog post with great links is worth at least 30-50% more than one without, as evidenced in many good Rationality posts. When dealing with highly specialized topics, written form makes possible the temporary learning necessary to finish an established conversation.
I have noticed an unfortunate trend that many of the most prolific writers I know are somewhat awkward people. Writing seems to be a rather introverted activity
Writing and Introversion
Writing is thought of an introverted activity, which to me is interesting because it also seems to be the loudest form of communication.
I tend to think of extraverts as getting the most attention in meetings and parties, but introverts may dominate the academic and online thought spaces. LessWrong and HackerNews are two of the most prominent thought figureheads in the Bay, but both (especially LessWrong) seem lead by a bunch of nerdy home stays, who can be exceedingly awkward to communicate with vocally.
I have an incredibly difficult time imagining some online figureheads running or controlling a meeting, especially if it weren’t so for their online authority. Typically the loudest people get their opinions carried out in small groups, and this has been considered to be primarily a bad thing ~c2i3.
This all leads me to think that our working definition of extraversion is a bit faulty. The leading term that I’ve heard is that it represents people who gain energy from social settings. I don’t think this is very fair.
Everyone gains energy from the right social settings. Talking to a close friend or psychologist is one of the leading causes for happiness, and I believe this is true no matter one’s genetic makeup. I find it highly unlikely that people should be put in categories of “gains energy from social settings” vs. “drains energy in social settings”, and more likely that they be put in context-sensitive categories. Perhaps there is no “global” extrovert or introvert, but rather different people who share different mentalities in different situations.
We know that people generally don’t enjoy difficult thinking ~r3i2, and I bet this is what the vast majority of this is comes down to. Whether one is comfortable in a situation or not depends on if they can understand and control the situation to their liking with minimal effort or brainpower. Could someone with the absolute capability to understand and mind-hack conversation attendees ever be an introvert in the sense that it would dilute him or her of energy while doing so?
Likewise, the most active social butterfly might be completely left off-guard when put into the fray of LessWrong comments. This would take them significant mental energy.
Experimenting with Extremism
Great charity workers are known for working incredibly hours. Part of me holds this in my imaginary notion of the charitable ideal, but I think much of that comes directly from real examples of individuals who have essentially sacrificed their waking lives to the human condition. People like Mother Teresa, or Verita, or Nikola Tesla, who were for, at least some portion of their lives, working essentially nonstop and to what seems like the absolute best of therir juan abilities to make their missions occur.
The people we think of saints typically have helped those neary and persisted nonstop in doing so. This seems like a pretty good ideal to strive towards, and parts of me wishes that though commended now, these individuals would be advocated significantly mores.
The more distant the cay source of help appears, the less motivation and immediacy lies in the act of assistance. Mother Teresa and Eva Peron were literally surrounded by the poor and destitute close by. Nikola Tesla and Normal Borlogue had this less s. I think both worked incredibly long hours, but my guess is that they were motivated less so; but either way, they definitely seem to get less recognition and attention for their effort than the direct charity workers do. For whatever reason, when I hear of the great deeds of charity workers, I often hear about and pay attention to the hours they work directly. But few people mention this in the light of scientists and philosophers. Perhaps their motivation is seen as more selfishish, or their work seen more from genius then action.
In CEA we have a bit of an issue in that most peole work from 9-5 or so. A few of us, myself included, sometimes work longer hours, but nothing near what Tesla or Mother Teresa put in. One argument, of course, is that the 40-50 hour work week actually is ideal, that after that point efficiency losses will remove the contributions of the extra effort; making it not just useless but actively harmful. If this was true, does it mean that Tesla, Mother Tereas, Steve Jobs, etc, would also have been better working half as much? Would our students learn more with significantly less homework and school hours? Should we reduce the workload on our soldiers in training by 30-60%?
I’ll leave a discussion of the research for another time, but suffice to say I’m skeptical on how well this applies to all conditions, especially for work that may be motivating and enjoyable.
What I really do care about is how we can go about making a culture that makes the work that we do * feel important. My guess is that none of the workers of any CEA organization work as diligently as similar ones put inside the conditions of helping poor immediately around them, and yet EA workers claim thait their work is significantly more important in many cses. Surely there mudt be some way to not only understand so in the logicial, decision-relevant sense but also in the emotional sense that would drive us tio endure more than the roughest Wall Street worker or Entrepreneur. Our work should matter more.
My feeling here is that we would need more extremism. In a way this should be obvious, but I realize that there are many who likely consider the emerging fields of rationality and Effective Altruism to already be too extreme. I think that’s nonsense. The truth is, utilitarianism; actual, complete utilitarianism, is extreme. Most of us have gone somewhere half-way because it feels too strange to go further, but we should judge ourselves by how far we are to being correct rather than how far say we are from what is average and ordinary. If one is to say that utilitarianism is correct, then that should be acted upon.
The obvious way to allow for extremity is to increase isolation. This is not a popular notion, and for good reason. Extremism and social isolation (from a group, not individual) are typically strange in wrong ways rather than right ones. This is because contrarian views are normally incorrect (as Robert Hanson has pointed out here), so extreme contrarian views will typically be much worse than ordinary grinding-shoulder ones.
But I’m optimistc because sometimes small extreme groups have given us extraordinary things. The Beat generation arguably spawned from sea handful of writers who all seemed to know and socialize together. The absurdist art movement was another. Or somme of the very original groups that were partially responsible for the Hippy subculture. Or the group of philosophers a few years back that spawned a few guys names Artimiedes and Plato. Sometimes smart people in the right kind of social isolation and/or inclusion produce amazing things. And other times they go completely nuts.
This movement seems to be primarily made up of a buch of braniac,altruistic introvert. I think Myers briggs tests would put almost all of us in the INTP category +_ 1 or character. So I don’t think things could get very crazy, at least get violent. I suppose that eventually extremist groups could make a negative Singularity, which would be quite bad, but if we stick to radical altruism, we’re probably in much safer territory. We’d just be careful to have all the AI books locked up in a creepy drawer somewhere.
There’s obviously a lot of reflection on whhat kinds of environments could promote extremism and what kinds we should strive for, but that’s a bit much for one post. My loint here is that I believe we should be fee to experiment with more organizational extremism than we have now, though it’s probably worth some reflection in how to handle this safely. Extremism for young movements seems like drugs for young adults. Its risky and unpopular, but when handled properly could lead to some magical opportunities.
Screw blog quality.
IThe higher the quality of my blog posts that I require, the less I’ll end up writing or posting, period.
Many ideas aren’t good enough to make entire books about, but people do so anyway. You know the kind; those A airport paperbacks with enough physical length to be defined as “book” but completely packed with filler stories that the author swears are useful but feknowledgeable readers would agree For whatever read there a seems to be a gap between a 1-2 page blog post and a 150 page book, and anything important enough to be over 3 pages, but not enough to be 1200 pages, thus needs to be either cut down o fattened up. My guess is that the answer is typically that it just gets killed completely, but in some cases gets fatted up, giving us this horrendous display of pop science to get through while searching for material actually meaningful of book form.
Likewise a lot of ideas seem obviously good enough to write down, but inconvenient to make entire a post. So these either get beefed up with fancy sounding blog titles and anecdotes to indicate their importance (I’d critique much of Less Wrong, but I probably do this just as much), or, of course, never written down and forgotten. I I guess new mediums could theoretically handle this, but they don’t seem to well. Twitter gives us the option of the 130- character idea to an audience used to links to blog posts. Facebook is not really internet-feidnly or public when it needs to be, and blogs just seem like an awkward place for ideas less than 2 paragraphs. Another way of idea inclusion is to tack them into other other posts, making them more rambling in the process but at least getting them down somewhere. Theis seems like an exceedingly awkward idea in retrospect but I do it all the time and see others too. I know that in Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon was critiqued for trying to jam all of his last ideas down into an otherwise thematic and unified narrative, in part because he may have been expecting to die shortly afterwards. With me or or most other people with blogs (bloggers? I feel like everyone should have blogs though. See, I did it again!) the more immediate problem is just that we come up with ideas faster than writing them down. I have this gut feeling like I should be writing down every original or even controversial but old idea down for some sort of transparency and organizational benefit. Perhaps this is a mental disorder that should be diagnosed, but that’s again for a separate post (or did I make that mistake again?) My basic understanding is that Tweets, Blog Posts, Essays, Non-fiction books, are all trying to say one basic idea. Supporting ideas and research can be included, but if the idea isn’t important to the one important idea it should be spun off into something else. Otherwise the medium would loose its focus. An artificial coupling would be created based on the writer’s state of mood rather than the readers’ organizational convenience. It seems kind of like an organization, rellly. This would indicate that lets-call-them-sub-ideas should be included in things only when they are only really important to that thing. It’s kind of like a function in a program. If a sub-idea has much utility at all outside this one important idea then it should be spun off into its own Twitter post, blog post, or new Book. And of course, it should be published first, as it’s an important prerequisite. For instance, I personally wanted to look into seeing if EAs should write eBooks as opposed to Blogging. But to do that, I would need to understand the benefits of Blogging, but that seems like it would be too useful a subject to only have in reference to the eBook discussion. So it became it’s own article, until I realized that the individual benefits of Blogging themselves have interesting properties that need to be adequately thought out. And on and on it could go. This is one reason why discussion is so damn fun in comparison to writing. Discussion can go anywhere, it can be in-conclusive. It’s more of a meandering mess where qualifications aren’t too important and you’ll never have to write a revision. So ideas just come out naturally without even the thought of perfecting them or adjusting them to a structure of any sort. I know people who would rather say something 30 times to people than write it down.
The counter to the one-idea-per-blog-post, of course, is the stream-of-consiousness technique in book writing. I haven’t seen this used very much for blogs and I’m kind of curious why. Blogging in the 21st century seems like it should be more experimental than writing on typewriters in the 20th. I’m sure I’m ignoring a lot of great content out there, but I believe I’ve really only witnessed relatively simple and short things. Even stories I read online seem to sound more like stories than life occurrences, they’re well tied up with cute moral epiphanies of one kind or another.
Rubrics as a Secret Weapon
I’m going to take a jump of faith and assume that you, the reader, probably don’t think much of grading rubrics. I’ll guess that you associate them with some set of grade school classes that were mundane and tedious, and perhaps the teacher didn’t seem very enthusiastic about them either.
When I was in 4th Grade I remember hearing my teachers repeatedly explain their frustrating with the standardized testing curriculum. They claimed that the yearly required tests forced them to turn their attention to less creative endeavors and that the entire class would be forced to learn some useless material because of it. I understood that standardized tests were the separating factor between my classroom activity and all of the cool stuff I hoped to get to.
When it finally got time to take the test that year, I felt kind of like a libertarian receiving a financial audit. I’d do the minimum amount, and I’d do it painfully and slowly. There were several multiple choice questions followed by a long essay on a made up story. I didn’t feel like coming up with an interesting tale, I was befuttled by this lame test in the first place. So I instead wrote a few paragraphs about someone complaining about how standardized tests were making their lives pointless and miserable.
This felt empowering until my Principal explained it to my parents a few weeks later.
I’m not sure how well this anecdote makes my case, but the point is that I’m a pretty full convert now. While I’ll still never accept much of what has been since schooled into me, I now believe that the rubrics or standardization were not really the problem. Perhaps they were done poorly; this seems to be the case for the recent New York one-curriculum program. But I hope that their implementation hasn’t permanently damaged the reputation of standardization and grading rubrics. Because on further consideration, both are really fantastic things.
The Rubric as a Piece in the Transparency Arsenal
After some initial nice thoughts on how we could adapt rubrics for 80k, I did a shallow research overview of the literature and found some surprises.
The existing research on rubrics focussed almost entirely on academia, and this seems like a complete pity to me.
Are Academic Rubrics a Fair Representation of Rubrics?
The Blog Medium as a Limiting Form Factor
When I first learned about Haiku’s I thought them to be overly specific and simple. I mean, consider the rules for them:
- The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
- Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 on respectively. Any one of the three phrases may end with the kireji. Although haiku are often stated to have 17 syllables, this is inaccurate as syllables and on are not the same.
- A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words. (From Wikipedia)
So if one were to write in Haikus they would be limited to a very specific syntax and a focus on juxtaposition and seasonal references. Out of the entire solution space of all poems this seems like an incredibly limitation, especially for prominent medium.
But on reflection, our existing mediums aren’t that much less limiting. Sure, those specific three rules don’t apply, but we can think of many unstated ones that do apply. While I find surprising limits to our definitions of most mediums, I’ll focus on blogging at the moment as that’s what I’m currently focussing on.
## The 7 Rules of Blogging
1. The Blog Post Must be Linear, being read from top to bottom.
2. The Blog Post must focus on one “main message”. All other ideas must be complimentary to this point.
3. All text must be placed in flat lines of a limited set of ASCII characters.
4. The Blog Post must be dated for a specific time of authenticity. If large future changes are to be later made, these should be posted into a new post.
5. The Blog Post must be complete as published.
6. The Blog Post must be between 250 words and 3,000 words.
7. Claims should have links to evidence
8. The Blog itself should appeal to a specific target audience. Different audiences require different blogs.
## The Rules of Commenting
1. Comments are mostly for praise and information.
2. One can either criticize a blog on tiny details or gigantic ones. Little in between.
3. Comments should be between 8 and 200 words.
4. Most of the rules mentioned above for blogging still apply. Why are blog comments different from forum comments? In forums it’s typical for a thread to get started with what is essentially a blog post, and then have discussion carried on for dozens of pages. But in comments I’ve almost never seen this be the case. LessWrong feels like a “Hybrid” but definitely leans more to the “Forum” mode in my opinion, as it allows for all people to post material and ranks comments on a similar manner to original posts.
Book Review: Damn Few Book Review: On Writing Book Review: The Year Without Pants Book Review: Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage