# Most Writers Are Writers

In a disproportionate amount of fiction works, the protagonist turns out to be a writer. The explanation is that the end products are created by writers, who put themselves into their works. And when you write what you know, a writer tends to write about writing. In other words, it’s selection bias.

According to tvtropes, this phenomenon is called “most writers are writers,” and writing about writers has several advantages in providing realistic excuses for (un-)realistic diction, investigative skills, journalistic connections, short work weeks, and arbitrary research knowledge that you characters need to have. The same applies for screenwriters about the film industry, and so forth.

TVTropes also contains the following addition:

“A consequence of this is that there is a disproportionate number of works involving the difficulties associated with getting a job after college when you have an English major, even if it’s a good economy, as all the writers were English majors, and virtually none of them could find a job after college, even in a good economy.”

Of course, Most Writers Are Writers does not entail that all writers are writers, only that a disproportionately large number of them are. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of writers and authors in 2012 was 129,100, or 0.04% of the US population. A different site estimates the low end at 250,000, or 0.08% of the population. In either case, clearly a much larger percent of books written include writers as main characters.

The downside of Most Writers are Writers is that other people are underrepresented. To be sure, there are books and screenplays written about anything possibly imaginable. But the subfields are much smaller, and are often much less accurate because of this selection bias.

For instance, scientific terms and concepts are used incorrectly all the time in the subfield of science fiction, where authors are supposed to have a higher-than-average understanding of science in the first place. We excuse sci-fi authors for making technical mistakes because they’re writers, not scientists (exceptions exist). On the other hand, when’s the last time you recall a blatant mistake written about the writing process or a book deal? Never, because someone writing about these will be knowledgeable of them.

But that is about writers’ interests and their knowledge of science. The Most Writers Are Writers trope is different in that it concerns the characters themselves: it’s very rare for a main character to actually be a scientist. And when they are, they’re often beyond terrible at their job, itself a bias, but that’s for a different time…

# Making Use of the Armchair: The Rise of the Non-Expert

As with all news, when I heard about the Sochi skating controversy last week, I read multiple sources on it and let it simmer. From the comments, however, that I saw on Facebook, Reddit, and on the news websites themselves, one thing struck me—nearly everyone seemed to be have extensive knowledge of Olympic figure skating, from the names of the spins to the exact scoring rubric.

How could this be? Was I the only person who had no idea who Yuna Kim was, or that Russia had not won in the category before?

Much of this “everyone is an expert” phenomenon is explained by selection bias, in that those with more knowledge of skating were more likely to comment in the first place; therefore, most of the comments that we see are from those who are the most knowledgeable.

But it’s unlikely that there would be hundreds of figure skating experts all commenting on at once. Moreover, when you look at the commenting history of the people in the discussion, they seem to also be experts on every other subject, not just in figure skating. So another effect is in play.

Namely, the Wikipedia effect (courtesy of xkcd):

Of course, this effect is not limited to skating in the Olympics. When Newtown occurred, masses of people were able to rattle off stats on gun deaths and recount the global history of gun violence in late 20th- and early 21st-century.

Even so, not everyone does their research. There are still the “where iz ukrane????” comments, but undoubtedly the average knowledge of Ukrainian politics in the United States has increased drastically in the past few days. If you polled Americans on the capital of Ukraine, many more would be able to answer “Kiev” today than one week prior. For every conceivable subject, the Internet has allowed us all to become non-expert experts.

Non-Expert Knowledge

The consequences of non-expert knowledge range from subject to subject. The main issue is that we all start with an intuition about something, but with experience or training comes a better intuition that can correct naive errors and uncover counterintuitive truths.

• An armchair doctor might know a few bits of genuine medical practice, but might also throw in superstitious remedies into the mix and possibly harm the patient more than helping. Or they might google the symptoms but come up with the wrong diagnosis and a useless or damaging prescription.
• Armchair psychologists are more common, and it is easier to make up things that sound legitimate in this field. It is possible that an armchair psychiatrist will help a patient, even if due to empathy and not from psychiatric training.
• Armchair economist. Might say some insightful things about one trend that they read about in the economy, but could completely miss other trends that any grad student would see.
• Armchair physicist. Might profess to have discovered a perpetual motion machine, to be dismissed by a real physicist because the machine actually has positive energy input and is hence not perpetual. Or, might read about the latest invisibility cloak and be able to impress friends by talking about the bending of electromagnetic waves around an object by using materials with negative refractive index, but has no idea that it only works for a particular wavelength, thus making it practically useless (for now).
• Armchair philosopher. Perhaps the most common, the armchair philosopher notices the things that happen in life and takes note of them. The article that you are currently reading is armchair philosophy, as I basically talk about abstract stuff using almost zero cited sources, occasionally referencing real-world events but only to further an abstract discussion.

Going back to the physics example, we normal people might observe the drinking bird working continuously for hours and conclude that it is a perpetual motion machine. An armchair physicist might go further to claim that that if we attach a motor to it, we could generate free energy.

A real physicist, however, would eventually figure out the evaporation and temperature differential, and then conclude that it is not a perpetual motion machine.

Five minutes of reading Wikipedia will not allow you to match an expert’s knowledge. But having non-expert knowledge sometimes does help. It opens up the door to new information and ideas. If everyone spoke only about what they were experts in, the world would become boring very quickly.

Talking About Topics Outside of Your Expertise

In everyday speech, any topic is fair game except for, ironically, the one topic that everyone is deemed to be an expert in even without Wikipedia—(their) religion. But I digress. The point is, the way we talk about things on a day-to-day basis is very different from the way experts talk about them in a serious setting.

Some differences are very minor and just a matter of terminology. For instance, I was discussing the statistics of voter turnout in the 2012 election one time, and I had phrased it as “percentage of eligible people who voted.” At the time, I did not know that “turnout” was a technical term that meant precisely what I had just said; I thought it was just a loose term in that didn’t necessarily consider the difference between the electorate and the total population, hence why I phrased it so specifically. In this example, the statistics I presented were correct, and thus the conclusion was valid, but the terminology was off.

Other differences are more significant. In the case of medical practice, a lack of formal understanding could seriously affect someone’s health. Using Wikipedia knowledge from your smartphone to treat an unexpected snake bite in real time is probably better than letting it fester before help arrives. But it’s probably safest to see a doctor afterwards.

A non-expert discussion in a casual setting is fine, as is an expert discussion in a serious setting. But what about a non-expert discussion in a serious setting? Is there anything to be gained? If two non-physicists talk about physics, can any meaning be found?

My answer is yes, but you need to discuss the right things. For example, my training is in math, so it would be pretty futile for me to discuss chemical reactions that occur from the injection of snake venom into the human body. However, given that I had done my research properly, I might be able to talk about the statistics of snake bites with as much authority as a snake expert. Of course, it would depend on the context of my bringing up the statistics. If we were comparing the rise in snake deaths to the rise in automobile deaths, I might be on equal footing. But if we were comparing snake bite deaths between difference species of snakes, a snake expert probably has the intellectual high ground.

But even this example still requires you to use some area of expertise to relate it to the one in question. To the contrary, you can still have a legitimate discussion of something outside your area of expertise even without relating to an area of expertise that you already have. You only need to make a claim broad enough, abstract enough, or convincingly enough to have an effect.

Among all groups of people, writers (and artists in general) have a unique position in being able to say things with intellectual authority as non-experts. Politicians are next, being able to say anything with political power as non-experts. However, I’m interested in the truth and not what politicians say, so let’s get back to writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a formal historian of the 1920s, but The Great Gatsby really captures the decade in a way no history textbook could. George Orwell was not a political scientist, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was very effective at convincing people that totalitarian control is something to protect against.

The Internet and the Non-Expert

On the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four was not crafted in a medium limited by 140 characters or by one-paragraph expectancy. If George Orwell were alive today and, instead of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote a two-sentence anti-totalitarian comment on a news story on North Korea, I doubt he would have the same effect.

It is usually hard to distinguish an expert from a non-expert online. Often, an expert prefaces oneself by explicitly saying, “I am an expert on [this topic],” but even this is to be taken skeptically. I could give a rant on the times people claiming to have a Ph.D in economics had no grasp on even the most basic concepts.

In addition to allowing us the sum total of human knowledge just a click away (well, maybe not all knowledge), the Internet allows us to post knowledge instantaneously and share it with millions of other users. We have not only the public appearance of non-expert knowledge, but also the virus-like proliferation of it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been able to acquire knowledge about anything, but there was a great divide between the few content providers and the many consumers. Only recently have we become the content makers ourselves. What is the role of armchair philosophy in the age of information?

Conclusion

Now is a more important time than ever to be an armchair philosopher, or an armchair thinker, precisely because of the overwhelming amount of information available to us. To deal with the data overload requires an abstract way to categorize information, to filter out the useless from the useful, the wrong from the less wrong, the less true from the true.

We are expected to deal with areas outside of our expertise, and as our knowledge of these areas grows from the age of mass information, our responsibility to use it correctly becomes greater. Forming opinions even on issues that you have no authority to form opinions on is now an imperative. We learned the capital of Ukraine in one week, and our googling of Kiev might prove useful in the future. To deal with a quickly changing world, we need to deal with all information, not just data that we are comfortable with, as effectively as possible.

# My Blogging Philosophy

I sometimes get questions about the purpose of my blog, and also about the blog itself, such as why X is done instead of Y. This post is to answer these questions and to perhaps give you a better understanding of my blogging philosophy.

As with most things, the intents determine the characteristics. If I want to build a car that can go very fast, it will have to be aerodynamic. If I want to design a building to look modern, I would probably not include columns from classical Greece. Similarly, the intents of a blog will somewhat dictate its characteristics. By “characteristics,” I don’t mean the physical characteristics, like what font I use or where the widgets are placed—I’m not a graphic designer, and that is probably apparent from the elementary layout. Instead, what I mean by “characteristics” is the set of literary choices: Which topics do I write about? What tone/style/mood do I use? How much detail do I include? Should I avoid conflict or welcome it? And so on.

The purpose itself comes from my own values, experiences, and beliefs, and without going too much into detail, I’ve always been concerned with Truth. Sure, that sounds pretty cheesy, but one of the greatest lessons from history is that for vast amounts of time, whole civilizations were very confident in what they thought to be the truth, only to be proved wrong, time and time again, from factual truths like “Earth is flat” or “The world is about 6000 years old” to moral truths like “Slavery is okay” and “Women are inferior to men.” Each time, the people who first challenged these truths were brave individuals who stood up to society and were mocked and ridiculed, sometimes violently, for their beliefs. Such paradigm shifts are still happening today, within many beliefs in many countries. Hence, one of the major humanitarian imperatives of the 21st century is to be more open-minded than the past. Now, open-mindedness itself is a broad topic and has many questions (is rejecting a closed-minded worldview itself closed-minded?), but it really determines the purpose of this blog.

Primary intent: To get people to think in different ways.

With this directive in mind, it is probably much easier to see why I blog the way I blog. Here is a list of characteristics I came up with that are related to this objective:

1. (Try to) Write about interesting topics that someone would want to read. That is, if no one reads it, then it is pointless. In addition, I try to bring up unusual topics, because you probably already read about the usual topics elsewhere. Other times, I try to put an unusual twist on an otherwise normal topic. An example of this might be the previous post, which was on Internet trolling.

2. Be thought provoking. This is usually done by upfront making an unpopular or controversial claim. The religion and atheism posts are prime examples. To a lesser degree, so was the post against positive racism. These can sometimes provoke much more than just thought.

3. Use ethos and pathos, even when talking about things that fit under the realm of logos. This is especially difficult for me to do because I am a very logic-minded person to begin with, and furthermore, I generally treat arguments like mathematical proofs, which are not designed to be persuasive, but merely correct. On the other hand, I’m very aware that persuasion encompasses more than just proving you are correct, hence why I do try to include non-completely-logic-based rhetoric even in rational topics, like the rationality vs irrationality post.

4. Be very aware of cognitive biases and fallacies. As a counterpoint to #3, one benefit of being very logically minded is that it is easier to catch myself committing a logical fallacy or over/under-estimating something due to a cognitive bias. Of course, no one can be free of biases, but knowing what they are beforehand means you can work around them to some degree. Awareness and constant skepticism do help to construct a more accurate picture.

5. Avoid using mainstream arguments or sources, which are already familiar to everyone. Even though I consider my beliefs as moderately liberal, I rarely bring up many of the issues that liberals are typically concerned with. It is not because I don’t have views on those issues, but rather because I can’t contribute in those issues as much as someone else could. There is no value in my repeating what someone else said, especially if it is the consensus view. On the other hand, there is value in talking about what I am more knowledgeable in, rather than less. In addition, I have written posts that have criticized the typical liberal view on a few topics.

6. Avoid using authority. I don’t try to be an authority at X, and even when I start my job later this year, I doubt I will be writing any posts on quantitative trading. I talk about societal progress a lot, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. This is also part of the reason #5 exists: If I talk about a common issue that experts have exhaustively written about, you’re probably better off reading them. But on a very uncommon issue, I have more relative expertise since there is no authority.

7. Use generalist skills and areas of relative expertise. My general philosophy (no pun intended) is that I would rather know something about everything than everything about something. This is very easy to achieve today with the Internet literally at your fingertips. But using the information correctly and drawing the correct conclusions is the hard part, and it is not as easy as everyone thinks. This is where mathematical/statistical training really does help.

8. Pick topics that are not necessarily advanced, but look at them in a different way. Perhaps combine two simple or familiar topics together, like the victim blaming/religion post.

Overall, the objective of trying to get people to think in different ways is fairly successful. I post these on my Facebook wall timeline, and sometimes full-fledged arguments occur. But argument is better than no argument, and it shows that people at least have to think about and reevaluate their beliefs, leaving them in a better position than when they started, regardless of which side they were on.

# A Blogging Experiment

In previous years, my blogging was quite sporadic and inconsistent. This year, I tried writing one blog post a week, and it seemed to be fairly successful, both at getting ideas out and at writing more consistently.

I plan the same for 2014. Enjoy!

# Blogging, Controversy, and Meta-Controversy

Last week I wrote a pretty direct post on religion, and it quickly became the third most-read post on my blog in the past year, first being this one math post that somehow has really good Google pagerank.

Also, tomorrow, November 4, is the day this blog turns 4 years old, so I’ll go through some of the most-viewed posts of the past year.

1. Mind Blowing Mathematical Equations

$\displaystyle \sum_{n} \frac{1}{n^s} = \prod_{p} {\frac{1}{1 - \frac{1}{p^s}}}$

This post was written back in 2011, and it seems to have caught on by showing up really high on google searches for math. Instead of spiking and then decaying, as in the case for most posts, this one has steadily climbed over time, with 13,847 cumulative views. However, I suspect posts like this are the exception to the rule… [Link]

2. Tumblr vs WordPress

Posts in the form “X vs Y” are pretty popular, and this was written in 2010. Perhaps I should do more “Versus” articles. [Link]

3. My Views on Religion

This was the first time I tried to do a broad overview (instead of talking about specific parts of religion as usual), and I think it overall succeeded. However, the main problem is that the breadth was gained at the cost of depth, as I couldn’t really put too much explanation for any specific point. This caused an unfortunate number of misunderstandings (as shown on the Facebook thread), but I learned quite a bit about peoples’ religious views from it. I also learned that more controversial stuff gets way more pageviews. [It’s literally the previous post.]

4. Myers-Briggs

This post was on my Myers-Briggs type, which is INTP. I’m not really sure why this got popular. [Link]

5. Closeted Homophobes

This was a response to a CNN opinion piece that talked about how Christianity was becoming “a hated minority,” and that “Evangelical Christians say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning homosexuality,” and “a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.” I think it’s pretty obvious why this got many views. [Link]

6. Winning with 21.8% of the Popular Vote

Using some math, I determined how much of the popular vote you need to win a presidential election (assuming everyone votes and electors are faithful). [Link]

7. Fundamentalists vs Moderates

This post generated quite a bit of discussion on Facebook, particularly because I took the less-favored side. [Link]

8. Degree of Atheist Views on Social Issues

This was written on the day everyone used that as their FB profile picture. I argued that since atheists have no holy text instructing them to restrict peoples’ rights, the “debates” seem pointless.  [Link]

9. Race and Miss America

While there were plenty of voices criticizing the negative racism regarding this year’s Miss America, there weren’t as many on the positive racism. This got pretty popular with some heated debate. [Link]

10. College Stress and GPA-Centrism

This was particularly addressed to Cornell regarding its high-stress environment. [Link]

Controversy

Apart from 1 and 4, all of the top viewed articles were on some controversial topic. This isn’t a good representation of a normal post—I write plenty of non-controversial posts. On average, however, the controversial ones get far more views, which makes sense as people are more likely to click a link to a stance with which they strongly agree or disagree.

In addition, the posts on religion get an abnormally high amount of views, even compared to posts on other controversial topics. I suspect that this is because of the taboo status of religion, i.e., because it is not only that religion is controversial, but that the discussion of religion is controversial…

Meta-Controversy

One topic that interests me is why certain topics are controversial and why even the discussion of certain topics is controversial. (If this topic itself is controversial, does it become meta-meta-controversy?)

As discussed before, the taboo on religion basically acts as a shield preventing it from criticism, and even protects its more intolerant beliefs from criticism.

There is an undeserved respect of religion in our culture. In daily life it is considered perfectly okay to argue about our favorite sports teams, our differences of taste in food and music, and even our political beliefs. But the moment religion is brought up, it suddenly becomes “rude” or “offensive” to disagree with a believer or to even slightly question his or her beliefs. This, of course, is prime hypocrisy as many religions downright treat agnostics and atheists as subhuman or fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1). Imagine the public outcry that would occur if, in some atheist meeting, the members called all religious believers “fools.” Yet when religious people call all atheists “fools,” it’s perfectly okay, because you got to respect their religious beliefs. I suppose when religious people call blacks or women inferior, you’re supposed to respect that too? Does the religiosity of a belief make it immune to criticism?

The defensive nature of the taboo may not be coincidental, according to Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell, but I’ll talk about that later. Anyways, the point is that the discussion of religion should not be discouraged. Moreover, the discussion of taboo becomes a sort of meta-controversy.

Based on the stats, namely that the controversial stuff is significantly more popular, I’m going to write them as a higher percentage of posts. Here’s to a good 5th year!

# Thinking of a Topic to Write About

From 4 to 9 pm today, I’ve been intermittently trying to come up with a blog post topic. Yes, writing is painful, but thinking of a topic can be even more painful, since you are haunted by the fact that you still haven’t put words on the page yet.

In the end, the topic I chose was the process of thinking of a topic. Yeah, time for a meta blog post.

Most advice in thinking of a topic to write about is obvious. Write about what you are passionate about, write in an atmosphere that suits you, write from your unique experiences, etc. You can find all this typical advice in a google search (there, I even googled it for you, you’re welcome).

Instead, I’ll write about learning from personal writing habits. Of course, my writing habits are largely based on my personality type: an indecisive, perfectionist INTP. This leads to the following habits:

• My writing times are extremely spontaneous. I have written articles months in advance before posting them, but more often than not I have no idea what I am going to write about until I actually write something at the last minute. And then, there are days which I publish multiple posts, like last week.
• Productivity usually occurs in bursts. There are moments when I can write a lot, but usually I am rethinking something over and over. This happens in coming up with a topic as well: I can spend 30 minutes not knowing what to write about, and then come up with three fresh topics in the next 2 minutes.
• I am more productive when I have many things to do. In fact, when I have significantly more time, I end up not being that much more productive. It’s when I have no work to do that I can’t think of a topic to write about.

Heck, I actually ran into this issue before:

If I had a number one enemy, this would be it. You might have encountered this too. A lot of times I would hit the NEW POST button on WordPress and just sit there for the next five or ten minutes not knowing what to write about. Eventually I get sidetracked, maybe check email and Facebook, sometimes StumbleUpon, then abandon the blog post altogether. Even worse, sometimes I’ll think of the perfect idea for an article, then when I get back to my room to start writing, I don’t have the faintest idea what it was.

Perhaps in coming up with ideas, I should follow my own advice from two years ago:

To avoid forgetting ideas, you should best write them down. To come up with ideas is more difficult. You could try idea-generating sites to start out. WordPress this year started its PostADay project; bloggers try to make a post every day for the year. Each day, the site chooses a topic that bloggers can optionally select for their posts. Today’s topic, for example, is “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?”

There are plenty of other ways to find writing topics. Reading the news is definitely a good way, as there is often bound to be an article that you can write about. Talking with people is great as well. Other people always have great ideas—make sure you cite them though.

I’ll certainly keep this in mind.

In addition, I find I am significantly more productive when closer to a deadline for schoolwork and writing. Hence it might seem worth it to artificially hasten the deadline to be productive at an earlier time.

So far, a successful tactic has been forcing myself to have a topic prepared by Saturday, so on Sunday I can write about it and not have to worry about coming up with the topic. This week, I did not do so, and as a consequence I did not begin writing until 9 pm.

Anyways, write down your ideas and stay posted for next week.

(Of course, in the middle of constructing this article, several topics occurred to me. There should be some corollary to Murphy’s law regarding this: When something good can happen, it will only happen at the worst possible time.)

# What I Learned from 2012, and My Topics for 2013

I’ve had a pretty busy start-of-the-year so far, and I plan to get into a regular posting schedule on this blog for 2013. Currently, the plan is one post every Sunday for the remainder of the year.

This decision was largely based on some past problems. Here are some issues I have identified with my blogging in the past, especially in the years 2011 and 2012.

Problems

1. Lack of Schedule. I pretty much posted whenever, sometimes three times in a day, and other times not a single post for months. This is ultimately not a good way to attract regular readers.
2. Incoherency. As I wrote in my reflection The Future of this Blog (2012), there is an issue with the sheer number of different topics. I have already partially solved this problem by making a dedicated math blog, so that on this current one, I do not have to worry about alienating those without an advanced math degree. However, my topics are still quite varied, and because of this, I feel that there is too much breadth and not enough depth.

Solutions

The one-post-every-Sunday rule gets rid of the first problem. The second problem is a bit more difficult, given that I had already tried to solve it, without much success.

So here is my new solution. I will write about the topics that I am most passionate about and those that I am strongest at writing about. After reviewing my blog history as well as my current interests, I have formulated a new list of topics.

1. Atheism and Religion

I have previously been quite passive about the subject of religion. But the more I read about and watch what happens in the world, the more I realize it is one of the biggest problems right now. The amount of intolerance and violence that is justified in the name of religion is astounding. And even when it is not explicitly invoked, it has caused, is causing, and will cause great detriment to scientific understanding and societal progress unless the discussion of religion is taken more seriously. Towards the end of last year, I started writing a few articles about atheism and religion. I hope to continue this discussion in 2013.

2. Writing

In the past, I used to write plenty about the writing process. Somewhere in 2011 I ended up just dropping the topic. I plan to pick it back up and perhaps make some writing advice posts.

3. Productivity

Ever since I read Geoffrey Colvin’s excellent book Talent is Overrated, I have spent a lot of time thinking about productivity, as well as what I want to achieve with my life. Plus, I have written about productivity several times in the past.

4. College Life

Who is more qualified to talk about college life than an upperclassman college student? Just kidding about the qualification part. But I do think writing about college experiences can make college less of a mystery to the general community. And it might help convince you that I am an actual human and not some distant automaton on the internet.

5. Multi-Disciplinary Topics

I think one of my stronger skills right now is applying knowledge in one field to another. At least, I can do this on the internet. I played Diablo 3 last year, and was involved on the forums for some time. Using standard research skills, I wrote forum posts on how relevant ideas in probability, statistics, discrete mathematics, psychology, economics, history, and even sociology were responsible for many of the issues or situations in the game or player perception and responses to the game. These posts were all highly upvoted, linked many times and even reposted by other members of the community.

6. Space: the Final Frontier

My interest in space goes back to first grade, when I first looked out at the skies through a telescope. Recently, some incredible discoveries were made, especially the statistical result that 17 BILLION stars in just the Milky Way have an Earth-sized planet! Moreover, the announcement of Mars colonization from MarsOne turned heads. I will be writing more space posts once MarsOne releases more details, for a human landing on Mars will be sure to provoke scientific curiosity around the world for years to come.

7. Mathematics

Fortunately, you are spared of math topics on this blog. Of course, I will be have them on my new math blog.

Final Remarks