Writing in Public

Why is there some writing rather than no writing here?

The Corona lockdown brought me a lot of me-time and that is why I am writing this piece of text. They say the first sentence is the hardest and there I did it. It turns out actually writing something down is different from thinking a thought. I think thoughts all the time, but organising coherent sentences that express thoughts is much more difficult. I used to organise coherent sentences and utter them everyday, but given the lock-down that is no longer the case. Language is not transparent. Given the struggles I encounter writing down the above words, clearly the process of thinking is distinct from the process of writing or forming coherent sentences. Maybe this distinction is particularly salient since I conduct my life in a foreign language.

The dimensions (and the interactions thereof) to the gap between thoughts and utterances/writing are many. A prominent one is that thoughts are (at least for now) private (before sharing) while strings of text are in some sense decidedly public. (Well, it seems to me that at least complex thoughts can remain illusive to the ‘outside’ if we try to hide them. The ‘Dutch Book’ argument seems to suggest thoughts and beliefs can be elicited through non-verbal means.) We write down (or speak) not random strings but coherent sentences because we hope someone will have access to it. This someone could be ‘me’ at a later point in time, a currently interlocutor, or any kind of ‘audience’ one can have in mind.

Can there be any truly ‘private’ writing? Probably not, the privacy of the diary and the protections for naughty discussions afforded by the ‘Chatham house rule’ are merely norms so we are protected from the public nature of written/spoken language. I am sure that there are philosophical discussions on these topics. I am not qualified to discuss that, but as someone who is currently writing a blog post I feel writing in public takes at least a little bit of courage. Of course, here ‘public’ means accessible through the internet as opposed the the more ‘private’ writing such as a diary entry or text messages.

There are reasons why writing is scary. Perhaps the most famous discussion on this is Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing. For Strauss (on some interpretation), writing, at least for philosophers, takes both courage and skill since there are truths that might lead to persecution. The two are substitutes, of course. (This is probably a plausible critique to the nascent NLP literature. The jargon, I think, is strategic behaviour.) I am not a philosopher and don’t have many dangerous things to say. My concerns are much more mundane: grammar, word choice, and structure.

Grammar is an interesting case. There should be a solution to the fear of grammar. The quantity of correct syntactical rules should be finite and an expert system should be able to check any piece of writing against a rule book in principle. However, it seems the current best machine-based solution is based on statistical machine learning. (Need to look up why.) Harder still is determining issues about structure, for example, the present post is probably too long and too repetitive for what it intends to do. Although, there is this website called Hemingway Editor which claims to ‘make your writing bold and clear.’ Maybe the real hard problem is determining my definition of what good prose is. ‘This blog post is long and repetitive’ can probably be construed as a statement about the order and distribution of words represented here, but I find it hard to imagine to not take it as a suggestion about how this blog post should be.

This blog is long and rambling and perhaps it is time to get to the point. I will have an academic website sometime in the future, so I might as well get the domain name now. I plan to write down research notes and maybe personal updates. I think this (1) might lead to helpful discussions, (2) can be helpful reminders to my future self, and (3) and I need a sense of shame (being accountable for a public statement) to function.

Here is the personal update part:

  • I am reading Debt’s Dominion – should probably finish it soon, been on and off for a few months now.
  • I am following the Causality course (DAGs) at ETH and Metrics II course at UZH. The two seem to have more synergy now. I also use the AEA Continuing Education 2020 Mastering MHE webcasts as a supplement. Have to say that Josh Angrist’s IV lecture is pretty good (maybe this is because I am viewing it after the local course). Also, Alberto Abadie’s presentation includes a brief introduction to DAGs, maybe the economic profession is not as graph-phobic as Pearl claims? I am reading the related Chapter in MHE and the Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View chapters from the Causality course. I should also read the handbook chapters assigned from the UZH course.
  • I am no longer following the Empirical Process Theory course. Too much apples to juggle around at one time.

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