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Monthly Reading, February 2023
Res Extensa #32 :: Decision-making velocity, intervention, religion in the modern era, hyper-orality, and what makes great writing
Hey everyone. I'm a couple days late getting my February links out. A solo trip up to Jacksonville and some routine medical visits later, I'm back. Onto the links.
Some people seem to be great at making decisions at speed. Decision velocity is a major component of the most effective, productive people and companies. But a key to being able to go fast and not turn every friction point into a roadblock is to have a framework for categorizing the types of decisions you face. One of the biggest learnings I had from Tom Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions was thinking about decisions along a cost/benefit spectrum. No decision is free, not only because making one decision naturally means you didn't take an alternate route, but also because of the deliberation time involved in landing on one. Decisions and the knowledge to make them have costs.
In the article, Taylor Pearson has this great 2x2 to help bucket different types of decisions:
It's not shocking to say that too many people spend too long in the bottom right and top left quadrants. In the top left (low magnitude, hard to reverse), the relative lack of magnitude should make irreversibility less worrisome. We confuse the permanence of a decision with it also being important.
The bottom right is the danger zone where I think companies waste the most time. Taylor references Jeff Bezos's famous "two-way doors" quote:
"Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong? Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure."
For every reversible decision we save time on with speed, we can devote additional thinking to those top right Big Decisions we encounter.
To do this, we’ll add not only edible plants that regrow year after year but also plants that capture and recycle nutrients into the soil. We’ll combine fruit trees and berries with nitrogen-fixing shrubs and deep-rooted plants that gather nutrients from below to enhance the soil.
A fantastic idea, and makes it tempting to find a place with more space to cultivate like this. But something to consider is the cost you bear as the intervenor. When you intervene in a natural system, you're taking on responsibility to continue the intervention — your intervention becomes a requirement for the new level of homeostasis:
Anytime we intervene with a self-regulating system, we're signing up to bear the burden of maintaining it. Even if we prevent visible repercussions, we often decrease the system's ability to regulate and sustain itself. Instead of a self-renewing system, we create dependency on ourselves to prevent decay. We sign up to take on greater responsibility and expend more effort to make it work.
My relationship with religion sounds remarkably similar to howdescribes his own in this excellent analysis on the waning state of organized religion in the West. I've never been a member of a congregation, even though my family comes from American practicing protestant roots. Even with this nonparticipation, I have a deep respect for religion's role in society, and for the social value of the institution. Here's Brink:
As for me, I’ve never subscribed to any organized religious belief system, and my faith in the supernatural ended with Santa Claus. Nevertheless, I’ve always possessed what I would call strong religious sentiments: I have a definite sense of the sacred, and I am open and deeply drawn to experiences of awe in its presence. I’ve long had the feeling that religion is a fundamental, inescapable domain of human experience: we are all worshiping some God or some idols whatever we think we’re doing, and we’re all taking positions on great theological controversies regardless of whether we can articulate them. So my lack of belief in any organized faith tradition is a matter of some personal ambivalence: sometimes it’s felt like liberation from superstition, especially during my cocksure younger days, but even back then, and much more so now, it also feels like loss. It feels like homelessness.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Lots to think about — about what might happen with the "privatization of belief", as Lindsey describes it.
There are some interesting notes here not just on LLMs, but on how oral cultures communicate so differently from how we do today. For thousands of years before written language all human culture was oral. If people couldn't communicate their knowledge and history through spoken word, it would be lost. This aspect in turn has influenced the way languages have evolved. Gordon references a fascinating book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong (now on the reading list), which analyzes the social impact of oral vs. written vs. printed language.
We’ve had about six-thousand years of literacy. Before that, it was hundreds of thousands of years of gathering around campfires, telling stories, sharing knowledge, imparting beliefs, from generation to generation to generation. We are an oral species, and only recently literate.
Knowledge in an oral tradition is a living thing that must be actively cultured. There is nowhere outside the mind to store it, so it either gets repeated, or dies.
“To solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thoughts must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antithesis, in alliterations or assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions... Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems.” —Walter J. Ong, 1982, Orality and Literacy
In the living medium of the spoken word and communal memory, thoughts take on smooth curves, honed by the evolutionary selection pressures of telling and retelling over many generations.
I hadn't thought about the idea of languages evolving through "fitness" pressure like any other adaptation. This is why the tactics of rhetoric work so well in the English language. Alliteration, oxymorons, hyperbole, synecdoche, and others1. It turns out that what's pleasing to the ear — what's memorable — transmits through future generations more easily than something stilted or complex. What works survives. And rhetoric's been a field of study since the days of Aristotle, its effectiveness identified and modeled thousands of years ago.
Compare these two paragraphs:
“I know,” he said angrily.
“I know,” he grunted through gritted teeth.
The second one is generally “better” writing. But why?
The most basic explanation is: the first version uses an adverb. Adverbs bad! But why are they bad?
Well the better explanation is that the first version “tells instead of shows.” Saying “angrily” is not as vivid as “grunting through gritted teeth.” The latter is much easier to imagine.
But the best explanation is that the first version is visible, the second is invisible. The reason “telling instead of showing” is bad, and the reason the adverb is bad, is that they both make it clear a story is being told to you, instead of the story being hallucinated in your head.
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