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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I

FORMATTING

November 26th, 2020

 

People will pay you millions to format something.  This is what most of the current tech industry is entered around.  Formatting is usually, or most commonly thought of as aligning paragraphs, choosing a font, deciding on page breaks, and certainly this is formatting.  But what is going on in the most fundamental level here?  Information, usually words, are simply being organized.  The format of a book is an organization of words.  It could be scroll.  Or it could be a Facebook feed.  The difference is that one is outdated and physically unreliable, whereas the other has a market cap of 784 Billion.  But in essence, the only difference is… formatting.

 

Facebook formats the inputs of millions of people into a layout and structure that is “engaging” (for lack of a better word that perhaps indicates the insidious stickiness of the platform.). Imaginably, Facebook, or twitter or Linkedin could all be handwritten.  But then, how would all that paper be compiled?  In a book?  This simply wouldn’t work.  The evolution of the screen from TV to computer and then superphone enabled a complete reimagining of the sort of data structure which could handle gargantuan amounts of text and data.  

 

The OED is a great example of the issue.  The Oxford English Dictionary boasts a collection of 600,000 words from over a thousand years.  The OED can be purchased as a physical book.  It’s twenty volumes.  Or, conveniently, there’s a digital version which doesn’t require 40-50 pounds of books.  The OED can now fit in your pocket, but only because the formatting problem has been solved for modern times.  Strange and perhaps sad that few people actually do have the OED in their pocket, but then again, Google does a good enough job when it comes to esoteric and grandiloquent vocabulary.  

 

One way to discover a niche that can be made lucrative by tackling it with tech is to simply find a cannon of data that has yet to benefit from the reformatting possibilities promised by tech.    Find a way to ingest this data programatically, and then make it available in a way that saves people time, or brings people delight.  Boom.  

 

Of course, as with everything, execution is far more important than the actual idea.  Half a minute of hungover consideration by most people could rustle up a few billion dollar ideas that fall between the rails of these parameters.  The difference, of course, is that practically no one ever shakes off the hangover, scrubs their eyes and hauls themselves through the excruciating and often tedious process of bringing an idea to life.

 

The old format “works” and like many traditions, regulations, and institutions that we rile against, they work well enough to keep from disturbing the tranquility of not being bothered to do something about it.  Being bothered is relative of course.  It’s never a question of being bothered, it’s always a matter of how bothered someone is.  Enough to do something about it?  

 

Not usually.

 

Formatting, or rather, reformatting is a fantastic way to look at innovation because it captures the essence of the task.  Innovation, as a word, and as a concept, sparkles.  It’s fresh, it has verve, it’s infused with hope and we all want a piece.  On the other hand, no one is interested in reformatting.  Formatting anything is generally a boring and fairly unsexy task.  But innovation and formatting - in this context - are much the same, as eerie and odd as that might be. And the process of innovation is often tedious, and unsexy.... like formatting.


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Podcast Ep. 956: Formatting

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Tinkered Thinking


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RHYTHM & MELODY

November 25th, 2020

 

In comedy, timing is everything.  Launch the punchline a little too early, or after a long winded and exhausting set up, and a funny joke can fall flat.  The key to comedy is realizing that it’s just story telling rigged up with a particular timing.  Much like music.  And so too in writing.  Creating something that is both surprising and delightful (as opposed to surprising and off-putting) is a matter of variance and familiarity.  Rhythm creates the familiarity.  Surprise through variance is all in the melody, and the combination of the two weave a cognitive magic for the human ear.

 

Content is king in the age of the internet, but the age old adage stands divine: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  With so much creative history to stand on, almost everything written today is a remix of some sort, a rephrasing, a rehash with a fresh perspective.  And strangely, the remixed song is often more successful than the original.  Music is the perfect medium to explore this concept of how vs what because a listener can quite literally hear the cut and paste, and experience how well it does or doesn’t work.  The same set of observations, however, apply to writing.

 

Write a piece that is composed completely of 70 word sentences and it’s likely going to be quite a long slog for the reader.  Switch it up.  Cut in short sentences.  Offer some medium length grist to chew on.  And suddenly, a piece of writing seems to take on a new dynamism, a bit of life that doesn’t exist in the purely long-winded treatment.

 

Writing an essay and telling a joke can take on helpful similarities around rhythm and melody.  The story telling we call comedy is all about a rhythm that primes the mind for a perfectly timed juxtaposition that is unexpected but brings everything together.  A great essay does something similar, but the connection to writing goes even deeper.  The practicing writer hones for a feeling of rhythm and timing, improvising on the fly, like a jazz player, seeking something new.  In essence, the writer of the essay tries to find the punchline buried within a set of curiosities.  This is, of course what essay means - to try, in the same way jazz is -at heart- an attempt to create something new, fresh and delightful on the spot, spun from a deep sense of rhythm and melody.

 

The rhythm and cadence of words, clauses and sentences within an essay has a greater impact on the reader’s attention than perhaps anything else.  Keeping the same tempo throughout is a bore.  Like a piece of writing where every sentence is quite long.  But shifting constantly at random can be as straining as a cat walking on a piano, jerking the reader’s attention around in a way that is anything but music.

 

 

There is a balance to be discovered, to practice and play with.  And that’s really at the heart of it: to create something playful.  That juvenile word perhaps captures it best: play is what is both surprising and delightful.  It is the tradecraft of curiosity, and what so many adults seem to have such a hard time rediscovering - perhaps ironic considering play itself is a process of discovery.  The genuine writer is little different than a kid in a sandbox, but the castles fashioned aren’t made of sand, but of words.  The rhythm and melody discovered in those sonorous bits create a structure for the reader’s attention, much like the gaze of an onlooker that bounces from turret to drawbridge, spandrel and arch.  With practice, play develops into an art.  And then, with writing, a writer’s attention dances with the subject, so that the words might then dance with the reader’s attention.


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Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 955: Rhythm & Melody

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Tinkered Thinking


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ORIGINAL SOLUTION

November 24th, 2020

 

The first person to figure out how to ride a bike must have seemed a bit crazy.  Apparently, the first verified person to accomplish this hallowed task was a Karl von Drais.  Imagine the sort of trouble people have trying to find their balance on a bike, falling over and over before getting the hang of it.

 

A cute modern solution to this problem seems to have arisen in the last few years.  Take the pedals off the bike, make it lower to the ground and then kids can safely walk the bike and pick their feet up for brief interludes until the balance for it comes online.  

 

This innovation seems perfect and painfully so as someone who had to go through the unfortunate shock of having training wheels removed only to realize there had been no training with those training wheels.  It had all been a fraud and oh, there was now scuffed up palms, a bleeding knee and an awkwardly situated helmet to deal with, not to mention the bicycle that seemed to have switched to being on the top position.  

 

 

It was a rude awakening.  So how did the first person manage to push through this learning curve and have faith that something that had never been done before could be done?  Well it comes as a somewhat bitter surprise that the very first bicycle had no pedals.  It was more like a glider.  It had two wheels and it could be steered, but the primary method of getting it to go was either downhill or with one’s feet in contact with the ground, pushing it forward.

 

Perhaps our Karl von Drais didn’t look so ridiculous after all when that first fateful ride of the bicycle was undertaken.  It’s that later innovation, of pedals and gears with a chain that actually got in the way of the first skill needed to ride a bike: balancing.  Then the new and improved bicycle with it’s pedal propulsion system was simply shrunken down, pedals, gears and all, and it seems the utility of having no pedals was forgotten.  

 

Does a little kid really need the ability to go faster?  Certainly not.  But now kids have a mighty hard time figuring out how to ride a bike, and so the truly insidious invention of the training wheel came about.  Certainly it could be chocked up to one more way to profit off the enterprise riding bikes, but more likely it’s the result of a far simpler problem: creating something additional as a solution when the better solution is to simply take away the problem.  

 

 

 

For the bicycle it requires either a knowledge of the history of the quaint machine or a thoughtful and circumspect understanding of the machine to realize that it doesn’t really need pedals and a chain for someone who is learning it - that is, to see the pedals and chain as an add-on that can therefore be removed.

 

What’s most important things to highlight about this sly set of developments is that it wasn’t clear how important the original simplicity of the bicycle was until you improve it, make it more complex and cover up the simplicity that made it so much easier to learn to ride in the first place.


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Podcast Ep. 954: Original Solution

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Tinkered Thinking


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COIN OF COMPASSION & CRUELTY

November 23rd, 2020

 

There is an idea and opinion among scientists that theory of mind began with the invention of predation in the Cambrian period.  Before this period, there were no hunters, and nothing was subjected to being prey.  Imagine a world of plants and molluscs, all at peace, but certainly without much incentive to evolve.  The invention of predation provided just that sort of incentive.  To develop eyes and ears, not only to look out for predators, but also to try and find lunch.

 

The advent of predation likely kickstarted a sensory arms race that extended not just to ways of getting information from the environment, but also ways of interpreting that information.   Theory of Mind is quite likely one of those interpretations that help an organism flourish and persevere in this cutthroat game of survival.  If you can model the mind of your prey in your own mind, then you can think like that prey, and thereby anticipate the movements and plans of that prey, to predict them, and plan accordingly in order to intercept, ideally at lunchtime.  The converse is also symmetrically powerful.  If you are prey modelling the mind of your top predator, then you are predicting how they will perhaps try to predict your own movements and by going on this little imaginary adventure, potentially thwarting the designs of an enemy who is bent on consuming you.

 

One disturbing ramification from the notion that theory of mind arises from the invention of predation has to do with compassion and cruelty, and how they may be inextricably linked.  

 

Compassion, to start with the lighter and kinder of the two requires a theory of mind.  In order to feel compassion for someone else, it’s necessary to imaginatively put one’s self in the situational shoes of someone else.  This requires, not just compiling all the situational components of their life, but also taking detailed measure of their emotions as represented by their actions, their words and their expressions.  With so much information, the compassionate among us can close eyes and imagine the world as someone else, to model the mind of that person and to then feel the pain or pleasure, sorrow and surprise that someone else a tally experiences.  This is one of our greatest gifts as a species.

 

There is, however, an uncomfortable flip side to this powerful theory of mind.  Cruelty at its most diabolical requires the same exact theory of mind.  In order to consciously and deliberately hurt someone as much as possible, one must first play the same trick: to imagine what it is like to be that target person and then ask, what would be the worst thing that could happen to someone with this perspective?  Without theory of mind, the cruel intention can’t land as close to the heart as possible.  Cruelty is a potentially random strike, like a first move in a game of Battleship, equipped with a fairly random set of odds as to whether action will land effectively or not.  Theory of mind removes a lot of this guess work by zeroing in on what is important for another organism.  This is exactly how it likely functioned with predation.  What is important to the predatory is inversely identical to the prey, so the development of a theory of mind potentially had a large incentive to iterate quickly.  What is important to the prey is to not be eaten and the predator is equally in need of lunch, hence the need to model one another’s view of the world becomes equally important.

 

It’s certainly just conjecture, but it’s possible that compassion - one of the most exalted qualities that we prize among our species may in fact be a product of something that is anything put compassionate: predation.  


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Podcast Ep. 953: Coin of Compassion & Cruelty

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Tinkered Thinking


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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: MURMUR

November 22nd, 2020

 

In the sky a dark wave unfurled and lightened as it thinned, the birds resolving as tiny dots in the evening light.  The whole mass of them turned up on end like an undulation of water commanded by some ethereal force.  And there they twisted tight and dark before collapsing down and spreading out again.

 

“What is it?” The boy asked Lucilius.

 

“It’s called a murmuration.

The boy slowly repeated the new word, before looking to Lucilius again.  

 

“Why do they do it?”

Lucilius breathed deeply and then sighed.  “Oh, well, there’s a piece of the puzzle that you can’t see right now.”

 

“What’s that?”  The boy asked.

 

“Well, if we were to go diving in the sea, we’d eventually come across a school of fish doing much the same thing, tightening up together like that.”

“The fish do that too?”

“Yep.”

“But why?”

“Well the fish do it because there are much bigger fish in the sea trying to eat them, so they gang up together to stay safe.”

“Does it work?”

Lucilius nodded his head from side to side.  “Sometimes, but often it just makes them an easier target.”

The young boy watched the birds dancing together in the sky, squinting in a bit of confusion.  He looked around at the rest of the sky.

 

“But there’s nothing hunting the birds.”

 

Lucilius smiled gravely at the young boy.  “A long time ago there were much bigger things floating through the skies, much bigger things that needed to eat.”

 

The boy wore an unbelieving look as he studied Lucilius’ face for other signs, but when a fish jumped far down the shore the boy started and quickly looked before gazing up and around him for anything else that might be in the sky.

 

“Where are they now?”

“Extinct.”

 

“So why do they still do that if they aren’t in danger?”  The boy asked, looking up at the thousands of dancing swallows.

 

“That’s an excellent question.  And you should remember it as you get older.  You’ll find a lot of people continue to do strange things because they were once in danger but aren’t in danger any longer.”

 

“It sorta just looks like they’re dancing.”  The boy mused aloud.

 

“Well here’s a good question: why do things dance?”

“Because they’re afraid?” The boy offered.

 

Lucilius shrugged.  “Maybe.  It’s certainly a good strategy that some people have figured out.”

“To dance when you’re afraid?”

“Sure, people often sing to themselves when they’re scared.  It can help calm yourself down.”

 

The boy sat with a look of odd surprise, digesting the notion.  Then slowly the boy grew curious, confused.  He looked to Lucilius.

 

“When did those big birds go extinct?”

“Oh, long time ago, real long ago.”

The boy grew suspicious.  “How do you know about the big birds that went extinct?”

 

Lucilius gave the boy a knowing smile.  “Maybe I saw them?”

“That’s impossible, you’re not old enough.”

“How do you know?  I was here before you.”

The boy considered with more suspicion.

 

“Kiddo, you have to realize, it’s a strange tradition, but adults are constantly lying to kids about stuff.”

 

“About everything?”  The boy nearly shouted.

 

“No, not everything, but for whatever reason, a lot of stuff just doesn’t get properly explained, and often you just get something that’s wholesale off planet.”

 

“But why?”

Lucilius shrugged his shoulders.  “Ya know, I’m not really sure why.  I think maybe it has to do with the fact that other adults are often so unwilling to believe or accept what other adults say, and maybe it’s just refreshing to have a kid around who will believe any old thing, and adults just have a bit too much mindless fun with that freedom, or they’re just trying to make a short cut so they don’t have to explain something all the way.”

 

The boy was a bit dejected, looking down at the grass, till he noticed again the rolling murmuration in the sky.  He smiled at it, and then tried to imagine a bigger bird diving at the flock, trying to eat some of the smaller birds.  The murmuration seemed to split and move in a way that would dodge the attack.  A light smile formed on the boy’s face.

 

“Wait.” The boy exclaimed, pausing for a moment to gather his words as Lucilius looked to him.

 

 

“Are you lying to me?”


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 952: A Lucilius Parable: Murmur

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Tinkered Thinking


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