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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I


September 7th, 2019

Being informed is not the same as being knowledgeable.


Most information is noise.  And most people write off noise as nonsense.


But consider a different kind of noise for a moment:


You are in a quiet park full of trees.  A breeze comes along and the trees produce a noise, a sound of rustling.  It probably sounds enjoyable and relaxing.  Now two questions:


Do you write off that noise as meaningless and nonsensical?


Perhaps it’s meaningless, but it is not nonsensical, for one simple reason:


Do you understand why you are hearing the noise and what creates it?


Of course.  It’s fairly intuitive why a tree makes sound when a breeze sweeps through it.  It’s so intuitive, in fact, that we don’t think about it.  That noise and the reason why it happens is part of our mental model of the world.


Compare that to much of the noise of culture that we write off or purposely ignore because it’s somehow aggravating, or annoying or infuriating.  These emotional reactions are indications that we do not actually understand something that’s going on.  Can we be sure about this?  Well, let’s paint another situation that we’ve all experienced or seen.



You walk into a room and a friend or loved one is alert and looking around. 


“What’s going on?” you ask.


The friend looks at you tensely.  “Sssh,” they hiss at you.  “There’s this sound that keeps happening and it’s driving me crazy.  I’m trying to figure out what it is.”


As an analogy this has a fairly direct and straight forward fidelity to the entire news industry. 


Think about the sorts of questions that pop up when a discussion of news and current events is on the table:


Why do people do this?


Why did that happen?


Why are people so crazy?


I can’t believe this happened. . .


Are such questions not direct invocations of a lack of real understanding about how things work?  The most accessible and curable reason why understanding is so hard to come by has to do with the nature of institutions. 


The short prescription is:


Always be wary of the opinion of those who have a boss.  All of their thinking, opinion and analysis is skewed by their need to stay employed, which inevitably means saying things that will be approved and liked by one’s boss. 


This is perfectly human and understandable when we consider the individual in their situation, but that does not mean that it should be trusted.


Independent thinkers that have arranged their life so that their thoughts and the opinions they express are edited by no one, have the best material to investigate.  This is not a subjective opinion.  It is simply the condition that is most likely to produce clear thinking.  Not only are such people more likely to be honest from a straight forward point of view about what they think, but such people are free from any biases that are imposed via editing from a boss or self-imposed editing derived from their situation via the culture of the institution they work for….


much like the situation a salaried journalist is constrained by.


Case in point: the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and all other such establishments can be categorized and labelled on a spectrum of conservative, liberal, progressive and such and so forth.  The fact that, in general, their treatment of topics can be lumped into a category means that all of the information they come across and try to convey is filtered or arranged in accordance to this category.  If this weren’t true than such categorization would be impossible.


These categories are general frameworks for making sense of the noise of what’s going on.  The fact that there is so much discord, confusion, anger, rage and frustration should be taken as an indication that these frameworks don’t work very well.


It’s much like the problem that has befuddled the planet regarding one-god religions.  Which one’s right?  Each side thinks they are right and people have slaughtered each other over this topic since time immemorial.


Like political affiliations, religions too are frameworks for trying to understand reality.  They present a version, and again, if other people outside of this framework who affiliate with other ideas seem crazy to a frustrating and even infuriating degree, that should imply a problem with both the frameworks.


Only a wiser framework that can make sense of both such frameworks can give a person a sense of equanimity, but few seek out such expanded and nuanced understandings due mainly to constraints of time and the culture of an individual’s situation.


All the noise of media, news and the conflicts of the world are somewhat like the rustling of trees to someone with a framework that is nuanced enough to make sense of all of the sound.


This might sound like a hooty-tooty, holier-than-thou position that we feel inclined to call bullshit on, but consider this image:


A gardener plants a young tree.  A small breeze comes by and the leaves rustle.  The gardener understands the noise, and understands that nothing is wrong.  But say the breeze increases, and the sound of the rustling likewise increases.  The gardener gets nervous for the little tree because too much can damage the tree, and this is intuitively obvious because the gardener’s mental model of wind and the fragility of young trees conveys a dynamic understanding of what will happen given a certain threshold of wind.  Does the gardener simply sit placidly, listening to the increasing noise?  No, perhaps the gardener plants a larger tree next to the younger one to protect it.  Or perhaps the gardener wraps the young tree and secures it to the ground with ropes.


Much distinction is made between signal and noise, and Episode 396 attempts to link the two.  The distinction of signal and noise is not one of difference but one of perspective.  To a person who understands a situation, all noise constitutes signal, but not necessarily a signal that requires a course of action. 


We can illicit the link with another image:  Imagine a sailor on an old-school sailing ship.  The ship has hundreds of lines and for someone unaccustomed to the environment, it might seem like a garble of noise as the ship moves and sails.  However, the well-accustomed sailor is listening to everything with a different ear.  All the creaks and strains might sound alarming to the visitor, but to the sailor they constitute the normal, like the rustling of leaves for the gardener.  Because the sailor is so accustomed to each and every little noise, the sailor can quickly pick out when something is wrong because the noise is different, much like the change in rustling when the wind starts picking up and the rustling of a young tree changes to a different pitch.


The sailing ship and the tree form a good analogy in this case because everyone intuits the rustling of the tree, but the sailing ship –for most people- can only be understood from a conceptual standpoint.  And yet the two situations are identical in terms of noise, signal and the response or non-response that people or differing levels of understanding will undertake.


A visitor to a sailing ship that is heeling under a heavy gale will probably get freaked out. 


It’s easy to imagine the smile of an old and salty sailor looking upon the alarm of the passenger. 


Unlike the disgruntled millions of political affiliations, religions and purveyors of news outlets. . .


the sailor smiles because the sailor understands what’s going on.



This episode references Episode 396: Sign & Signal


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 510: Sensible Noise

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