The Oil Crisis of 1973

Last month I investigated commonalities between recessions of the last 50 years or so. But of course this recession will be different, because (among other things) we will simultaneously have a labor shortage and a lot of people out of work. That’s really weird, and there’s almost no historical precedent- the 1918 pandemic took place during a war, and neither 1957 nor 1968 left enough of an impression to have a single book dedicated to them.

So I expanded out from pandemics, and started looking for recessions that were caused by any kind of exogenous shock. The best one I found was the 1973 Oil Crisis. That was kicked off by Arab nations refusing to ship oil to allies who had assisted Israel during the Yom Kippur war- as close as you can get to an economic impact without an economic cause. I started to investigate the 1973 crisis as the one example I could find of a recession caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production, for reasons other than economic games.

Spoiler alert: that recession was not caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production either.

Why am I so sure of this? Here’s a short list of little things,

 

But here’s the big one: we measure the price of oil in USD. That’s understandable, since oil sales are legally required to be denominated in dollars. But the US dollar underwent a massive overhaul in 1971, when America decided it was tired of some parts of the Bretton Woods Agreement. Previously, the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and many European countries maintained peg (set exchange rate)  between all other currencies and USD, which was itself pegged to gold. In 1971 the US decided not to bother with the gold part anymore, causing other countries to break their peg. I’m sure why we did this is also an interesting story, but I haven’t dug into it yet, because what came after 1971 is interesting enough.  The currency of several countries appreciated noticeably (Germany, Switzerland, Japan, France, Belgium, Holland, and Sweden)…

 

(I apologize for the inconsistent axes, they’re the best I could do)

 

 

…but as I keep harping on, oil prices were denominated in dollars. This meant that oil producing countries, from their own perspective, were constantly taking a pay cut. Denominated in USD, 1/1/74 saw a huge increase in the price of oil. Denominated in gold, 1/1/74 saw a return to the historic average after an unprecedented low.

 

 

 

(apologies for these axes too- the spike in this graph means oil was was worth less, because you could buy more with the same amount of gold)

 

This is a little confusing, so here’s a timeline:

  • 1956: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1967: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1971, August: US leaves the gold standard
  • 1972: Oil prices begin to fall, relative to gold
  • 1972, December: US food prices begin to increase the rate of price increases.
  • 1973, January: US Stock market begins 2-year crash
  • 1973, August: US food prices begin to go up *really* fast
  • 1973, October, 6: Several nearby countries invade Israel
  • 1973, October, 17: Several Arab oil producing countries declare an embargo against Israeli allies, and a production decrease. Price of oil goes up a little (in USD).
  • 1974, January, 1: Effective date of declared price increase from $5.12 to $11.65/barrel. Oil returns to historically normal price measured in gold.

This is not the timeline you’d expect to see if the Yom Kippur war caused a supply shock in oil, leading to a recession.

My best guess is that something was going wrong in the US and world economy well before 1971, but the market was not being allowed to adjust. Breaking Bretton Woods took the finger out of the dyke and everything fluctuated wildly for a few years until the world reached a new equilibrium (including some new and different economic games).The Yom Kippur war was a catalyst or excuse for raising the price of oil, but not the cause.

 

Thanks to my Patreon subscribers for funding this research, and several reviewers for checking my research and writing.

 

Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.

 

Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.

 

Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.

 

Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.

 

Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 

 

Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.

 

Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – this domain name and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.

Draft: Models of Risks of Delivery Under Coronavirus

I’ve never considered prophylactically quarantining myself before, but now that I’m considering it I find it contains many more choices than I would have imagined. Let’s take my need to eat- I could go to a supermarket, but that’s full of people. I could get delivery, but that still has a human touch. I could eat my stores, but then I won’t have them later. This makes “when do I stop ordering delivery?” an important question. To attempt a more informed answer, I made a guesstimate model. As of writing this (2/27) the numbers are completely made up: I just wanted to get comments on the underlying model. I’m working to fill in the variables with actual answers. If you want to follow along you can do so at my Roam page. I am exceedingly grateful for comments on either the abstract model or information that could help me fill in variables.

Here are some general factors going into my thinking:

  1. COVID-19 seems to have a long dormant period during which people are contagious but not symptomatic
  2. Some additional portion of people have only mild symptoms
  3. The economics of pink-collar work are such that a lot of people will go to work until they are on death’s door.
  4. 1+2+3 = if the virus is prevalent in the population, there will be a lot of contagious people handling stuff I order.
  5. The American government’s monitoring provides, at best, an extremely lagging indicator of prevalence, and is at worst made up.

 

Here are images of the model and Roam page now, for posterity

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 8.05.58 PM

Note that this shows food delivery as less risky than package delivery, which is clearly wrong.

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 8.06.54 PM

 

Set Ups and Summaries

Part of the research process I’m developing involves reading and thinking through the first and last chapter of a book, and first and last few paragraphs of a chapter, to get an expectation of what’s to come (combined with some other stuff I call this pre-reading). I’m currently pondering how much you can get out of this, and specifically if it’s fair to reject a work because it failed pre-reading.

Pre-reading is in part derived from advice in How to Read a Book to find a books “Unity”, the idea being that you’ll better incorporate information into your understanding if you know how it connects to the author’s larger point. I objected to HtRaB’s advice on this topic in my review, because it seemed to be trying to enforce an orderliness that reality does not support. Looking for a unified narrative encourages the author to throw out anything that doesn’t fit their narrative, and the reader to ignore it even when it’s included. Even in situations where there is a fairly clear narrative you might not know it yet, and it’s important to be able to share raw data without prematurely deciding what it means.

Then I pre-read chapter 12 of Children in Colonial America (an anthology: chapters have a common theme but each is meant to stand alone), and my immediate reaction was “nothing with this ending is going to be any good.”  The chapter is discussing specific individuals down to the last paragraph, with no attempt to summarize what’s come before. The start is better but not by much- the last sentence of the first paragraph should clearly be the first, and the contextualization the rest of the paragraph provides should have come after, not before, when I know why I care what percentage of 1770s Boston’s population was made up of children.

The paragraphs in question:

Boston, the American Revolution’s “cradle of liberty,” was a town full of children. As in British North America as a whole, over half the population was under the age of adulthood. Children participated in political actions as early as Boston’s first public protest against the Stamp Act, on August 14, 1765: an organizer described “two or three hundred little boys with a Flagg marching in a Procession on which was King, Pitt & Liberty for ever.”1 The first Bostonian to die in political violence was a young boy. Apprentices both brought on and suffered in the Massacre of 1770, and pushed their way into the Tea Party of 1773. How did those children interpret the political conflict, and what motivated many of them to participate?

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (p. 204). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

 

When war finally came, the little boys who marched against the Stamp Act in 1765 were of prime age to be soldiers. Some younger boys took war as a chance to assume adult freedoms. On April 19, thirteen-year-old Benjamin Russell and several friends left their Writing School and followed the redcoat reinforcements out of town, attaching themselves to the provincial camp by the end of the day. Teenagers enlisted with and without their parents’ consent. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Granger of Andover was so small that when he was singled out for praise, his captain “sat me down on his Knees.”37 These boys took on men’s roles in the fight for liberty, leaving the symbolic battles of childhood behind.

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (pp. 213-214). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

Those opening and closing paragraphs clearly fail at the goals of orienting and summarizing the work. But a lot of my posts are kind of crap at that too. I’m writing about ideas in their preliminary stages in a way that forces a lot of the work onto the reader. I’m doing it right now, although I have spiffed up the opening and closing to avoid embarrassment. Maybe this author is doing that.  It’s not like having a good introduction and summary are a guarantee of quality. Chapter 11 of the same book does a great job telling you what it’s going to tell you and what it’s told you, but I am pretty dissatisfied with it in ways I am even less able to articulate.

Back on the first hand, maybe factual chapters in professionally edited books should be help to a different standard than blog posts describing bursts of an in-progress project. Maybe my scattered opening and closing paragraphs should cause you to downgrade your assessment of these post (although if you could keep in mind what I’m capable of when I’m prioritizing idea transmission, that would be cool).

I don’t think books/chapters/blog posts should be held to a single unifying narrative. But facts and models are a lot more useful connected to other facts and models than they are in isolation. The author making no attempt to do so makes my job harder- perhaps impossibly so given how little I know about the chapter’s topic.

Yeah, that feels quite fair-  this chapter might be very useful to people more familiar with the field, but that doesn’t mean it’s very helpful to me, a non-expert trying to bootstrap her way up.

A thing I would normally praise Children chapter 12 for, and did praise other chapters of the same book for, is providing a lot of concrete examples to shore up general assertions (e.g. “A large number of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was children” was followed by references to demographic counts from a large number of ships). But the information doesn’t feel quite right. For example, when describing the youth of men who enlisted in the American army, the chapter uses an anecdote about a 13 year old sitting on his commander’s knee. That doesn’t address the paragraph’s stated concern of “how did the Revolutionary War affect teenage boys’ options?” and it’s also a really terrible way of assessing the prevalence of 13 year olds enlisting. That’s one of those questions best answered by counting. And neither really belongs in the final paragraph of a chapter, which chapter 3 knew and chapter 12 didn’t.

Ah, this is a thing: tallies of thousands of people across dozens of ships is not really comparable to an anecdote about one 13 year old. The anecdote just isn’t useful data, except maybe as a pointer to where to find more data. Anecdotes have their place, but the bare minimum to make a compilation of anecdotes useful is knowing how they were generated. Are they representative? Slanted towards some group or ideology?

I’ll look like a real ass here if I don’t have a summary, but I’m still not sure what I’ve learned. I still think How to Read a Book is wrong to insist every book have a clearly defined Unity. I think Children in Colonial America Chapter 12’s opening and especially closing paragraphs signal failure on some level, although I am not absolutely certain what signal I’m picking up on. I’ve spent longer writing this and skimming the chapter than it would have taken to read it deeply, but that’s okay because it was a better use of my time.

 

Review: How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren)

As part of my research on how to bootstrap understanding in a field, I’m reading books that attempt to answer that question. You might think I should have started with that, but it was useful to get a sense of what problems I needed to solve before I looked for the solution. How to Read a Book (affiliate link) is generally very well regarded in this area and came with a strong recommendation from the CEO of Roam, who I would expect to have pretty good thoughts on learning structure. Nonetheless, I was quite disappointed. It took me a long time to put my disappointment into words, but with the help of someone on Facebook I finally figured it out: How to Read a Book is aimed at a narrower subset of books than it acknowledges. What subset, you might ask? I don’t have a great answer, because the authors clearly consider the subset to be the only books, or the only books worth reading, so they didn’t leave a lot of clues. 

What I can say is that it expects books to follow a rigid structure, and to have a single unifying point (what they call “the unity”). This seems to me to be setting up both the author and the reader to throw out a lot of information because they weren’t expecting to see it or couldn’t fit it into their existing frameworks- reading like a state, in essence. This is not the only thing that makes me think HtRaB is more about being able to understand a book than understand the world, although it’s the only one I can articulate.

How to Read a Book didn’t even attempt to answer my current most important question in reading: How do I know what to save or pay attention to? More attentive reading (including but not limited to note-taking) takes more time and more mental effort. Even if it was free, every additional memory or note eats up space in my brain or exobrain and makes it harder to find other thoughts when I look for them. But I don’t necessarily know how important a piece of information is when I read it. Good pre-reading might help me know how important it is to that particular work, but never to my life as a whole.

HtRaB acknowledges that different works have vastly different returns to attention and you should allocate your reading effort accordingly, but I don’t feel like it gave me guidance for choosing what to pay attention to, and I have a suspicion that if I pressed the point the authors’ answer would be extremely in line with the literary and scientific canon of the 1940s-1970s.

My favorite section of How to Read a Book is also the most mechanically detailed: the algorithm for pre-processing a book (explained in detail here). I don’t know if this was the most useful to me because it was the most detailed or because a teacher once told me skimming was immoral and I needed that to be challenged.

For the meat of reading, How to Read a Book suggests questions to ask but not how to determine the answer. To be fair, this is hard. As I work on my own guide to reading I’m intensely aware of how difficult it is to translate the intentions and external appearance of what I’m doing to inner workings comprehensible to many, or even to other people very similar to myself.  I suspect there are people for whom reading these questions causes something to click in their brain and they suddenly start reading better, and that’s great, but it makes the book lucky, not good. Which is nothing to be ashamed of: sometimes a stab at a hard problem is worth more than a perfect solution to an easy one.  But HtRaB’s stab did not happen to hit my particular problem, nor contain enough deep models to let me make the stab myself.

My overall impression is that this is one of those books that is helpful if you read it at the right time and pretty meh otherwise, and it was the wrong time for me. I also predicted it would be one of those books that’s notable for founding a genre but goes on to be surpassed by later books that learned from it, but when I looked at Amazon I found very little. There’s lots on speedreading, confusing memorization with learning, and  “how to study to pass a test designed by someone else”, and I may end up reading some of those because the field is that sparse, but they’re not what I actually want. So if there’s a work you or someone you trust likes that attempts to answer any of the following questions, please share it:

  1. How do you find the most likely sources of relevant or useful information?
  2. How do you get the most (useful) information out of a sources?
  3. How do you decide what information to save?
  4. How do you save it in a maximally useful way?

I’m also interested if you have opinions on any of the following:

  • Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity, and Time Management
    • Kindle Unlimited
  • The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning
  • Extend Your Mind: Praxis Volume 2
  • How to Take Smart Notes
  • Accelerated Learning for Expertise: Rapid Knowledge Acquisition Skills to Learn Faster, Comprehend Deeper, and Reach a World-Class Level (Learning how to Learn Book 6) Kindle Edition
  • The Self-Learning Blueprint: A Strategic Plan to Break Down Complex Topics, Comprehend Deeply, and Teach Yourself Anything (Learning how to Learn Book 3)
  • Writing to Learn
  • Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
  • The Art of Reading

 

So many thanks to my Patreon supporters and the Long Term Future Fund for their support of this research.

Cassette Tape Thoughts

“The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements-all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics-to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren. “How To Read A Book- A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” (affiliate link).

This really stuck with me. More properly, it stuck with me the second time I read it. This turns out to be really important, and meta.

The difference between the first time I read it and the second was that I had four more months of reading books while specifically thinking about how to get the most out of them. My attitude towards How to Read a Book when I first read it was kind of like a cassette tape.* It would teach me Good Reading and then I could do it and Read Better. I didn’t have an idea of what problems I wanted it to solve- neither what axes I wanted to improve on, nor what my blocks were. If I’d succeeded at reading the book at this time, it would have given me the ability to parrot its ideas, but not actually apply them.

[*I fear a cassette tape really is a better metaphor than modern music playing equipment, which is pretty defined by its flexibility and adaptation to the user. Younger readers: imagine something heavily DRMed so you have to sit through all the commercials and can’t skip around within it]

Four months later, I know what my biggest problem is: how to identify what information to record and what to let go of. I am really excited for any insights HTRAB has into that.  And because I know that, whatever I learn from HTRAB won’t be something I parrot back on a test, it will be incorporated into my own models, and I’ll be able to explain every part of them, adjust plans and outputs to accommodate changes in inputs, etc.

I previously talked about how both detail-focused and detail-entwined books were harder to extract value from. Over on LessWrong, John Wentworth suggested this was a gears based problem: books that were just lists of details were like describing gears without detailing how they worked together. Books that entwined their details too much were mashing multiple gears together without disambiguating them. The latter corresponds to what  Adler and Van Doren describe as cassette tapes.

What epistemic spot checks were previously doing could be described as “determining if the cassette tape is good”, and what I am aiming for now (more after conceiving of it this way) is understanding and investigating a book’s gears. This involves both seeing how the gears fit together, and verifying that the gears are “real”, meaning they reflect actual reality.

Criticism as Entertainment

Media Reviews

There is a popular genre of video that consist of shitting on other people’s work without any generative content. Let me provide some examples.

First, Cinema Sins. This is the first video I selected when looking for a movie I’d seen with a Cinema Sins I hadn’t (i.e. it’s not random, but it wasn’t selected for being particularly good or bad).

The first ten sins are:

  1. Use of a consistent brand for props in the movie they’d have to have anyway, unobtrusively enough that I never noticed until Cinema Sins pointed it out.
  2. A character being mildly unreasonable to provoke exposition.
  3. The logo
  4. Exposition that wasn’t perfectly justified in-story
  5. A convenience about what was shown on screen
  6. A font choice (from an entity that in-universe would plausibly make bad font choices)
  7. An omission that will nag at you if you think about it long enough or expect the MCU to be a completely different thing, with some information about why it happened.
  8. In-character choices that would be concerning in the real world and I would argue are treated appropriately by the movie, although reasonable people could disagree
  9. Error by character that was extremely obviously intentional on the part of the film makers. There is no reasonable disagreement on this point.
  10. An error perfectly in keeping with what we know about the character.

Of those, three to four could even plausibly be called sins of the movie- and if those bother you, maybe the MCU is not for you. The rest are deliberate choices by filmmakers to have characters do imperfect things. Everyone gets to draw their own line on characters being dumb- mine is after this movie but before 90s sitcoms running on miscommunication- but that’s irrelevant to this post because Cinema Sins is not helping you determine where a particular movie is relative to your line. Every video makes the movie sound exactly as bad as the last, regardless of the quality of the underlying movie. It’s like they analyze the dialogue sentence by sentence and look to see if there’s anything that could be criticized about it.

Pitch Meeting is roughly as useful, but instead of reacting to sentences, it’s reading the plot summary in a sarcastic tone of voice.

Pitch Meeting is at least bringing up actual problems with Game of Thrones season 8. But I dare you to tell if early Game of Thrones was better or worse than season 8, based on the Pitch Meeting.

I keep harping on “You can’t judge movie quality by the review”, but I don’t actually think that’s the biggest problem. Or rather, it’s a subset of the problem, which is you don’t learn anything from the review: not whether the reviewer considered the movie “good” or not, and not what could be changed to do make it better. Contrast with Zero Punctuation, a video game review series notorious for being criticism-as-entertainment, that nonetheless occasionally likes things, and at least once per episode displays a deep understanding of the problems of a game and what might be done to fix it.

Why Are You Talking About This?

It’s really, really easy to make something look bad, and the short-term rewards to doing so are high. You never risk looking stupid or having to issue a correction. It’s easier to make criticism funny. You get to feel superior. Not to mention the sheer joy in punishing bad things. But it’s corrosive. I’ve already covered (harped on) how useless shitting-on videos are for learning or improvement, but it goes deeper than that. Going in with those intentions changes how you watch the movie. It makes flaws more salient and good parts less so. You become literally less able to enjoy or learn from the original work.

Maybe this isn’t universal, but for me there is definitely a trade off between “groking the author’s concepts” and “interrogating the author’s concepts and evidence”. Groking is a good word here: it mostly means understand, but includes playing with the idea and applying it what I know.  That’s very difficult to do while simultaneously looking for flaws.

Should it be, though? Generating testable hypotheses should lead to greater understanding and trust or less trust, depending on the correctness of the book. So at least one of my investigation or groking procedures are wrong.

 

What we Know vs. How we Know it?

Two weeks ago I said:

The other concept I’m playing with is that “what we know” is inextricable from “how we know it”. This is dangerously close to logical positivism, which I disagree with my limited understanding of. And yet it’s really improved my thinking when doing historical research.

I have some more clarify on what I meant now. Let’s say you’re considering my ex-roommate, person P, as a roommate, and ask me for information. I have a couple of options.

Scenario 1: I turn over chat logs and video recordings of my interactions with the P. 

E.g., recordings of P playing music loudly and chat logs showing I’d asked them to stop.

Trust required: that the evidence is representative and not an elaborate deep fake.

Scenario 2: I report representative examples of my interactions with P.

E.g., “On these dates P played music really loudly even when I asked them to stop.”

Trust required: that from scenario 1, plus that I’m not making up the examples.

Scenario 3: I report summaries of patterns with P

E.g., “P often played loud music, even when I asked them to stop”

Trust required: that from scenario 2, plus my ability to accurately infer and report patterns from data.

Scenario 4: I report what a third party told me

E.g. “Mark told me they played loud music a lot”

Trust required: that from scenario 3, plus my ability to evaluate other people’s evidence

Scenario 5: I give a flat “yes good” or “no bad” answer.

E.g., “P was a bad roommate.”

Trust required: that from scenario 3 and perhaps 4, plus that I have the same heuristics for roommate goodness that you do.

 

 

The earlier the scenario, the more you can draw your own conclusions and the less trust you need to have in me. Maybe you don’t care about loud music, and a flat yes/no would drive you away from a roommate that would be fine for you. Maybe I thought I was clear about asking for music to stop but my chat logs reveal I was merely hinting, and you are confident you’ll be able to ask more directly. The more specifics I give you, the better an assessment you’ll be able to make.

Here’s what this looks like applied to recent reading:

Scenario 5: Rome fell in the 500s AD.

Even if I trust your judgement, I have no idea why you think this or what it means to you.

Scenario 4: In Rome: The Book, Bob Loblaw says Rome Fell in the 500s AD.

At least I can look up why Bob thinks this.

Scenario 3: Pottery says Rome fell between 300 and 500 AD.

Useful to experts who already know the power of pottery, but leaves newbies lost.

Scenario 2: Here are 20 dig sites in England. Those dated before 323 (via METHOD) contain pottery made in Greece (which we can identify by METHOD), those after 500 AD show cruder pottery made locally.

Great. Now my questions are “Can pottery evidence give that much precision?” and “Are you interpreting it correctly?”

Scenario 1: Please enjoy this pile of 3 million pottery shards.

Too far, too far.

 

In this particular example (from The Fall of Rome), 2-3 was the sweet spot. It allowed me to learn as much as possible with a minimum of trust. But there’s definitely room in life for 4; you can’t prove everything in every paper and sometimes it’s more efficient to offload it.

I don’t view 5 as acceptable for anything that’s trying to claim to be evidenced based, or at least, any basis besides “Try this and see if it helps you.” (which is a perfectly fine basis if it’s cheap).

 

ESC Process Notes: Detail-Focused Books

When I started doing epistemic spot checks, I would pick focal claims and work to verify them. That meant finding other sources and skimming them as quickly as possible to get their judgement on the particular claim. This was not great for my overall learning, but it’s not even really good for claim evaluation: it flattens complexity and focuses me on claims with obvious binary answers that can be evaluated without context. It also privileges the hypothesis by focusing on “is this claim right?” rather than “what is the truth?”.

So I moved towards reading all of my sources deeply, even if my selection was inspired by a particular book’s particular claim. But this has its own problems.

In both The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World and Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, my notes sometimes degenerate into “and then a bunch of specifics”. “Specifics” might mean a bunch of individual art pieces, or a list of books that subtly changed a field’s framing.  This happens because I’m not sure what’s important and get overwhelmed.

Knowledge of importance comes from having a model I’m trying to test. The model can be external to the focal book (either from me, or another book), or from it. E.g. I didn’t have a a particular frame on the evolution of states before starting Against the Grain, but James C. Scott is very clear on what he believes, so I can assess how relevant various facts he presents are to evaluating that claim.

[I’m not perfect at this- e.g., in The Unbound Prometheus, the author claims that Europeans were more rational than Asians, and that their lower birth rate was evidence of this. I went along with that at the time because of the frame I was in, but looking back, I think that even assuming Europe did have a lower birth rate, it wouldn’t have proved Europeans were more rational or scientifically minded. This is a post in itself.]

If I’d come into The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World or Children and Childhood in Roman Italy with a hypothesis to test, it would have been obvious information was relevant and what wasn’t. But I didn’t, so it wasn’t, and that was very tiring.

The obvious answer is “just write down everything”, and I think that would work with certain books. In particular, it would work with books that could be rewritten in Workflowy: those with crisp points that can be encapsulated in a sentence or two and stored linearly or hierarchically. There’s a particular thing both books did that necessitated copying entire paragraphs because I couldn’t break it down into individual points.

Here’s an example from Oxford Handbook…

“Pietas was the term that encompassed the dutiful respect shown by the Romans towards their gods, the state, and members of their family (Cicero Nat. Deor. 1.116; Rep. 6.16; O . 2.46; Saller 1991: 146–51; 1998). is was a concept that children would have been socialized to understand and respect from a young age. Between parent and child pietas functioned as a form of reciprocal dutiful affection (Saller 1994: 102–53; Bradley 2000: 297–8; Evans Grubbs 2011), and this combination of “duty” and “affection” helps us to understand how the Roman elite viewed and expressed their relationship with their children.”

And from Children and Childhood…

“No doubt families often welcomed new babies and cherished their children, but Roman society was still struggling to establish itself even in the second century and many military, political, and economic problems preoccupied the thoughts and activities of adult Romans”

I summarized that second one as “Families were distracted by war and such up through 0000 BC”, which is losing a lot of nuance. It’s not impossible to break these paragraphs down into constituent thoughts, but it’s ugly and messy and would involve a lot of repetition. The first mixing up what pietas is with how and who it was expressed to. The second is combining a claim about the state of Rome with the state’s effects.

This reveals that calling the two books “lists of facts” was incomplete. Lists of facts would be easier to take notes on.  These authors clearly have some concepts they are trying to convey, but because they’re not cleanly encapsulated in the author’s own mind it’s hard for me to encapsulate them. It’s like trying to lay the threads of a gordian knot in an organized fashion.

So we have two problems: books which have laid out all their facts in a row but not connected them, and books which have entwined their facts too roughly for them to be disentangled. These feel very similar to me but when I write it out the descriptions sure sound like two completely different problems.

Let me know how much sense this makes, I can’t tell if I’ve written something terribly unpolished-but-deep or screamingly shallow.

ESC Process Notes: Claim Evaluation vs. Syntheses

Forgive me if some of this is repetitive, I can’t remember what I’ve written in which draft and what’s actually been published, much less tell what’s actually novel. Eventually there will be a polished master post describing my overall note taking method and leaving out most of how it was developed, but it also feels useful to discuss the journey.

When I started taking notes in Roam (a workflowy/wiki hybrid), I would:

  1. Create a page for the book (called a Source page), with some information like author and subject (example)
  2. Record every claim the book made on that Source page
  3. Tag each claim so it got its own page
  4. When I investigated a claim, gather evidence from various sources and list it on the claim page, grouped by source

This didn’t make sense though: why did some sources get their own page and some a bullet point on a claims page? Why did some claims get their own page and some not? What happened if a piece of evidence was useful in multiple claims?

Around this time I coincidentally had a call with Roam CEO Conor White-Sullivan to demo a bug I thought I had found. There was no bug, I had misremembered the intended behavior, but this meant that he saw my system and couldn’t hide his flinch. Aside from wrecking performance, there was no need to give each claim its own page: Roam has block references, so you can point to bullet points, not just pages.

When Conor said this, something clicked. I had already identified one of the problems with epistemic spot checks as being too binary, too focused on evaluating a particular claim or book than building knowledge. The original way of note taking was a continuation of that. What I should be doing was gathering multiple sources, taking notes on equal footing, and then combining them into an actual belief using references to the claims’ bullet points. I call that a Synthesis (example). Once I had an actual belief, I could assess the focal claim in context and give it a credence (a slider from 1-10), which could be used to inform my overall assessment of the book.

Sometimes there isn’t enough information to create a Synthesis, so something is left as a Question instead (example).

Once I’d proceduralized this a bit, it felt so natural and informative I assumed everyone else would find it similarly so.  Finally you didn’t have to take my word for what was important- you could see all the evidence I’d gathered and then click through to see the context on anything you thought deserved a closer look. Surely everyone will be overjoyed that I am providing this

Feedback was overwhelming that this was much worse, no one wanted to read my Roam DB, and I should keep presenting evidence linearly.

I refuse to accept that my old way is the best way of presenting evidence and conclusions about a book or a claim. It’s too linear and contextless. I do accept that “here’s my Roam have fun” is worse. Part of my current project is to identify a third way that shares the information I want to in a way that is actually readable.