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Ely (n.)The first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.
That’s from The Meaning of Liff, a dictionary of should-be words written by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. It was published 30 years ago this week and Heski Bar-Isaac points me to this very fun discussion of the words and the book from the BBC. You should especially listen to Stephen Pinker’s thoughts on Liff which comes at about the 15:30 mark.
When I was back home over Winter Break my Mom tried to get me to throw away all the old papers and junk that I left behind in a box but it didn’t work. Still I rummaged through and I found this gem. Its an essay assignment in a Freshman history class about racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is very typical of my work in college. The grader’s comments in red are especially entertaining, again quite typical.
Lee Childs gets asked that question a lot.
But it’s a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.
Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know — in theory or practice — how to bake a cake. We need ingredients, and we infer that the better quality those ingredients are, the better quality the cake will be. We know that we have to mix and stir those ingredients, and we’re led to believe that the more thoroughly and conscientiously we combine them, the better the cake will taste. We know we have to cook the cake in an oven, and we figure that the more exact the temperature and timing, the better the cake will look.
So writers are taught to focus on ingredients and their combination. They’re told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature.
But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”
And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.
As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer. (Which is what I did here, and you’re still reading, right?)
It’s a great article but I agree with Emir Kamenica (deerstalker doff) who says that there’s one thing in there the author gets completely wrong.
- When you turn a bottle over to pour out its contents it is less messy if you do the tilt thing to make sure there is a space for air to flow back into the bottle. But which way of pouring is faster if you just want to dump it out in the shortest time possible? I think the tilt can never be as fast.
- I aspire to hit for the cycle: publish in all the top 5 economics journals. But it would be a lifetime cycle. Has anyone ever hit for the cycle in a single year?
- If you know you’ll get over it eventually shouldn’t you be over it now? And if not should you really get over it later?
- The efficient markets hypothesis means that there is no trading strategy that consistently loses money. (Because if there were then the negative of that strategy would consistently make a profit.) So trade with abandon!
- I predict that in the future the distinct meanings of the prepositions “in” and “on” will progressively blur because of mobile phone typos.
Cheap Talk has turned 4 years old. In honor of that, I could tell you about how many of you read us, how many of you subscribe to us, which were the greatest among all the great articles we wrote last year, etc. but instead I’ll take this opportunity to do something I have been wanting to do for a while.
A very interesting side benefit of having a blog is seeing the search terms that lead people to us. Its a fun game trying to figure out which post Google sent them to when they searched for terms like ”students can lie to teachers very easily” but more than that, as the range of topics we have covered gets wider and wider just reading down the list of search terms each day starts to look like pure poetry.
So I decided to compose a poem entirely out of search phrases and as my fourth birthday present to myself I am going to make you read it. It is a testament to the power of the Internet that for each and every line below there was someone who, in a quest for knowledge, typed it into Google and Google dutifully led them to our blog.
For the best effect I recommend reading this poem in your best mental Christopher Walken voice.
Feral Dogs in Tampa
I like bareback sex with hookers
Explaining infinity to children,
The god in heaven
Statistically birthdays increase your age
What is there to do?
Remember abstract things
Courtney Conklin Knapp
Low hanging balls
Kink on demand,
Pile driver sex
I am tired of cohabitation
You are nothing
Empty plate with crumbs,
Playing with yourself in public
When will the Devil talk to you?
Novel figure skates,
Who invented sarcasm,
Try to arrange a meeting
[...]there’s an Achilles’ heel in creating phrase-based passwords. It’s the fact that most English speakers will craft phrases that make sense.
Ashwini Rao and Gananand Kini at Carnegie Mellon and Birenda Jha at MIT have developed proof-of-concept password-cracking software that takes advantage of that weakness. It cracks long passwords, and beats existing cracking software, simply by following rules of English grammar.
“Using an analytical model based on parts-of-speech tagging, we show that the decrease in search space due to the presence of grammatical structures can be as high as 50 percent,” the researchers write in their paper.
Bad grammar makes for good passwords:
Instead, get creative. Try poor grammar and spelling, as in “de whippoorsnapper sashay sideway,” or get completely silly, as in “flipper flopper fliddle fladdle.”
It doesn’t matter how correct it is, as long as you can easily remember it.
Organic can modify a single noun like raspberry. The resultant unit can then itself be used as a modifier of fruit spread. That would yield [[organic raspberry] [fruit [spread]]], denoting a fruit spread of the organic raspberry type. Perfectly grammatical; nothing amiss.
The difference is that the stuff referred to by this description needn’t fully satisfy the stringent conditions for being an organic product. Only the raspberries need to pass. And sure enough, the label on Nature’s Promise Organic Raspberry Fruit Spread says:
INGREDIENTS: ORGANIC SUGAR, ORGANIC RASPBERRIES, WATER, FRUIT PECTIN, CITRIC ACID, CALCIUM CHLORIDE.
Because talking takes time. And how much time it takes to talk depends in large part on how much time it takes to think of what you are going to say. The time spent reveals how much thinking you did. Here’s where truthtelling distinguishes itself. The time it takes to tell the truth is just the time it takes to remember what actually happened.
The time it takes to lie is the time it takes to invent a lie, check that its consistent with the facts, and invent all of the subsequent lies you are going to have to tell in order for your whole story to hang together.
Ariel Rubinstein brings his game theory debunking manifesto to The Browser.
In general, I would say there were too many claims made by game theoreticians about its relevance. Every book of game theory starts with “Game theory is very relevant to everything that you can imagine, and probably many things that you can’t imagine.” In my opinion that’s just a marketing device.
Let’s show its usefulness by using game theory to analyze Ariel Rubinstein. We model him with the following game. Ariel is the first mover. He privately observes whether game theory is useful. Then he has the first decision to make. He can either announce publicly that game theory is not useful or stay silent. If he stays silent the game is over. If he announces then everybody else moves next. We can either try to prove him wrong by citing examples where game theory is useful or we can stay silent. Then the game ends.
Let’s solve the game by backward induction. If Ariel has announced that game theory is not useful, each of us has a strong incentive to find examples to prove him wrong so we do (assuming game theory is in fact useful which we will find out by looking for examples.) Knowing this, and having privately observed that game theory is useful and being the humble yet social-welfare maximizing (not to mention supremely strategic) person Ariel is, Ariel announces that game theory is not useful so as to give the rest of us the incentive and the glory of proving him wrong.
And so it is done.
NPR’s marquee show This American Life recently polished its journalistic credentials by using an entire episode to cajole Mike Daisey into a point by point retraction of his made-up FoxConn muckraking. Now the show’s host, Ira Glass is facing some soul searching as NPR tries to decide whether favorite son David Sedaris should be subjected to the same scrutiny.
Alicia Shepard, NPR’s former ombudsman and a visiting journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, had a similar view. “David Sedaris has never been presented as a journalist,” she said. “He’s a storyteller. I do think there are different expectations. It’s acknowledged that he’s making things up.”
In fact, listeners would be unlikely to know this by the way NPR and “This American Life” present Sedaris on the air. NPR introduced its last rebroadcast of Sedaris reading “SantaLand” in December by calling it “a ‘Morning Edition’ holiday tradition.” It has used similar language in each of its rebroadcasts.
“This American Life” rebroadcast an old Sedaris monologue on May 5 — a nearly 15-minute piece about his family’s pets — without any hint that parts of it might have been untrue.
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
At the moment, Glass said, he thinks the best course is to check Sedaris’s facts to the extent that stories involving memories and long-ago conversations can be checked. The New Yorker magazine subjects Sedaris’s work to its rigorous fact-checking regime before it publishes his stories.
- It can happen that the sensory input you experience over a short interval of time makes no sense to your brain until some last thing happens which reveals the theme and gives context to everything that came before. At that moment your brain goes back and reprocesses everything that just happened in order to make sense of it. The feeling is like experiencing a whole chunk of time condensed into one moment together with the satisfying feeling of resolution that comes from making order out of chaos. Musicians use this trick to great effect.
- It’s less of an insult to say someone is “disingenuous” than to say she is a liar. But we all know that the meaning is exactly the same. Disingenuous is a more obscure word and there is less common knowledge of its meaning. Given two words that are synonymous is it generally true that the one with the more nuanced connotation is also the one that is longer, rarer, more obscure?
- In almost all Western music every note begins and ends K/2^n units of time after the last note for some integers K and n. Isn’t that rather limiting?
- A nurse at my kids’ pediatrician tells them she will count to three before giving them a shot but she actually gives the shot at the count of 2, surprising them. It seems to make it less painful. How does that work?
Twitter users turned Sunday’s French presidential election into a battle between a green Hungarian wine and a red Dutch cheese in a bid to get round tough laws banning result predictions.
The #RadioLondres hashtag was the top France trend on Twitter during the first-round presidential vote, in homage to World War II codes broadcast to Resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France from the BBC in London.
But French citizens have written a new codebook in a subversive bid to get round laws that mean anyone announcing vote predictions before polls closed at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) could be fined up to 75,000 euros (100,000 dollars).
“Tune in to #RadioLondres so as not to know the figures we don’t want to know before 8:00 pm,” said one ironic tweet.
“Dutch cheese at 27 euros, Tokai wine at 25 euros,” read one tweet as poll percentage predictions were published abroad.
The thing is, this would still be prosecuted if perpetrated by broadcast media. So it wasn’t the code per se that allowed them to circumvent the law. So the questions are:
- Why is an in-spirit violation not prosecuted when carried out in a decentralized communication network?
- Would just nakedly forecasting the outcome also escape prosecution if done on Twitter? (As opposed to the usual things people nakedly do on Twitter.)
The pointer was from @handeh.
You are categorically opposed to some policy. She on the other hand is utilitarian and while she believes the policy is effective based on her current information she could be persuaded otherwise. You would like to persuade her if you could and in fact you have some information that might but it’s not guaranteed.
She opens the debate about the policy, states her arguments in favor and invites you to give any arguments against. But you are not interested in her information. You are categorically opposed to the policy and nothing would persuade you otherwise.
Moreover you are not even going to engage in the debate by trying to persuade her with your information. Because to do so would be to implicitly acknowledge that this is a debate that could be won by the side with the stronger argument. That entails the risk that she and any observer might judge her arguments to be stronger and take an even firmer position in favor.
You are better off shutting down that front of the debate and insisting that it must be decided as a matter of principle, not utilitarianism.
People complain that American mainstream media are becoming more and more polarized. There is a tradition in American journalism that the journalist should be objective and report the facts without judgment. Opinion pieces and Editorials are relegated to the back pages.
Nowadays those standards are eroding. Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN have discernible biases but still pander to the idea that they provide objective journalism. Meanwhile there is the perception that this trend is degrading the quality of information.
From a narrow perspective that may be true. I learn less from Fox News if they selectively report information that confirms the preconceptions of their audience. But media bias makes the media as a group more informative, not less.
Suppose I have a vast array of media sources which are scattered across the left-right spectrum. When a policy is being debated I look at all of them and find the pivotal outlet: all those to the left of it are advocating the policy and all those to the right are opposed. Different policies will have different cutoff points, and that cutoff point gives me a very simple and informative statistic about the policy. If the range is more narrow or more sparsely distributed this statistic is simply less informative.
Another way of saying this is that there is social value from having advisors with extreme biases. When I am thinking about a policy that I am predisposed to like, I learn very little from an unbiased source but I learn a lot if a source with my bias is opposed to the policy or a source with the opposite bias is in favor of it. It must be especially good or bad for these extremists to go against bias.
A famous speech from Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, delivered on the floor of the Mississippi State Legislature, on the possible end to alcohol prohibition in that state.
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
Start with a world without rhetorical questions. All questions are interpreted as being genuinely inquisitive. You are considering doing X and someone comes up to you and says “Why on Earth would you want to do X?”
Now two things happen. First, since all questions are genuinely inquisitive, you take his question literally and you start thinking of an answer. Why indeed do you want to do X? The second thing that happens is that, again because the question is genuine, you learn that it’s not obvious to your inquisitor that X is the right thing to do.
That’s compelling information if you happened to be wondering whether X is in fact the right thing to do. And no matter how successful you are at coming up with an answer as to why on Earth you want to do X, that information will make you at least slightly less sanguine about doing X.
And that is why you can’t have a world without rhetorical questions. Because in a world without rhetorical questions, questions are effective rhetoric. Indeed a world without rhetorical questions maximizes the rhetorical value of a question.
In a world where all questions are interpreted as genuine queries, someone who is not genuinely inquisitive but in fact has an agenda most effectively erodes your confidence in X by saying “Why on Earth would you want to do X?” And so questions spontaneously become rhetorical devices.
As these devices are used more and more, the questions are taken less and less literally. In equilibrium the incentive to convert rhetorical arguments into questions continues right up until the point where questions have no rhetorical value over and above just saying outright “X sucks.”
That doesn’t mean that rhetorical questions die away. They must continue to be used just frequently enough so that their value is just degraded enough so that nobody has any (strict) incentive to use them any more than that.
Defamation is the making of a false statement that creates a negative image of another person. At a superficial level the point of anti-defamation laws are to prevent such false statements. But false statements by themselves are not damaging unless they do harm to the subject’s reputation. For that, the statement must be credible.
If the direct effect of an anti-defamation law is to reduce the number of false statements made, an indirect effect is to enhance the credibility of all of the false statements that continue to be made. Because a member of the public who cannot assess the veracity of a given statement will begin with the presumption that the statement is more likely to be true since a larger fraction of all statements made are true. This of course encourages more false statements, undermining the original direct effect of the law.
Indeed it is impossible to eliminate false damaging statements without making them even more damaging.
Nevertheless, in equilibrium the net effect of an anti-defamation law is to increase the truthfulness of public discourse. The marginal slanderous statement is the one which is just damaging enough to compensate for the expected cost of a lawsuit. When that cost is higher, the previously marginal statement is crowded out.
But that just says that the proportion of statements that are false goes down. Another effect anti-defmation laws are to reduce the number of truthful statements. Even a truthful statement has a chance of being judged false and damaging. There will overall be fewer things said.
Furthermore, since a defamatory statement must be proven to be false and some falsehoods are easier to demonstrate than others, the incidence of anti-defamation laws on various types of lies must be considered. A libelous claim will be made if and only if the cost of the potential lawsuit is outweighed by the value of making it. For statements whose explicit intention is to defame, that value increases as the overall credibility of public discourse increases. Among those statements, the ones that are hardest to prove false will actually be said more and more often.
In fact as long as the speaker is creative enough to think of a variety of different ways to defame, the main effect of anti-defamation laws will be to substitute away from verifiable lies in favor of statements which are more difficult to prove false. This will be so as long as a sufficiently large segment of the public cannot tell the difference between statements that can be verified and statements that cannot.
Some topics evolve by occasional big news events interspersed by long periods of little or no news. The public reacts dramatically to the big news events and seems to ignore the slow news.
For example, a terrorist attack is followed by general paranoia and a tightening of security. But no matter how much time passes without another attack, there never seems to be a restoration of the old equilibrium. News is like a ratchet with each big reaction building directly upon the last, and the periods in-between only setting the stage for the next.
The usual way to interpret this is an over-reaction to the salient information brought by big news events, and a failure to respond to the subtle information conveyed by a lack of big news. We notice when the dog barks but we don’t notice when it doesn’t.
But even a perfectly rational and sophisticated public exhibits a news ratchet. That’s because there is a difference between big news and small news in the way it galvanizes the public. Large changes in policy require a coordinated movement by a correspondingly large enough segment of the population motivated to make the change. Individuals are so motivated only if they know that they are part of a large enough group. Big events create that knowledge.
During the slow news periods all of these individuals are learning that those measures are less and less necessary. But that learning takes place privately and in silence. Never will enough time pass that everyone can confidently conclude that everyone else has confidently concluded that …. that everyone has figured this out. So there will never be the same momentum to undo the initial reaction as there was to inflame it.
A laudable use of brain scanner methodology.
Regular joke: Why did Cleopatra bathe in milk? Because she couldn’t find a cow tall enough for a shower.
Funny pun: Why were the teacher’s eyes crossed? Because she couldn’t control her pupils.
Unfunny pun: What was the problem with the other coat? It was difficult to put on with the paint-roller.
The regular joke and the funny pun are both amusing, but for different reasons: in the decidedly unfunny parlance of humor theorists, the pun has “semantic ambiguity” and the joke does not. Part of the fun in the funny pun, in other words, is thinking through the two meanings of pupil.
But now compare the funny pun and the unfunny pun. Both have semantic ambiguity. So why is the funny one funny? The researchers say it’s because both meanings of the ambiguous word (pupil) are true at the same time, whereas in the unfunny pun, only one of the meanings of the ambiguous word (coat) is true.
Read the article to find out why.
Here’s how Steve Jobs explains “Think Different” as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography (thanks to Mallesh Pai for the pointer.)
We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ”Think differently” wouldn’t hit the same meaning for me.
I may have been taken in by the GDF but after thinking about this for a day or so I am convinced that I understand what he means, even if he didn’t explain it very well. Constructions like “think X” are used all the time where X is a noun and what the writer really means is “think about X” or “consider X” and especially “join the X movement.” (Think “Think Green”, a familiar slogan that is saying “be enviornmentally conscious.” )
“Eat Local” has a different interpretation than “Eat Locally” which would not make sense in its stead. For that matter, “Think Locally, Act Globally” suffers from excessive adherence to grammatical rules.
What “Think Different” was supposed to convey is essentially “be a member of Team Different.” But I am sure that was lost on most people and has nothing to do with why it was a successful campaign.
If you are trying to come up with a slogan for an ad campaign you have to decide how picky you are going to be with the grammar. For example suppose that there is a grammatical and a more colloquial way to write your slogan. Which do you go with?
Your audience has grammar snobs and regular people. Whichever way you write your slogan it’s going to look natural to one group and un-natural to the other. And the group that stumbles over the syntax is going to be at least somewhat distracted from the message. You have this problem whether you decide to bend toward the grammar snobs or the regular people.
But one thing tips the balance in favor of the ungrammatical slogan. In advertising, you are looking for anything that gets your audience to stop and spin some brain cycles in the presence of your ad. You will smuggle in your brand alongside. You get this benefit only with the ungrammatical. The grammar snobs, annoyed with your slogan are programmed to turn it over, diagram it and correct it. In effect you will cause them to construct variations of your ad campaign inside their own heads.
This is a good thing. Never mind that they will curse you for your trespasses. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed you hope for their curses. Nothing could be better than having them shout from the rooftops all the ways that your slogan, the one that urges everyone to buy your product, should be rewritten in order to make it more palatable.
Here’s a previous post on krafty konstructions.
My sister-in-law asked me how many new PhDs in economics find jobs in academia (as opposed to taking private sector jobs.) I said “More than half.” Her reply surprised me, for a moment. She said “Really, that few?”
I was surprised because my answer gave her only a lower bound. ”More than half” could easily mean “100%.” But after a moment I realized that my sister-in-law is very sophisticated and her response made perfect sense.
- Among the males in my family tree, underwear preference alternates generations: briefs then boxers then briefs…
- Smoking guns for this theory. Italians who pronounce the hard b in the word “subtle”, and pronounce “differ” as in “diffAIR” (they have no trouble with water, later, etc.) Also, the hard p in “psychology.”
- Here’s the best way to get your wife to agree to a parenting strategy X: ”My mother tried not-X and that didn’t work.”
- I want to play a negative drum: it makes a sound except when I hit it.
- What is the effect on equilibrium search models and assortative matching when once-matched, husbands can use headscarves to hide the quality of their mate from potential poachers?
Suppose I want you to believe something and after hearing what I say you can, at some cost, check whether I am telling the truth. When will you take my word for it and when will you investigate?
If you believe that I am someone who always tells the truth you will never spend the cost to verify. But then I will always lie (whenever necessary.) So you must assign some minimal probability to the event that I am a liar in order to have an incentive to investigate and keep me in check.
Now suppose I have different ways to frame my arguments. I can use plain language or I can cloak them in the appearance of credibility by using sophisticated jargon. If you lend credibility to jargon that sounds smart, then other things equal you have less incentive to spend the effort to verify what I say. That means that jargon-laden statements must be even more likely to be lies in order to restore the balance.
(Hence, statistics come after “damned lies” in the hierarchy.)
Finally, suppose that I am talking to the masses. Any one of you can privately verify my arguments. But now you have a second, less perfect way of checking. If you look around and see that a lot of other people believe me, then my statements are more credible. That’s because if other people are checking me and many of them demonstrate with their allegiance that they believe me, it reveals that my statements checked out with those that investigated.
Other things equal, this makes my statements more credible to you ex ante and lowers your incentives to do the investigating. But that’s true of everyone so there will be a lot of free-riding and too little investigating. Statements made to the masses must be even more likely to be lies to overcome that effect.
The increasing rate of litigation means that there is a far higher chance that doctors will be asked in court to explain the exact meaning of NFN (Normal for Norfolk), FLK (Funny looking kid) or GROLIES (Guardian Reader Of Low Intelligence in Ethnic Skirt).
Dr Fox recounts the tale of one doctor who had scribbled TTFO – an expletive expression roughly translated as “Told To Go Away” – on a patient’s notes. He told BBC News Online: “This guy was asked by the judge what the acronym meant, and luckily for him he had the presence of mind to say: ‘To take fluids orally’.”
Read the article to find out what LOBNH means, what the Dirt Bag Index measures, and what it takes to be deemed Pumpkin Positive. You may need a reference to understand your own medical records.
Barretina bungle: Mallesh Pai
David Mitchell is a stammerer who wrote beautifully about it in his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. Here is Mitchell on The King’s Speech. In the article he talks about his own strategies for coping with stammering:
If these technical fixes tackle the problem once it’s begun, “attitudinal stances” seek to dampen the emotions that trigger my stammer in the first place. Most helpful has been a sort of militant indifference to how my audience might perceive me. Nothing fans a stammer’s flames like the fear that your listener is thinking “Jeez, what is wrong with this spasm-faced, eyeball-popping strangulated guy?” But if I persuade myself that this taxing sentence will take as long as it bloody well takes and if you, dear listener, are embarrassed then that’s your problem, I tend not to stammer. This explains how we can speak without trouble to animals and to ourselves: our fluency isn’t being assessed. This is also why it’s helpful for non-stammerers to maintain steady eye contact, and to send vibes that convey, “No hurry, we’ve got all the time in the world.”
(Gat Gape: The Browser) Incidentally, I watched The King’s Speech and also True Grit on a flight to San Francisco Sunday night while the Oscars were being handed out down below. I enjoyed the portrayal of stammering in TKS but unlike Mitchell I didn’t think that subject matter alone carried an entire film. And there wasn’t much else to it. (And by the way here is Christopher Hitchens complaining about the softie treatment of Churchill and King Edward VIII.)
True Grit was also a big disappointment. I haven’t seen Black Swan but I hear it has some great kung fu scenes.
When your doctor points to the chart and asks you to rate your pain from 0 to 5, does your answer mean anything? In a way, yes: the more pain you are in the higher number you will report. So if last week you were 2 and this week you are 3 then she knows you are in more pain this week than last.
But she also wants to know your absolute level of pain and for that purpose the usefulness of the numerical scale is far less clear. Its unlikely that your 3 is equal in terms of painfulness to the next guy’s 3. And words wouldn’t seem to do much better. Language is just too high-level and abstract to communicate the intensity of experience.
But communication is possible. If you have driven a nail through your finger and you want to convey to someone how much pain you are in that is quite simple. All you need is a hammer and a second nail. The “speaker” can recreate the precise sensation within the listener.
Actual mutilation can be avoided if the listener has a memory of such an experience and somehow the speaker can tap into that memory. But not like this: “You remember how painful that was?” ”Oh yes, that was a 4.” Instead, like this: “You remember what that felt like?” “OUCH!”
Memories of pain are more than descriptions of events. Recalling them relives the experience. And when someone who cares about you needs to know how much help you need, actually feeling how you feel is more informative than hearing a description of how you feel.
So words are at best unnecessary for that kind of communication, at worst they get in the way. All we need is some signal and some understanding of how that signal should map to a physical reaction in the “listener.” If sending that signal is a hard-wired response it’s less manipulable than speech.
Which is not to say that manipulation of empathy is altogether undesirable. Most of what entertains us exists precisely because our empathy-receptors are so easily manipulated.
I was sitting in a seminar and the guy was talking about unraveling in the labor market. Someone asked a question whether it could happen in reverse. The speaker said “Do you mean raveling up? Yes it is possible that there is raveling up.”
And I thought “Wait a minute, you don’t need the ‘up’ in ‘raveling up’ because surely the opposite of unraveling is just ‘raveling.’ ” But then I realized that I have never heard that word used. Unraveling, all the time. Raveling, never. So I went for the dictionary. Three dictionaries in a row gave me a definition of raveling something like this.
Ravel. verb. To disentangle. Unravel.
What? To ravel means to unravel?? But then what does unravel mean?
Unravel. verb. To untangle.
So two very strange things now. First, unravel has an independent definition (in terms of other words) but ravel, the un-prefixed word, is defined in terms of the prefixed unravel. Second, ravel is defined to mean unravel!
My colleague Rakesh Vohra thought the good old Oxford English Dictionary would save us from being swallowed up into the lexicographic Weezer-vortex, but alas (login with username trynewoed, password trynewoed. works until Feb 5), not even the Queen can help:
1. To entangle or disentangle
(!) The word means A and also the opposite of A. Doesn’t it now follow that disentangle means the same as entangle? And isn’t there a theorem that once you allow a contradiction into a formal system you can make anything into a contradiction. So if we flip through enough pages of the OED eventually we can prove that True means False?
2. To become unwound, to fray; to unravel.
3. To disentangle, make plain or clear.
Because communication requires both a talker and a listener and it takes time and energy for the listener to process information. So it may be cheap to talk but it is costly to listen.
But then the cost of listening implies that there is an opportunity cost to everything you say. Because you can only say so much and still be listened to. They won’t drink from a firehose.
When you want to be listened to you have an incentive to ration what you say, and therefore the mere fact that you chose to say something conveys information about how valuable it was to you to have it heard. There is no babbling because babbling isn’t worth it.
I also believe that this is a key friction determining the architecture of social networks. Who talks and who listens to whom? The efficient structure economizes on the cost of listening. It is efficient to have a small number of people who specialize in listening to many sources then selectively “curating” and rebroadcasting specialized content. End-listeners are spared the cost of filtering. The economic question is whether the private and social incentives are aligned for someone who must ration his output in order to attract listeners.