Bill Gates Roy Amara quote I encountered last week reminds me strongly of compound interest.
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”
I hadn’t heard this line before, but based on anecdotal evidence, I think Amara was right to zeroth order, and it is a very smart comment. The question is why this happens. I think the answer is that we are naturally wired for arithmetic, but exponential thinking is unnatural. But I haven’t quite worked it out yet. We probably use some sort of linear prediction that first over-estimates and then under-estimates the underlying exponential process, but where does that linear prediction come from?
Anyone want to take a crack at an explanation? I could be wrong. Compound interest/exponential thinking might have nothing to do with it.
When I write, I generally start with some sort of interesting motif, like the Gates quote, that catches my eye, which I then proceed to attempt to unravel. Sometimes it turns out there’s nothing there, and sometimes a trivial starting point can fuel several thousand words of exploration.
I call this the “just add attention” model of writing. It’s like just-add-water concentrates. A rich motif will yield a large volume of mind fuel if you just dissolve it in a few hours of informed attention.
The previous nugget is an example. If I were to let it simmer for a few days and then sat down to do something with the Gates quote, I would probably be able to spin a 4000-word post from it. I figured I’d let you guys take a crack at this one.
My hit rate has been steadily improving. Nowadays, when I suspect that something will sustain exploration to such and such a depth, I am almost always right.
I prefer the word motif to words like pattern or clue, because it is more general. A motif merely invites attention. By contrast, a pattern attracts a specific kind of analytical attack, and a clue sets up a specific kind of dissonance.
The nature of just-add-attention writing explains why it is hard for me to write short posts. If I wrote short posts, they’d just be too-clever questions with no answers, or worse, cryptic motifs offered with no explanation.
You cannot really compress just-add-attention writing. You can only dehydrate it back into a concentrate. Just-add-attention writing has a generative structure but no clear extensive structure. It is like a tree rather than a human skeleton.
By this I mean that you can take the concentrate — the motif — and repeatedly apply a particular generative process to it to get to what you an extensive form. But this extensive form has no clear structure at the extensive level. At best, it has some sort of fractal structure. A human skeleton is a spine with four limbs, a rib cage and a skull attached. A tree is just repeated tree-iness.
But I hesitate to plunge forward and call all generative-extensive forms fractal, as you might be tempted to do. Fractal structures have more going on.
Just-add-attention writing is partially described well by Paul Graham’s essay about writing essays, which somebody pointed out to me after I posted my dense writing piece a few weeks back. But I don’t think it is the same as the Graham model. I think the Graham model involves more conscious guidance from a separate idea about the aesthetics of writing, sort of like bonsai.
Just-add-attention writing is driven by its own aesthetic. This can lead to unpredictable results, but you get a more uncensored sense of whether an idea is actually beautiful.
Dense writing is related to just-add-attention in a very simple way: making something dense is a matter of partially dehydrating an extensive form again, or stopping short of full hydration in the first place. Along with pruning of bits that are either hard to dilute or have been irreversibly over-diluted.
Why would you want to do that? Because just-add-attention writing can sort of sprawl untidily all over the place. Partially dehydrating it again makes it more readable, at the cost of making it more cryptic.
This add-attention/dehydrate again process can be iterated with some care and selectivity to create interesting artistic effects. It reminds me of a one-word answer Xianhang Zhang posted on Quora to the question, “how do you chop broccoli?” Answer: “recursively.”
Regular writing can be chopped up like a potato. Just-add-attention writing must be chopped up like a broccoli. It is more time consuming. That’s why I cannot do what some people innocently suggest, simply serializing my longer pieces as a sequence of arbitrarily delineated parts. I have never successfully chopped up a long piece into two shorter pieces. At best, I have been able to chop off a straggling and unfinished tail end into another draft and then work that separately.
Not all generative processes lack extensive structure. The human skeleton is after all, also the product of a generative process (ontogeny). To take a simpler example, the multiplication table for 9 is defined by a generative rule (9 times n), but also has an extensive structure:
In case you didn’t learn this trick in grade school, the extensive structure is that you can generate this table by writing the numerals 0-9 twice in adjacent columns, in ascending and descending order.
If you wanted to blog the multiplication table for 9, and had to keep it to one line. You could use either:
- The nine times table is generated by multipling 1, 2,…, n by 9, or
- Write down 0-9 in ascending order and then in descending order in the next column
Both are good compressions, though the second is more limited. But this is rare. In general a sufficiently complex generative process will produce an extensive-form output that cannot then be compressed by any means other than rewinding the process itself.
Just-add-attention writing is easy for those who can do it, but not everybody can do it. More to the point, of the people who can do it, a significant majority seem to find it boring to do. It feels a little bit like folding laundry. It is either a chore, or a relaxing experience.
What sort of people can do it?
On the nature front, I believe you need a certain innate capacity for free association. Some people cannot free associate at all. Others free associate wildly and end up with noise. The sweet spot is being able to free associate with a subconscious sense of the quality of each association moderating the chain reaction. You then weave a narrative through what you’ve generated. The higher the initial quality of the free association, the easier the narrative weaving becomes.
On the nurture front, this capacity for high-initial-quality free association cannot operate in a vacuum. It needs data. A lot of data, usually accumulated over a long period of time. What you take in needs to age and mature first into stable memories before free association can work well on this foundation. The layers have to settle. By my estimate, you have to read a lot for about 10 years before you are ready to do just-add-water writing effectively.
Unfortunately, initial conditions matter a lot in this process, because our n+1 reading choice tends to depend on choices n and n-1. The reading path itself is guided by free association. But since item n isn’t usable for fertile free association until, say, you’ve read item n+385, there is a time lag. So your reading choices are driven by partly digested reading choices in the immediate past.
So if you make the wrong choices early on, your “fill the hopper” phase of about 10 years could go horribly wrong and fill your mind with crap. Then you get messed-up effects rather than interesting ones.
So there is a lot of luck involved initially, but the process becomes a lot more controlled as your memories age, adding inertia.
This idea that just-add-attention writing is driven by aged memories of around 10 years of reading suggests that the process works as follows.
When you recognize a motif as potentially interesting, it is your stored memories sort of getting excited about company. “Interesting” is a lot of existing ideas in your head clamoring to meet a new idea. That’s why you are sometimes captivated by an evocative motif but cannot say why. You won’t know until your old ideas have interviewed the new idea and hired it. Motif recognition is a screening interview conducted by the ideas already resident in your brain.
Or to put it in a less overwrought way, old ideas act as a filter for new ones. Badly tuned filters lead to too-open or too-closed brains. Well-tuned ones are open just the right amount, and in the right ways.
Recognition must be followed by pursuit. This is the tedious-to-some laundry-folding process of moderated free association. It is all the ideas in your head interrogating the new one and forming connections with it.
Finally, the test of whether something interesting has happened is whether you can extract a narrative out of the whole thing, once the interviewing dies down.
A good free association phase will both make and break connections. If your brain only makes connections, it will slowly freeze up because everything will be connected to everything else. This is as bad as nothing being connected, because you have no way to assess importance.
The pattern of broken and new connections (including those formed/broken in distant areas) guides your narrative spinning.