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Blog Posts, Book Reviews, and Abstracts: On Shallowness

We’re quite glad that you read Farnam Street, and we hope we’re always offering you a massive amount of value. (If not, email us and tell us what we can do more effectively.)

But there’s a message all of our readers should appreciate: Blog posts are not enough to generate the deep fluency you need to truly understand or get better at something. We offer a starting point, not an end point.

This goes just as well for book reviews, abstracts, cliff's notes, and a good deal of short-form journalism.

This is a hard message for some who want a shortcut. They want the “gist” and the “high level takeaways”, without doing the work or eating any of the broccoli. They think that’s all it takes: Check out a 5-minute read, and instantly their decision making and understanding of the world will improve right-quick. Most blogs, of course, encourage this kind of shallowness. Because it makes you feel that the whole thing is pretty easy.

Here’s the problem: The world is more complex than that. It doesn’t actually work this way. The nuanced detail behind every “high level takeaway” gives you the context needed to use it in the real world. The exceptions, the edge cases, and the contradictions.

Let me give you an example.

A high-level takeaway from reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, and Slow would be that we are subject to something he and Amos Tversky call the Representativeness Heuristic. We create models of things in our head, and then fit our real-world experiences to the model, often over-fitting drastically. A very useful idea.

However, that’s not enough. There are so many follow-up questions. Where do we make the most mistakes? Why does our mind create these models? Where is this generally useful? What are the nuanced examples of where this tendency fails us? And so on. Just knowing about the Heuristic, knowing that it exists, won't perform any work for you.

Or take the rise of human species as laid out by Yuval Harari. It’s great to post on his theory; how myths laid the foundation for our success, how “natural” is probably a useless concept the way it’s typically used, and how biology is the great enabler.

But Harari’s book itself contains the relevant detail that fleshes all of this out. And further, his bibliography is full of resources that demand your attention to get even more backup. How did he develop that idea? You have to look to find out.

Why do all this? Because without the massive, relevant detail, your mind is built on a house of cards.

What Farnam Street and a lot of other great resources give you is something like a brief map of the territory.

Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg! Check out the re-enactors, the museum, and the theatre. Over there is the Revolutionary City. Gettysburg is 4 hours north. Washington D.C. is closer to 2.5 hours.

Great – now you have a lay of the land. Time to dig in and actually learn about the American Revolution. (This book is awesome, if you actually want to do that.)

Going back to Kahneman, one of his and Tversky’s great findings was the concept of the Availability Heuristic. Basically, the mind operates on what it has close at hand.

As Kahneman puts it, “An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.”

That means that in the moment of decision making, when you’re thinking hard on some complex problem you face, it’s unlikely that your mind is working all that successfully without the details. It doesn't have anything to draw on. It’d be like a chess player who read a book about great chess players, but who hadn’t actually studied all of their moves. Not very effective.

The great difficulty, of course, is that we lack the time to dig deep into everything. Opportunity costs and trade-offs are quite real.

That’s why you must develop excellent filters. What’s worth learning this deeply? We think it’s the first-principle style mental models. The great ideas from physical systems, biological systems, and human systems. The new-new thing you’re studying is probably either A. Wrong or B. Built on one of those great ideas anyways. Farnam Street, in a way, is just a giant filtering mechanism to get you started down the hill.

But don't stop there. Don't stop at the starting line. Resolve to increase your depth and stop thinking you can have it all in 5 minutes or less. Use our stuff, and whoever else's stuff you like, as an entrée to the real thing.

(P.S. If you need to learn how to focus, check this out; if you need to learn how to read more effectively, go with this.)

Tyranny, Democracy, and the Polity: Aristotle’s Politics

We've written before about why Plato matters. What about Aristotle?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that questions of the state, how it should be organized, and how it should pursue its ends, were fundamental to the achievement of happiness. His text Politics is an exploration of different types of state organizations and tries to describe the state which will ultimately lead to the most fulfilled citizens.

Forms of Government

Aristotle argued that there were six general ways in which societies could be organized under political rule, depending on who ruled, and for whom they ruled.

Those in the first row he referred to as “true forms” of government, while those in the second row were the “defective and perverted forms” of the first three.

The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether to the one, or the few, or of the many, are perversions.

[…]

Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.

It is important to note that in Aristotle’s time, states were comparatively smaller than they are today. Thus, in democracies, the many could directly rule via participation in open councils.

Although our democracies are much larger now, the core concepts remain the same: Our vote is our means of exercising our rule, and any one of us may chose to run for an office of the state.

Aristotle argued that oligarchies and democracies are the most common forms of government, with much in common except their allocation of power; and thus he spends a lot of time discussing them.

For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy.

It is important to note that Aristotle did not consider oligarchies and democracies as inherently bad. Even though they govern in the interest of those who hold the power, they are capable of producing livable societies, unlike tyranny, which no free man in his right mind would choose.

But he also aims to demonstrate that there are better ways to govern. These better systems, however, are reliant on a quality of character in leadership that is uncommon.

Therefore, for him there was no clear cut best system: “None of the principles on which men claim to rule, and hold other men in subjection to them, are strictly right.

Democracy vs. Polity

For Aristotle, democracies [as he defined them] were very polarized societies, containing rich and poor and not much in between. For democracy, “equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracize and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.”

Part of the reason Aristotle liked democratic systems is that he believed in the wisdom of crowds. (A remarkably modern idea.) “If the people are not utterly degraded, although individually they may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, as a body they are as good or better.”

This is useful, because all societies must evolve their governing rules as needs change. No society can unflinchingly abide by a set constitution of rules in perpetuity; rigidity is not a valuable quality in a changing world. (Even the American constitution was designed to be amended.)

Laws speak only in general terms, and cannot provide for circumstance. … Hence it is argued that a government acting according to written laws is plainly not the best.” The leadership must be able to follow the laws while adjusting for circumstance. In this “the many are more incorruptible than the few“; and thus might be the most flexible to change.

Aristotle also cautioned against something he called extreme democracy – as it can lead to demagogues.

…in which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees. … The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, and refer all things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them.

Eventually this ceases to be a democracy at all, because “the sort of constitution in which all things are regulated by decrees is clearly not a democracy in the true sense of the word, for decrees relate only to particulars.”

The right kind of democracy, if you will, is a polity: An ideal democracy that governs for the interests of all, not just the leadership.

The success of a polity is dependent on the quality of the leadership and their definition of the common interest, leading to an interesting question: What is the common interest, anyway?

Trying to define it is very difficult. Here, we cannot take many lessons from Aristotle, because the “common interest” is a concept that's changed much over time. We now have a more inclusive notion of who belongs in the “common interest” than the ancient Greeks did.

Nonetheless, the general principles – quality of laws, virtue, and the middle class – are worth considering.

Critically, “There are two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey.” We must pay close attention to the content of the laws we're following: They must constantly be reevaluated to make sure they remain consistent with the common interest.

Aristotle also foreshadowed modern ideals by linking the middle class to virtue itself: A great democratic system should govern in their interests, cultivating a happy medium.

This is one of the key characteristics of the polity.

The happy life is the life according to unimpeded virtue, and that virtue is a mean (average), then the life which is in a mean, and in a mean attainable by every one, must be the best.

[…]

Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and larger if possible than both the other classes (rich and poor).

[…]

Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the other nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme … but it is not so likely to arise out of a middle and nearly equal condition.

Larger middle classes produce more stable states. Thus, the middle class is key in the establishment and maintenance of a polity. Because they are not in extreme need nor extreme wealth, their assessment of the common interest will produce the greatest benefit for all members.

Concluding: Why Government At All?

For Aristotle, the organization of people into states with governments was a key component of their achieving happiness and satisfaction in life.

It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of crime and for the sake of exchange. These are all conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of well-being in families and aggregations of families, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.

The best way to organize the state is the one that creates the most happiness for its citizens (not an easy problem, of course). For Aristotle, the polity, the ideal democracy, met this criteria — it allowed for the development of virtues that support the common interest, and limited the emphasis on wealth, allowing for the development of a desirable middle class.

Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.

Charlie Munger on Getting Rich, Wisdom, Focus, Fake Knowledge and More

“In the chronicles of American financial history,” writes David Clark in Tao of Charlie Munger: A Compilation of Quotes from Berkshire Hathaway's Vice Chairman on Life, Business, and the Pursuit of Wealth, “Charlie Munger will be seen as the proverbial enigma wrapped in a paradox— he is both a mystery and a contradiction at the same time.”

On one hand, Munger received an elite education and it shows: He went to Cal Tech to train as a meteorologist for the Second World War and then attended Harvard Law School and eventually opened his own law firm. That part of his success makes sense.

Yet here's a man who never took a single course in economics, business, marketing, finance, psychology or accounting, and managed to become one of the greatest, most admired, and most honorable businessmen of our age, noted by essentially all observers for the originality of his thoughts, especially about business and human behavior. You don't learn that in law school, at Harvard or anywhere else.

Bill Gates said of him: “He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered.” His business partner Warren Buffett put it another way: “He comes equipped for rationality…I would say that to try and typecast Charlie in terms of any other human that I can think of, no one would fit. He's got his own mold.”

How does such an extreme result happen? How is such an original and unduly capable mind formed? In the case of Munger, it's clearly a combination of unusual genetics and an unusual approach to learning and life.

While we can't have his genetics, we can try to steal his approach to rationality. There's almost no limit to the amount one could learn from studying the Munger mind, so let's at least get started by running down some of his best ideas.

***

Wisdom and Circle of Competence

“Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”
“Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”

Identify your circle of competence and use your knowledge, when possible, to stay away from things you don't understand. There are no points for difficulty at work or in life.  Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

Of course this relates to another of Munger's sayings, “People are trying to be smart—all I am trying to do is not to be idiotic, but it’s harder than most people think.”

And this reminds me of perhaps my favorite Mungerism of all time, the very quote that sits right beside my desk:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

***

Divergence

“Mimicking the herd, invites regression to the mean.”

Here's a simple axiom to live by: If you do what everyone else does, you're going to get the same result that everyone else gets. This means, taking out luck (good or bad), if you act average, you're going to be average. If you want to move away from average, you must diverge. You must be different. And if you want to outperform, you must be different and correct. As Munger would say, “How could it be otherwise?”

***

Know When to Fold Em

“Life, in part, is like a poker game, wherein you have to learn to quit sometimes when holding a much-loved hand— you must learn to handle mistakes and new facts that change the odds.”

Mistakes are an opportunity to grow. How we handle adversity is up to us. This is how we become personally antifragile.

***

False Models

Echoing Einstein, who said that “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Munger said about his and Buffett's shift to acquiring high quality businesses for Berkshire Hathaway:

“Once we’d gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses.”

***

Being Lazy

“Sit on your ass. You’re paying less to brokers, you’re listening to less nonsense, and if it works, the tax system gives you an extra one, two, or three percentage points per annum.”

Time is the friend to a good business and the enemy of the poor business. It's also the friend of knowledge and the enemy of the new and novel. As Seneca said “Time discovers truth.”

***

Investing is a Pari-mutual System

You’re looking for a mispriced gamble,” says Munger. “That’s what investing is. And you have to know enough to know whether the gamble is mispriced. That’s value investing.”  At another time he added: “You should remember that good ideas are rare— when the odds are greatly in your favor, bet heavily.

May the odds forever be in your favor. Actually, learning properly is one way you can tilt the odds in your favor.

***

Focus

When asked about his success, Munger says, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

Long attention spans allow for a deep understanding of subjects. When combined with deliberate practice focus allows you to increase your skills and get out of your rut. The Art of Focus is a divergent and correct strategy that can help you identify where the leverage points are and apply your effort toward them.

***

Fake Knowledge

“Smart people aren’t exempt from professional disasters from overconfidence.”

We're so used to outsourcing our thinking to others that we've forgotten what it's like to really understand something from all perspectives. We've forgotten just how much work that takes. The path of least resistance, however, is just a click away. Fake knowledge, which comes from reading headlines and skimming the news seems harmless, but it's not because it makes us overconfident. It's better to remember a simple trick: anything you're getting easily through google or twitter is likely to be widely known and should not be given undue weight.

However, Munger adds, “If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.

***

Sit Quietly

Echoing Pascal, who said some version of ‘All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,' Munger adds an investing twist:  “It’s waiting that helps you as an investor, and a lot of people just can’t stand to wait.”

The ability to be alone with your thoughts, and turn ideas over and over, without the do something syndrome affects so many of us. A perfectly reasonable deviation is to hold your ground and await more information.

***

Deal With Reality

“I think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn’t like it; indeed, especially when one doesn’t like it.”

Munger clearly learned from Joseph Tussman's wisdom. This means facing harsh truths that you have forced yourself to ignore. It means meeting the world on the worlds terms, not how you wish it would be. If this causes temporary pain, so be it. “Your pain,” writes Kahil Gibran in The Prophet, “is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

***

There is No Free Lunch

We like quick solutions that don't require a lot of effort. We're drawn to the modern equivalent of an old hustler selling an all curing tonic. Only the world does not work that way. Munger expands:

“There isn’t a single formula. You need to know a lot about business and human nature and the numbers…It is unreasonable to expect that there is a magic system that will do it for you.”

Acquiring knowledge is hard work. It's reading and adding to your knowledge so it compounds. It's going deep and developing fluency, something Darwin knew well.

***

Maximization/Minimization

In business we often find that the winning system goes almost ridiculously far in maximizing and or minimizing one or a few variables— like the discount warehouses of Costco.

When everything is a priority nothing is a priority. Attempting to maximize competing variables is a recipe for disaster. Picking one variable, and relentlessly focusing on it, which is an effective strategy, diverges from the norm. It's hard to compete with businesses who have correctly identified the right variables to maximize or minimize. When you focus on one variable, you'll increase the odds you're quick and nimble — and can respond to changes in the terrain.

***

Map and Terrain

At Berkshire there has never been a master plan. Anyone who wanted to do it, we fired because it takes on a life of its own and doesn’t cover new reality. We want people taking into account new information.”

Plans are maps that we become attached to. Once we've told everyone there is a plan and what that plan is, especially multi-year plans, we're psychologically more likely to hold to it because coming out and changing it would be admitting we're wrong. This creates a scenario where we're staking the odds against us in changing when things change. Detailed 5-year plans (that will clearly be wrong) are as disastrous as overly-general five year plans (which can never be wrong). Scrap it, isolate the key variables that you need to maximize and minimize, and follow the agile path blazed by Henry Singleton and followed by Buffett and Munger.

***

The Keys to Good Government

There are three keys: honesty, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Munger says:

“In a democracy, everyone takes turns. But if you really want a lot of wisdom, it’s better to concentrate decisions and process in one person. It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in an enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”

Lee Kuan Yew put it this way himself: “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. . . . What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective, and efficient.”

***

One Step At a Time

“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day— if you live long enough— most people get what they deserve.”

An incremental approach to life that reminds one of the nature of compounding. There will always be some going faster than you but we can learn from the Darwinian guide to overachieving your natural IQ. In order for this approach to be effective you need a long axis of time as well as continuous incremental progress.

***

Getting Rich

“The desire to get rich fast is pretty dangerous.” 

Getting rich is a function of being happy with what you have, spending less than you make, and time.

***

Mental Models

“Know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely— all of them, not just a few.”

Mental Models are the big ideas from multiple disciplines. While most people agree these are worth knowing, they often think they can identify which models will add the most value, and in so doing they miss something important. There is a reason that the “know nothing” index fund almost always beats the investors who think they “know.” Understanding this idea in greater detail, will change a lot of things including how you read. Acquiring the big ideas — without selectivity — is the way to mimic a know nothing index fund.

***

Know-it-alls

“I try to get rid of people who always confidently answer questions about which they don’t have any real knowledge.”

Few things have made as much of a difference in my life as systemically eliminating (and when not possible, reducing the importance of) people who think they know the answer to everything.

***

Stoic Resolve

“There’s no way that you can live an adequate life without many mistakes. In fact, one trick in life is to get so you can handle mistakes. Failure to handle psychological denial is a common way for people to go broke.”

While we all make mistakes, it's how we respond to failure that defines us.

***

Thinking

“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”

“It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.”

Thinking is a lot of work. “My first thought,” William Deresiewicz said in one of my favorite speeches, “is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.”

***

Choose Your Associates Wisely

“Oh, it’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. It ought to be taught as a catechism. . . . But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.”

No comment needed there.

***

Complement Tao of Charlie Munger with this excellent Peter Bevelin Interview.

Memory and the Printing Press

You probably know that Gutenberg invented the printing press. You probably know it was pretty important. You may have heard some stuff about everyone being able to finally read the Bible without a priest handy. But here's a point you might not be familiar with: The printing press changed why, and consequently what, we remember.

Before the printing press, memory was the main store of human knowledge. Scholars had to go to find books, often traveling around from one scriptoria to another. They couldn’t buy books. Individuals did not have libraries. The ability to remember was integral to the social accumulation of knowledge.

Thus, for centuries humans had built ways to remember out of pure necessity. Because knowledge wasn’t fixed, remembering content was the only way to access it. Things had to be known in a deep, accessible way as Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished. Rhyme and cadence were no longer required to preserve certain formulas and recipes. The nature of the collective memory was transformed.

In the Church, for example, Eisenstein talks of a multimedia approach to remembering the bible. As a manuscript, it was not widely available, not even to many church representatives; the stories of the bible were often pictorially represented in the churches themselves. Use of images, both physically and mentally, was critical to storing knowledge in memory: they were used as a tool to allow one to create extensive “memory palaces” enabling the retention of knowledge.

Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass in windows, but it also affected less tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theatres.

Thus, in an age before the printing press, bits of knowledge were associated with other bits of knowledge not because they complemented each other, or allowed for insights, but merely so they could be retained.

…the heavy reliance on memory training and speech arts, combined with the absence of uniform conventions for dating and placing [meant that] classical images were more likely to be placed in niches in ‘memory theatres’ than to be assigned a permanent location in a fixed past.

In our post on memory palaces, we used the analogy of a cow and a steak. To continue with the analogy used there, imagining that your partner asks you to pick up steak for dinner. To increase your chances of remembering the request, you envision a cow sitting on the front porch. When you mind-walk through your palace, you see this giant cow sitting there, perhaps waving at you (so unlike a cow!), causing you to think, ‘Why is that cow there–oh yeah, pick up steak for dinner’.

Before the printing press, it wasn’t just about picking up dinner. It was all of our knowledge. Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Politics. The works of St. Augustine and Seneca. These works were shared most often orally, passing from memory to memory. Thus memory was not as much about remembering in the ages of scribes, as it was about preserving.

Consequently, knowledge was far less shared, and then only to those who could understand it and recall it.

To be preserved intact, techniques had to be entrusted to a select group of initiates who were instructed not only in special skills but also in the ‘mysteries’ associated with them. Special symbols, rituals, and incantations performed the necessary function of organizing data, laying out schedules, and preserving techniques in easily memorized forms.

Anyone who's played the game “Telephone” knows the problem: As knowledge is passed on, over and over, it gets transformed, sometimes distorted. This needed to be guarded against, and sometimes couldn't be. As there was no accessible reference library for knowledge, older texts were prized because they were closer to the originals.

Not only could more be learned from retrieving an early manuscript than from procuring a recent copy but the finding of lost texts was the chief means of achieving a breakthrough in almost any field.

Almost incomprehensible today, “Energies were expended on the retrieval of ancient texts because they held the promise of finding so much that still seemed new and untried.” Only by finding older texts could scholars hope to discover the original, unaltered sources of knowledge.

With the advent of the printing press, images and words became something else. Because they were now repeatable, they became fixed. No longer individual interpretations designed for memory access, they became part of the collective.

The effects of this were significant.

Difficulties engendered by diverse Greek and Arabic expressions, by medieval Latin abbreviations, by confusion between Roman letters and numbers, by neologisms, copyists’ errors and the like were so successfully overcome that modern scholars are frequently absent-minded about the limitations on progress in the mathematical sciences which scribal procedures imposed. … By the seventeenth century, Nature’s language was being emancipated from the old confusion of tongues. Diverse names for flora and fauna became less confusing when placed beneath identical pictures. Constellations and landmasses could be located without recourse to uncertain etymologies, once placed on uniform maps and globes. … The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers.

A key component of this was that apprentices and new scholars could consult books and didn’t have to exclusively rely on the memories of their superiors.

An updated technical literature enabled young men in certain fields of study to circumvent master-disciple relationships and to surpass their elders at the same time. Isaac Newton was still in his twenties when he mastered available mathematical treatises, beginning with Euclid and ending with an updated edition of Descartes. In climbing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ he was not re-enacting the experience of twelfth-century scholars for whom the retrieval of Euclid’s theorems had been a major feat.

Before the printing press, a scholar could spend his lifetime looking for a copy of Euclid’s Elements and never find them, thus having to rely on how the text was encoded in the memories of the scholars he encountered.

After the printing press, memory became less critical to knowledge. And knowledge became more widely dispersed as the reliance on memory being required for interpretation and understanding diminished. And with that, the collective power of the human mind was multiplied.

If you liked this post, check out our series on memory, starting with the advantages of our faulty memory, and continuing to the first part on our memory's frequent errors.

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Relationship between Vulnerability and Love

In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living.

The essence of his brilliance is captured on the section on love.

So much of meaning in life comes from the willingness to lean into things that make us vulnerable.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being the friend that my friends deserve, is that I have to put myself out there. It's the exposure of the self, not the protection, that creates meaning.

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

A few sentences later, he hits on the need for vulnerability.

[I]f in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.

As for finding love, we cannot direct the course.

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

As for your desires, turning into vulnerability, Gibran, who echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson's sentiment when he said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,' writes:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged hear and give thanks for another day of loving.

Love is process, not an outcome.

In The Prophet, Gibran goes on to explore the tension in love between intimacy and independence. Complement with Richard Feynman's beautiful Letter to his wife Arlene.

Who’s in Charge of Our Minds? The Interpreter

One of the most fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience is that the brain is a collection of distinct modules (grouped, highly connected neurons) performing specific functions rather than a unified system.

We'll get to why this is so important when we introduce The Interpreter later on.

This modular organization of the human brain is considered one of the key properties that sets us apart from animals. So much so, that it has displaced the theory that it stems from disproportionately bigger brains for our body size.

As neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga points out in his wonderful book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, in terms of numbers of cells, the human brain is a proportionately scaled-up primate brain: It is what is expected for a primate of our size and does not possess relatively more neurons. They also found that the ratio between nonneuronal brain cells and neurons in human brain structures is similar to those found in other primates.

So it's not the size of our brains or the number of neurons, it's about the patterns of connectivity. As brains scaled up from insect to small mammal to larger mammal, they had to re-organize, for the simple reason that billions of neurons cannot all be connected to one another — some neurons would be way too far apart and too slow to communicate. Our brains would be gigantic and require a massive amount of energy to function.

Instead, our brain specializes and localizes. As Dr. Gazzaniga puts it, “Small local circuits, made of an interconnected group of neurons, are created to perform specific processing jobs and become automatic.” This is an important advance in our efforts to understand the mind.

Dr. Gazzaniga is most famous for his work studying split-brain patients, where many of the discoveries we're talking about were refined and explored. Split-brain patients give us a natural controlled experiment to find out “what the brain is up to” — and more importantly, how it does its work. What Gazzaniga and his co-researchers found was fascinating.

Emergence

We experience our conscious mind as a single unified thing. But if Gazzaniga & company are right, it most certainly isn't. How could a “specialized and localized” modular brain give rise to the feeling of “oneness” we feel so strongly about? It would seem there are too many things going on separately and locally:

Our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of nonconscious processing. Below our level of awareness is the very busy nonconscious brain hard at work. Not hard for us to imagine are the housekeeping jobs the brain constantly struggles to keep homeostatic mechanisms up and running, such as our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and our temperature just right. Less easy to imagine, but being discovered left and right over the past fifty years, are the myriads of nonconscious processes smoothly putt-putting along. Think about it.

To begin with there are all the automatic visual and other sensory processing we have talked about. In addition, our minds are always being unconsciously biased by positive and negative priming processes, and influenced by category identification processes. In our social world, coalitionary bonding processes, cheater detection processes, and even moral judgment processes (to name only a few) are cranking away below our conscious mechanisms. With increasingly sophisticated testing methods, the number and diversity of identified processes is only going to multiply.

So what's going on? Who's controlling all this stuff? The idea is that the brain works more like traffic than a car. No one is controlling it!

It's due to a principle of complex systems called emergence, and it explains why all of these “specialized and localized” processes can give rise to what seems like a unified mind.

The key to understanding emergence is to understand that there are different levels of organization. My favorite analogy is that of the car, which I have mentioned before. If you look at an isolated car part, such as a cam shaft, you cannot predict that the freeway will be full of traffic at 5:15 PM. Monday through Friday. In fact, you could not even predict the phenomenon of traffic would even occur if you just looked at a brake pad. You cannot analyze traffic at the level of car parts. Did the guy who invented the wheel ever visualize the 405 in Los Angeles on Friday evening? You cannot even analyze traffic at the level of the individual car. When you get a bunch of cars and drivers together, with the variables of location, time, weather, and society, all in the mix, then at that level you can predict traffic. A new set of laws emerge that aren't predicted from the parts alone.

Emergence, Gazzaniga goes on, is how to understand the brain. Sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, modules, the mind, and a collection of minds (a society) are all different levels of organization, with their own laws that cannot necessarily be predicted from the properties of the level below.

The unified mind we feel present emerges from the thousands of lower-level processes operating in parallel. Most of it is so automatic that we have no idea it's going on. (Not only does the mind work bottom-up but top down processes also influence it. In other words, what you think influences what you see and hear.)

And when we do start consciously explaining what's going on — or trying to — we start getting very interesting results. The part of our brain that seeks explanations and infers causality turns out to be a quirky little beast.

The Interpreter

Let's say you were to see a snake and jump back, automatically and quickly. Did you choose that action? If asked, you'd almost certainly say so, but the truth is more complicated.

If you were to have asked me why I jumped, I would have replied that I thought I'd seen a snake. That answer certainly makes sense, but the truth is I jumped before I was conscious of the snake: I had seen it, I didn't know I had seen it. My explanation is from post hoc information I have in my conscious system: The facts are that I jumped and that I saw a snake. The reality, however, is that I jumped way before (in a world of milliseconds) I was conscious of the snake. I did not make a conscious decision to jump and then consciously execute it. When I answered that question, I was, in a sense, confabulating: giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true. The real reason I jumped was an automatic nonconscious reaction to the fear response set into play by the amygdala. The reason I would have confabulated is that our human brains are driven to infer causality. They are driven to explain events that make sense out of the scattered facts. The facts that my conscious brain had to work were that I saw a snake, and I jumped. It did not register that I jumped before I was consciously aware of the snake.

Here's how it works: A thing happens, we react, we feel something about it, and then we go on explaining it. Sensory information is fed into an explanatory module which Gazzaniga calls The Interpreter, and studying split-brain patients showed him that it resides in the left hemisphere of the brain.

With that knowledge, Gazzaniga and his team were able to do all kinds of clever things to show how ridiculous our Interpreter can often be, especially in split-brain patients.

Take this case of a split-brain patient unconsciously making up a nonsense story when its two hemispheres are shown different images and instructed to choose a related image from a group of pictures. Read carefully:

We showed a split-brain patient two pictures: A chicken claw was shown to his right visual field, so the left hemisphere only saw the claw picture, and a snow scene was shown to the left visual field, so the right hemisphere saw only that. He was then asked to choose a picture from an array of pictures placed in fully view in front of him, which both hemispheres could see.

The left hand pointed to a shovel (which was the most appropriate answer for the snow scene) and the right hand pointed to a chicken (the most appropriate answer for the chicken claw). Then we asked why he chose those items. His left-hemisphere speech center replied, “Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken,” easily explaining what it knew. It had seen the chicken claw.

Then, looking down at his left hand pointing to the shovel, without missing a beat, he said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” Immediately, the left brain, observing the left hand's response without the knowledge of why it had picked that item, put into a context that would explain it. It interpreted the response in a context consistent with what it knew, and all it knew was: Chicken claw. It knew nothing about the snow scene, but it had to explain the shovel in his left hand. Well, chickens do make a mess, and you have to clean it up. Ah, that's it! Makes sense.

What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, “I don't know,” which truly was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense.

The left hand, responding to the snow Gazzaniga covertly showed the left visual field, pointed to the snow shovel. This all took place in the right hemisphere of the brain (think of it like an “X” — the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and vice versa). But since it was a split-brain patient, the left hemisphere was not given any of the information about snow.

And yet, the left hemisphere is where the Interpreter resides! So what did the Interpreter do, asked to explain why the shovel was chosen seeing but having no information about snow, only about chickens? It made up a story about shoveling chicken coops!

Gazzaniga goes on to explain several cases of being able to fool the left brain Interpreter over and over, and in often subtle ways.

***

This left-brain module is what we use to explain causality, seeking it for its own sake. The Interpreter, like all of our mental modules, is a wonderful adaption that's led us to understand and explain causality and the world around us, to our great advantage, but as any good student of social psychology knows, we'll simply make up a plausible story if we have nothing solid to go on — leading to a narrative fallacy.

This leads to odd results that seem pretty maladaptive, like our tendency to gamble like idiots. (Charlie Munger calls this mis-gambling compulsion.) But outside of the artifice of the casino, the Interpreter works quite well.

But here's the catch. In the words of Gazzaniga, “The interpreter is only as good as the information it gets.”

The interpreter receives the results of the computations of a multitude of modules. It does not receive the information that there are multitudes of modules. It does not receive the information about how the modules work. It does not receive the information that there is a pattern-recognition system in the right hemisphere. The interpreter is a module that explains events from the information it does receive.

[…]

The interpreter is receiving data from the domains that monitor the visual system, the somatosensory system, the emotions, and cognitive representations. But as we just saw above, the interpreter is only as good as the information it receives. Lesions or malfunctions in any one of these domain-monitoring systems leads to an array of peculiar neurological conditions that involve the formation of either incomplete or delusional understandings about oneself, other individuals, objects, and the surrounding environment, manifesting in what appears to be bizarre behavior. It no longer seems bizarre, however, once you understand that such behaviors are the result of the interpreter getting no, or bad, information.

This can account for a lot of the ridiculous behavior and ridiculous narratives we see around us. The Interpreter must deal with what it's given, and as Gazzaniga's work shows, it can be manipulated and tricked. He calls it “hijacking” — and when the Interpreter is hijacked, it makes pretty bad decisions and generates strange explanations.

Anyone who's watched a friend acting hilariously when wearing a modern VR headset can see how easy it is to “hijack” one's sensory perceptions even if the conscious brain “knows” that it's not real. And of course, Robert Cialdini once famously described this hijacking process as a “click, whirr” reaction to social stimuli. It's a powerful phenomenon.

***

What can we learn from this?

The story of the multi-modular mind and the Interpreter module shows us that the brain does not have a rational “central command station” — your mind is at the mercy of what it's fed. The Interpreter is constantly weaving a story of what's going on around us, applying causal explanations to the data it's being fed; doing the best job it can with what it's got.

This is generally useful: a few thousand generations of data has honed our modules to understand the world well enough to keep us surviving and thriving. The job of the brain is to pass on our genes. But that doesn't mean that it's always making optimal decisions in the modern world.

We must realize that our brain can be fooled; it can be tricked, played with, and we won't always realize it immediately. Our Interpreter will weave a plausible story — that's it's job.

For this reason, Charlie Munger employs a “two track” analysis: What are the facts; and where is my brain fooling me? We're wise to follow suit.