Purpose of post: describe and (hopefully) popularize a concept I’ve found highly useful.

Last year, my partner Logan Strohl wrote a sequence to introduce the “naturalism” concept they’ve been developing and teaching for the past decade or so.

That sequence was structured around a single, short sentence. The first essay introduced the sentence, and the remaining essays were primarily about explaining what each of the important concepts in that short sentence actually meant.

So, for the sentence “knowing the territory takes direct and patient observation,” there was a full essay on what was intended (and, more crucially, what was not intended) by the word “knowing,” and another on “the territory,” and another on “observation,” and so on.

This format was largely inspired by a conversation in which I asked Logan to describe naturalism briefly, and they said “I totally can, but you’ll get the wrong idea.”

Together, we realized that there is a curious one-way sort of property to many sentences, in which they work as pointers or summaries after the fact, but fail to generate the-thing-they’re-summarizing if used as standalone seeds.

(One could argue that every sentence has some of this property, but some sentences have a lot of it.)

I’d like to be able to point directly at this property, and as a result of historical accident that I’ll explain in a footnote, the handle I’ve ended up with in my own head is sazen[1].

Example I: “Duncan Sabien is a teacher and a writer.”

This is a true sentence. People who know me very, very well, upon hearing this sentence, will nod. It’s a good fit, retrospectively, for the data.

However, if you are attempting to give someone a sense of me up-front, saying “Duncan Sabien is a teacher and a writer” is an unusually bad start. The thing that most people will think of when they hear “teacher” or “writer” is specifically unlike me—I’m a very weird sort of teacher and a very weird sort of writer, and so anchoring people on the representative stereotypes is almost actively misleading.

The sentence “Duncan Sabien is a teacher and a writer” is a sazen.

Example II: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

There’s a classic challenge in which a teacher asks a bunch of students to write down unambiguous and complete instructions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The gimmick is that, to grade each paper, the teacher will follow only the actions written on the page, which usually results in something very unlike a normal sandwich.

This activity is … somewhat arbitrary and infuriating, because the teacher usually has to make a bunch of fluid judgment calls about where they draw the line, and there’s usually not a clear and consistent standard for what level of detail is required, so the lesson often ends up being less about the complexity of background information and more about the fickle dickishness of teachers.

But purely as a sort of plug-and-play teachable moment, it’s an interesting way to take a close and practical look at all of the little bits of context we take for granted, via the teacher pretending not to know them.

A sentence like “get a couple of slices of bread, and put peanut butter on one and jelly on the other and then stick ’em together” is a sazen. After the fact, you can look back and say “sure, those bones match the shape of what just happened.”

But up front, they’re woefully insufficient. They also match (for example) putting the entire jar of peanut butter atop one slice, and the entire jar of jelly atop the other, and then sliding the two smushed rectangles of bread into each other, flat on the counter. Or failing to use bread, peanut butter, or jelly at all, because the instructions didn’t say to get those items and have them on hand, or didn’t specify how to get them. Or (a traditional move in this activity) smushing the wrong sides of the two slices of bread together, with the peanut butter and jelly on the outside.

Example III: Open-notes quiz

You’ve just spent half a semester in your advanced biochemistry lab, and it’s time for a quiz where you’re allowed to bring with you one single sheet of handwritten notes.

Almost all of the blurbs you’ll jot down on your paper will be sazen. They’re pointers to the deeper, richer knowledge in your head, sufficient to call up that knowledge and help you click back into various connections.

But if, at the start of the semester, the professor had simply given you that page, you likely would not have ever come to understand any of those deeper concepts. The blurbs on their own are an excellent match for the information, but they’re insufficient to generate it.

Example IV: Focusing

A “handle” is a sazen for a felt sense.

Example V: Drugs

LessWrong user interfaces

(oh ha I just got the pun, nice)

LessWrong user interfaces writes:

Amongst drug users, it’s my experience that there is a great deal of specialized language that is difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand without yourself having had the experiences that the language originates from. However, it’s easy for prospective users to believe they understand the language being spoken, and to believe they have an understanding of the risks involved with certain drugs.

Sentences like “you feel connected to the entire universe” or “you’re watching your mind watching your mind watching your mind think” or “it feels like your skin is on fire with golden sunlight” or “the walls will start breathing” are all sazen. In particular, they all parse just fine to a naive listener—they do indeed seem to convey something complete and comprehensible. They’re a double illusion of transparency waiting to happen.

(Unlike many people, I believe that experiences like those of a drug user can be accurately conveyed to a non-drug user; I’m not big on the concept of ineffability. But I think it takes work. Logan wrote 14,000 words just to take their eight-word description of naturalism from absolutely guaranteed to be misleading to probably still misleading but at least not actively, negligently so.)

Example VI: Wisdom

Elsewhere, I wrote:

When someone tries to offer you a piece of wisdom, it’s usually not going to “click” right away.

It’s usually not going to click right away, and also this is fine, it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, it doesn’t mean you didn’t get it and it doesn’t mean the wisdom itself is silly. It’s just sort of how wisdom works.

See, people go through life, and they have experiences, and they come to some pretty deep realizations, and then they package those realizations up into a nice neat little catch phrase like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” or “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

And those little catch phrases usually make sense, on their own. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything missing, when you hear them. Like, yeah, okay, sure, I get it, “a bird in the bush” is like some potential opportunity that might or might not pan out, and so even if that thing is really good it’s often not as good as a sure thing that’s actually locked in. Why are you getting all weirdly intense about it?

But in fact, there really is a kind of deeper, fuller, contextualized understanding, a kind of getting-it-in-your-bones, that often doesn’t show up until later. Because when you first hear the wisdom, it doesn’t really matter to you. You’re usually not in the sort of situation where the wisdom applies, so it’s just this random fact floating around in your brain.

Often, it’ll be years later, and you’ll be in the middle of a big, stressful situation yourself, and that little snippet of wisdom will float back up into your thoughts, and you’ll go “ohhhhhhhh, so that’s what that means!”

You already knew what it meant in a sort of perfunctory, surface-level, explicit sense, but you didn’t really get it, on a deep level, until there was some raw experiential data for it to hook up to.

It was, in short, a sazen. After having cut off your own nose to spite your face, you can look back and see how the phrase is a very pithy summary of the mistake you were making, but it’s rare for the mere catch phrase to be sufficient to head off the mistake in the first place.

As it turns out, wisdom is almost universally packaged in sazen.

In fact, the sentence “wisdom is almost universally packaged in sazen” is itself a sazen, although it’s a kind of silly and small and unimpressive example. But I genuinely expect it to only sink in over time what it means that wisdom comes in sazen, for most readers, even though there’s a plainclothes meaning to the sentence that yes, you did indeed already understand.

(Much of what aggregated wisdom like that seems to do, in practice, is arrange the preconditions for the lesson to be learned the first time, after a single mistake, rather than leaving you to piece it together yourself through multiple painful repetitions. The catchy little phrase is a hint that This Is Actually A Pattern, Not A One-Off; So Much So That We Came Up With A Saying For It. It’s laying the groundwork for future epiphany, a vaccine that doesn’t (usually) prevent you from getting sick that first time, but prepares you to recognize and fight off the virus every time after that.)


Sazen (definition)

A sazen is a word or phrase which accurately summarizes a given concept, while also being insufficient to generate that concept in its full richness and detail, or to unambiguously distinguish it from nearby concepts.

More informally: it’s a handle that is useful as a pointer to the already-initiated, who can recognize its correctness and fill in the necessary gaps, but either useless or actively misleading to the uninitiated, who will either Simply Not Get It, or (much worse) fill in the gaps with their own preconceptions (which are likely to lead them astray).

Somebody who already knows the precise way in which the constellation Ursa Major outlines a bear might be like “of course!” But someone who’s simply told “these points are supposed to form a bear” is unlikely to end up conceiving of this:

To return to the original example: “Knowing the territory takes direct and patient observation.” After reading Logan’s six essays on each of the critical sub-concepts, that sentence is a very good mnemonic for the discipline of naturalism.

Before reading those six essays, it’s a seed that might sprout into any number of plants, most of which will bear little-to-no resemblance to the specific thing Logan has spent the past decade developing.

“Lossy Compression”

An earlier draft of this essay was public for a grand total of twelve minutes. One user asked “what is this concept getting us, that the concept of ‘lossy compression’ doesn’t already cover?”

It was a devastatingly good question. Good enough that I pulled the essay, because there seemed to be a very good chance that the answer was “nothing,” although my joke at the time was “I think if we round this off to ‘lossy compression’ we might be losing some of the important detail around the edges...”

However, on reflection, I do think there’s some disoverlap (although I won’t be offended if you just pack more into your use of the phrase ‘lossy compression’ rather than tracking another made-up word).

The core thing that seems missing, for me, if I imagine just sticking with lossy compression, is this idea of a double illusion of transparency waiting to happen.

Lossy compressions still tend to point pretty squarely at the thing they’re compressing. A low-res jpg of a face still looks a lot like that face. You wouldn’t tend to be surprised by the high-res version, after having looked at the low-res one.

To the extent that a sazen is a metaphorical lossy compression, in the same way that a plot summary is a lossy compression of a book … they do not do this preserving-the-central-experience thing. They fail to do it hard enough that I genuinely think it’s worth it to have a separate concept.

If I tell a freerunning student that the way to do a backflip is to jump as high as you can, throw your hands straight up into the sky, then bring your knees up to your hands as you tuck … this is, indeed, an accurate description of what I am doing with my mind and my body. These are words that I have mentally repeated to myself, over and over, while psyching up for a backflip.

But unlike the lossy compression of a jpg, this skeleton description is a very, very, very poor unit test. There are a lot of non-backflip motions that people can go through (including a very large number of lethal ones) that nevertheless check all the boxes in “throw your hands straight up into the sky, then bring your knees up to your hands as you tuck.” It’s the peanut butter and jelly problem all over again.

Another way to point at the difference: lossy compressions are optimized for nevertheless still being compressions; the whole point of a compression is to get the most pointing-you-in-the-right-direction for the least cost-in-data.

Sazen tend to be optimized by someone steeped in a context, to precisely fit features of that context that may be non-obvious or even fully invisible to the uninitiated, such that they’ll either have no idea what the pointer is pointing at, or (worse) will just jump to the conclusion that the pointer must be pointing at X (where X is something that the expert would never even realize someone might think was implied). They’re almost exclusively made by people who have left the state of little-or-no-knowledge, and it’s pretty common for people to completely forget what it was like to not-know, and do almost no effective modeling of the listener at all.

One is inadequate on the details, but sufficient to convey the gist; the other is precise on (some of) the details, but in a way that is not necessarily legible or useful to the listener unless they already possess a lot of context.

If there is some simple word or phrase that captures all of that connotation, then please tell me and I will be happy to admit that this particular essay was ultimately a waste of space. But I don’t think “lossy compression” is it (and, similarly, I don’t think “pointer” is a better word than the made-up “sazen”).

Casus Belli (Or, Why Try Making ‘Fetch’ Happen When It So Rarely Goes Well?)

There are sort of two pieces to this. The first (why bother reifying this concept at all?) is easy:

  1. Revealed preference. In the past month alone, I have found myself about to utter sentences on at least six separate occasions, only to pause at a note of hesitation that then led me to first explain this concept (usually without naming it, and instead calling it a “one-way summary” or some such).

    I found myself noticing that the sentence I was about to utter was, in other words, a double illusion of transparency in the making: I would say a thing that honestly back-matched the concept I intended to convey, and they would hear something that seemed coherent and sensible on its face, but I would not have actually transmitted my actual thought.

    Forewarning people about the failure mode of sazen didn’t cause them to locate my intended meaning any more easily, but it at least staved off the unfounded confidence that they otherwise would have had in their likely-wrong interpretation. It put them on guard against the misconception that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.

  2. Laying the groundwork for future revelation. One of the biggest problems with attempting to hand down wisdom to the next generation is the palpable mismatch between the fervor and intensity of the wisdom-sharer and the semi-bored, not-particularly-impressed skepticism of the kid or teenager who’s not even sure that the person talking to them has viable wisdom to offer, let alone that this qualifies.

    The concept of sazen bridges this gap by making both sides comprehensible to each other. Sazen says look, it makes sense that the wisdom-sharer is really deeply enamored of this trivial-seeming point, and it makes sense that you are not particularly impressed; neither of you is doing anything wrong; it’s just kinda like that sometimes. Treat this as a hypothesis that they’re betting you’ll find useful in the future, store it away in the back of your mind someplace where you won’t forget it entirely, and go on about your day!

    Which is much better than what you get by default. By default, you get listeners who are slightly weirded out by the intensity of their speakers, and who are incentivized to smile and nod and pretend to care so as to end the interaction quickly, and who often incorrectly (but understandably) dock the advice (and the person who gave it!) in the years between hearing it and it-finally-paying-off.

    Similarly, I like being able to say, to my conversational partners, “I can’t quite explain this fully, but here’s a sazen,” and then just … offering them a true summary, even knowing they might fail to regrow the same thought-tree. It feels substantially less misleading to all involved.

  3. It seems to me to carve reality at a joint. I did not at all anticipate just how often this particular term would end up being useful to me personally. In the scant three or four months since I coined it, I’ve found it popping up for me shockingly often. It’s come up while trying to teach, in discussions with family in the middle of tense interpersonal drama, while reading parenting advice, and while trying to understand the often-confusing statements made by disease experts and political figures and people working in artificial intelligence.

    In particular, it solved the puzzle that had been nagging at me for years, of what was going on, exactly, with these sentences that were definitely true, they for sure accurately described [thing], but they still seemed to be missing … something? It resolved a lingering unease about lots and lots of statements that I wanted to object to, but whose wrongness was too subtle for me to pin down.

    (In the end, the wrongness was that I was expecting them not to be sazen. I was judging the sentences for their inability to generate or precisely locate the concepts they seemed to think they were generating/​locating, instead of accepting that they were only supposed to be a good fit after-the-fact. Crystallizing “sazen” as a concept allowed me to separate those two purposes, and not unfairly condemn statements that were doing perfectly well on one goal while not even trying to accomplish the other.)

    (The other kind of sentence, an utterance that rings definitely false to someone who knows what’s going on, but which serves to point a beginner in the right direction, is one I don’t have a word for.)

The second piece (why a silly made-up word, though?) is a little bit harder. As explained in the footnote, I originally came up with the term “sazen” for a specific, private context; I never intended to inflict it on the general public.

But I found myself returning to the concept so often that I actually needed a short handle for it.

(Amusing, because the whole conceit of that other context is “putting short handles on things that are hard to say in English but really should be single words that are easy to use and talk about.”)

Sazen was a concept I found myself repeatedly wanting to reference multiple distinct times in multiple conversations, and preexisting words like “lossy compression” or “pointer” or the clunky-but-serviceable “one-way summary” just weren’t cutting it, in part because they brought in a bunch of connotation that required even more words to rule out.

For a while, I tried just saying “the thing” or “proposition A” in each individual conversation, but eventually, I was just, like, screw it, I’m finding it useful to say “sazen” in my own head, I should at least give everyone else the chance to find it useful themselves.

Your mileage may vary. Good luck either way.

  1. ^

    I’m in the middle of writing a nonfiction book whose central conceit is something like “an abridged dictionary of Kadhamic.” Not literally the actual canonical Alexandrian Kadhamic, but the idea is to present some hundred-or-so concepts that are long and complicated and difficult to convey in English, but which are not fundamentally more complicated than things we sum up with a single word like “basketball” or “gaslighting” or “cringe.” The concept of sazen (more properly “sazn”) is introduced early on, in chapter three, because knowing that most of the rest of the chapters are sazen is a pretty important piece of context for correctly digesting the book. I didn’t intend to force my made-up words on people outside of that context, but alas, here we are.