Prune

Link post

Pre­vi­ously, I de­scribed hu­man thought-gen­er­a­tion as an ad­ver­sar­ial pro­cess be­tween a low-qual­ity pseu­do­ran­dom Bab­ble gen­er­a­tor and a high-qual­ity Prune filter, roughly analo­gous to the Gen­er­a­tive Ad­ver­sar­ial Net­works model in ma­chine learn­ing. I then elab­o­rated on this model by recon­cep­tu­al­iz­ing Bab­ble as a ran­dom walk with ran­dom restarts on an im­plic­itly stored Bab­ble graph.

Ra­tion­al­ist train­ing (and school­ing in gen­eral) slants to­wards de­vel­op­ing Prune over Bab­ble. I’m try­ing to solve the dual prob­lem: that of im­prov­ing the qual­ity of your Bab­ble.

Although the pre­vi­ous posts listed a num­ber of ex­otic iso­la­tion ex­er­cises for Bab­ble, I’m guess­ing no­body was in­spired to go out and play more Scrab­ble, write haikus, or stop us­ing the let­ter ‘e’. That’s prob­a­bly for the best—tak­ing these ex­er­cises too se­ri­ously would pro­duce ex­otic but sub-op­ti­mal Bab­ble any­way. For a se­ri­ous solu­tion to this se­ri­ous prob­lem, we need to un­der­stand Prune at a higher re­s­olu­tion.

The main prob­lem with Prune is that it has too many lay­ers. There’s a filter for sub­con­scious thoughts to be­come con­scious, an­other for it to be­come spo­ken word, an­other for the spo­ken word to be writ­ten down, and a fur­ther one for the writ­ten word to be dis­played in pub­lic. With this many-layer model in mind, there are plenty of knobs to turn to let more and bet­ter Bab­ble through.

The River of Babble

Imag­ine that your river of Bab­ble at its source, the sub­con­scious: a foam­ing, ugly-col­ored river lit­tered with half-formed con­cepts, too wild to nav­i­gate, too dirty to drink from. A quar­ter mile across, the bel­low of the rapids is deaf­en­ing.

Down­stream, you build a se­ries of gates to tame the rush­ing rapids and per­haps ex­tract some­thing beau­tiful and pure.

The First Gate, con­scious thought, is a huge dam a thou­sand feet high and holds al­most all the in­com­ing thoughts at bay. Be­hind it, an enor­mous lake forms, threat­en­ing to overflow at any mo­ment. A thick layer of trash floats to the top of this lake, in­ter­mixed with a fair amount of the good stuff. The First Gate lets through any­thing that satis­fies a bare min­i­mum of syn­tac­ti­cal and se­man­tic con­straints. Thoughts that make it past the First Gate are the first ones you be­come con­scious of—that’s why they call the out­put the Stream of Con­scious­ness.

A mile down the Stream of Con­scious­ness is the Se­cond Gate, spo­ken word, the filter through which thoughts be­come sounds. This Gate keeps you from say­ing all the fool­ish or risqué thoughts trip­ping through your head. Past the Se­cond Gate, your spo­ken words form only a pa­thetic trickle—a Bab­bling Brook.

By now there is hardly any­thing left to sift from. The Third Gate, writ­ten word, is no phys­i­cal gate but a team of gold­pan­ners, scat­tered down the length of the Bab­bling Brook to pan for jew­els and nuggets of gold. Such rare beau­ties are the only Bab­ble that ac­tu­ally make it onto pa­per. You hoard these lit­tle trin­kets in your per­sonal di­ary or blog, hop­ing one day to ac­cu­mu­late enough to forge a beau­tiful neck­lace.

Past the Third Gate, more Gates lay un­used be­cause there sim­ply isn’t enough ma­te­rial to fuel them: a whole chain of man­u­fac­to­ries passed down from the great writ­ers of yore. Among them are the dis­em­bod­ied voices of Strunk and White:

Omit need­less words. Vi­gor­ous writ­ing is con­cise. A sen­tence should con­tain no un­nec­es­sary words, a para­graph no un­nec­es­sary sen­tences, for the same rea­son that a draw­ing should have no un­nec­es­sary lines and a ma­chine no un­nec­es­sary parts. This re­quires not that the writer make all his sen­tences short, or that he avoid all de­tail and treat his sub­jects only in out­line, but that ev­ery word tell.

Jeal­ously clutch­ing the 500-word pearls you drop once a month on your blog, you dream of the day when the cap­i­tal comes through and these Gates will be ac­ti­vated to pro­duce your mag­num opus, your great Amer­i­can novel. For now, you can’t af­ford to omit a sin­gle pre­cious word.

The Gates of Prune

In the model above, there are many prob­lems with Prune in­de­pen­dent of hav­ing low-qual­ity Bab­ble to be­gin with. The Gates are work­ing at odds with each other. They are in­di­vi­d­u­ally too strict. There are sim­ply too many of them. Lots of ex­pen­sive men­tal ma­chin­ery is not work­ing at full ca­pac­ity, if at all: if you have four Gates but 99% of the goods don’t make it through the first one, that novel-writ­ing fac­tory you’ve built is not pay­ing rent.

Even worse, there’s prob­a­bly two or three lay­ers of sub­tlety within each of the big Gates I sketched. What you might whisper on a dark night in to­tal soli­tude is differ­ent from what you might ut­ter to a con­fi­dante is differ­ent from what you might say to your the­sis ad­viser.

If a bal­anced Bab­ble and Prune game is sup­posed to in­volve one Artist against one Critic, then hav­ing an over­ac­tive Prune is like pit­ting a pitch­fork-wield­ing mob of Crit­ics against one Artist. The first three Crit­ics tar-and-feather the Artist and the rest are just there for moral sup­port.

The task of re­lax­ing all of Prune at once is mon­u­men­tal. In­stead, re­lax the Gates in­di­vi­d­u­ally in or­der. Si­mul­ta­neously, shorten the psy­cholog­i­cal dis­tance be­tween them.

Re­lax­ing and Shortening

At the First Gate, con­scious thought, notic­ing is the way to let through more sub­con­scious Bab­ble. Prac­tice notic­ing thoughts and sen­sa­tions (not just con­fu­sion) that you never pay at­ten­tion to. Much of med­i­ta­tion is de­voted to re­lax­ing this first Prune filter. Much of art is de­voted to the motto: make the fa­mil­iar strange, where strange is bet­ter trans­lated as salient.

Another ex­er­cise along similar lines is zoom­ing in on any­thing, any­thing at all. Pick up and stare at the whorls and aphids run­ning down that twig on your drive­way. Take apart that bro­ken old Canon in the at­tic. Dis­sect your aver­sions to­ward at­tend­ing Alge­braic Geom­e­try.

At the Se­cond Gate, spo­ken word, the trick is get­ting com­fortable with vo­cal­iz­ing more of your Stream of Con­scious­ness. I men­tioned be­fore that my in­ter­nal pro­cess is very ver­bal—on re­flec­tion I think that whole post is about the mat­u­ra­tion of my Prune filter to al­low more Bab­ble through. Sev­eral fea­tures stand out.

One of these fea­tures is that I di­rectly mouth or whisper any thoughts that ap­pear in my Stream of Con­scious­ness. Psy­cholog­i­cally, this short­ens the dis­tance be­tween the First Gate and the Se­cond Gate: it be­comes a ques­tion of how loud to speak rather than whether or not to speak at all. There’s no rea­son not to be con­stantly mouthing the things you’re think­ing, at least when you’re alone. Similarly, when lost in thought I make micro-ges­tures with my fingers to imi­tate the em­phatic ones I would make to con­vey that point in con­ver­sa­tion. Th­ese tricks ex­ploit the fact that the psy­cholog­i­cal dis­tance be­tween 1% and 100% is much shorter than that be­tween 0% and 100%.

Another fea­ture of my in­ter­nal pro­cess is that I always have a men­tal au­di­ence: a silent judg­men­tal muse, the per­son­ifi­ca­tion of the Critic. In HPMOR, Harry has a su­per­sized ver­sion of this: a whole cast of col­or­ful men­tal char­ac­ters that carry out full-length con­ver­sa­tions with each other. This kind of dis­so­ci­a­tion-into-sub­per­son­al­ities ex­er­cise has a whole of great side effects, but the rele­vant one for us is that it again short­ens the men­tal gap be­tween the First and Se­cond Gate by mak­ing think­ing feel like con­ver­sa­tion.

On­wards to the Third Gate: the writ­ten word. Thank­fully, mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has already rad­i­cally short­ened the dis­tance be­tween the Se­cond and Third Gates for us with the in­ven­tion of the blog, a medium much more free-form and per­sonal than the book. Your train­ing as a writer has prob­a­bly erected a tall Third Gate, and suc­cess­ful blog­gers have pretty much cir­cum­vented it.

What dis­t­in­guishes blog­ging from for­mal writ­ing? One met­ric is the fre­quency with which the blog­ger breaks the Fourth Wall—that poor Wall which is only men­tioned when it is bro­ken. Hav­ing torn down the Fourth Wall, blog­ging re­duces nat­u­rally to a heated and co­gent form of con­ver­sa­tion, filled with rhetor­i­cal ques­tions and in­junc­tions.

Hey, look here, I’m not say­ing there’s no place what­so­ever in writ­ing for for­mal­ity. But if you’re go­ing to build a wall and call it the Fourth Wall, build it af­ter the Third Gate, you know?

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