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TODOs from Paper Systems

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I want to start by talking about the emotional experience of working with a todo list. 

The biggest hurdle todo faces is that the emotion you generally experience when you look at your todo list is shame. This is bad because it makes you uncomfortable with the tool and makes you want to avoid it — you don’t want to look at it because engaging with it makes you feel bad, so you don’t use it, or you wait until it’s too late, you avoid it, etc. etc. 

The key to fixing this is coming up with a todo system where the emotional experience is pride. This way you often want to look at your todo list, you enjoy the experience of working with it, you approach it, you seek it out, etc.

To help describe ways we can do this, I’m going to go over some of the pen-and-paper todo systems I’ve used and describe how I think they fulfill the goal of making the emotional experience of working with your todo list one of pride rather than of shame.

Example #1: Digital Painting Calendar

Back in 2017, I was trying to learn digital painting. I was enjoying keeping up with it, and so I set myself a soft goal for myself of trying to do some digital painting (even if only 10 minutes) almost every day.

To keep track of this, I printed out a single-page calendar for the year, and simply marked off every day where I did some digital painting. By the end of the year, I was so proud of this that I saved an image of the calendar, reproduced below. I think I have the hard copy somewhere, even. This was such a positive experience that looking at it STILL makes me proud, even years later: 

Why did this work so well? I think there are a couple reasons.

First of all, the goal was low-commitment (any painting at all). This encouraged me to start painting often, and 10 minutes often turned into 3 hours. But this is a feature of the goal, not the todo system.

The goal was also simple. This helped the todo system, because it made it very easy to determine whether I had “earned” the right to check off each day. 

The scope of this todo system also has some great features. Because the scope is a year long, as soon as I missed one day, I knew that there wasn’t a chance of me getting 100% on the full year, which made it feel lower-stakes, while still being important. Early failures made the stakes not feel catastrophic, which decreased the threat and sense of shame. Incidentally, I think this is a strong argument against the use of daily streaks in todo apps. Streaks are a threat, not encouragement.

The calendar is also naturally split up into sub-units. There are 12 months and about 52 weeks. This means each week and month could also stand alone for success (or failure), keeping the local stakes high enough to be engaging while still avoiding feeling catastrophic. You’ll see that I completed several weeks perfectly. I also tried (and failed) to do every day in April, then tried (and succeeded) to do every day in October. Having these “local stakes” increased the chances for feeling proud of an accomplishment while keeping the total stakes low in terms of failure. I feel good that I 100%’ed October, but I don’t feel bad at all that I missed a bunch of days in December.

I also think this system works well because it covers just ONE of the tasks that I had on my mind then. I did other things in 2017, but this document doesn’t even try to cover those aspects of my life. I wasn’t overwhelmed when looking at it, and it forms a nice historical document that isn’t cluttered by unnecessary context.

Finally, I think this system works well because it pushes back against what I’ll call “the Tetris Problem”. This is something we will come back to again and again. Namely, the Tetris Problem is:

In this todo system, however, both errors and accomplishments are equally and fairly presented. There’s also some value in the fact that they are presented as fact (did I do painting this day or not), rather than as a judgment.

Robert Caro’s “Planning Calendar,” 1971. He shoots for 1,000 words a day — each day is marked with how many words he wrote with excuses in parentheses. (“Lazy,” “sick,” etc.). Source 

Example #2: Trello

I mostly don’t like Trello, but one thing it gets right is the combo of cards and checklists. 

When you have a checklist of 10 things, as you burn through it, the checklist fills up. One day 3/10, then 5/10, then 9/10. When you hit 10/10, it gets bold or changes color or something, I don’t remember. 

The important thing is that this turns Tetris on its head. In this system, accomplishments pile up, and errors are nowhere to be seen. 

Another nice feature is that accomplishments pile up at multiple levels. Completed checkboxes pile up in a list. Completed lists pile up in a card. Then, when the card is all finished, you get a final rush when you drag it to the “completed” pile. 

Importantly, the accomplishments don’t disappear until you manually choose to put them behind you. This is a critical difference from Tetris! With Trello, you bask in your accomplishments for as long as you want — until you say, “this was good but I’m ready to put this chapter of my life behind me, let’s move on to some new projects!”

Though this makes me wonder, should a system have a “trophy case” rather than a “completed” deck? A good point of comparison might be the “run complete” screens from recent hit video game Hades. Every time you successfully escape from hell, the game shows you a bunch of stats about your last run and you can bask in the success as long as you want. This seems like a nice feature.

(Not one of our runs)

Example #2.5: Trello Mimic on Paper

I copied this approach a little back when I was teaching, except I used a pen-and-paper approach rather than Trello. 

Unfortunately I don’t have pictures, but the general idea was this. I pinned a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper to the wall in front of my desk, where I could easily see it every day. Then, what I did is I scoped out all my teaching duties for the semester in a bunch of vertical checklists. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but something like, there were 12 weeks of lectures, 5 major assignments, 3 exams, etc. Each got a checkbox, and as I hit each milestone, I would check it off — one week down, one exam graded, etc.

This wasn’t quite as exciting as Trello for some reason. It didn’t make me feel proud, but it certainly didn’t make me feel shame. I didn’t have any problem looking at that list, and it gave me a good sense of progress as I slogged through some of the dumb-ass grading they made me do lol. I think I would have liked it more if I had felt better about the classes at [SCHOOL REDACTED], but I did not!

I notice that like the digital painting calendar, the scope of this was pretty long-term. I think that is part of what I mean when I focus on accomplishments piling up — it’s not enough for them to just pile up, they need to stick around for a while. It’s also useful if accomplishments produce ephemera, like the calendar, or like these checklists.

A semester may not even be a long enough scope! As a teenager, I mostly thought about tasks in terms of weeks and quarters. When you’re young, your life is explicitly structured around these short-term horizons. But as an adult, I am already starting to think about progress in terms of years, even decades. 

Compare also to the traffic stats interface provided by WordPress for this here blog. Normally we look at traffic per day, but we can immediately zoom out to look at weeks, months (seen below), or even years at the click of a button. With this, we can appreciate a greater scope whenever we want, and it can be nice to see how far we’ve come.

Example #3: Post-its in College

A long-term sense of accomplishment is important, but when we talk about todo, we also need day-to-day elements.

The best todo system I ever used in my life was in college. At the beginning of every week, I took seven post-it notes, one for each day, and wrote out my major milestones for that week. As I went through the week, I would check each off in turn, adding and removing tasks as needed. 

I don’t have any photos, but here’s an artist’s impression: 

At the end of the week, I would pull all seven off the wall and replace them, which was always incredibly satisfying. I felt like I had slaughtered the week every time. 

I do worry that a digital system will never be as satisfying as physically checking boxes and peeling post-its off my dorm room walls. But Trello for all its failings did give me some of that, so I’m optimistic. Probably the thing to do here is to look to the world of game design, to the concepts of game feel, AKA “juice”. Need that screen shake on my checkboxes!!! 😛 

If this system was so great, why don’t I still do it today? Strangely enough, I think it comes down to a few simple factors. In college, I always had only one desk, which was in my room. Ever since then, I’ve generally had one home desk and one work desk, and even that small amount of separation is enough to kill this system. In college, my desk always faced a blank white wall, perfect for hanging post-its. These days, my desk generally faces a window, to reduce eye strain. Trade-offs, man!

There’s also the fact that, when most of my todos were clearly tied to classes and student groups, it was easier to plan a whole week in advance. These days, my schedule is actually a bit too flexible.

Either way, this was a great system and I think there are a lot of lessons here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that, as before, accomplishments pile up. Every week, I knew what I had accomplished so far that week. Even if I missed a task on Monday, if I managed to get to it on Tuesday, I could go back and check it off Monday’s list.

Planning for the week helped keep me from carrying a todo from day to day. These days I still use post-its, but only one at a time. If I don’t finish a task today, I add it to the post-it for the next day. But this is a bad habit, and stressful too. It encourages me to carry many tasks in my working memory (and/or the paper equivalent), rather than spacing them out across seven post-its.

With the old system, I would have put the task at the point in the week when I thought I would be able to accomplish it. I didn’t get to it that day (which did happen sometimes), I would be able to see that it was overdue. This helped give it a naturally higher priority, and made for a clear indicator of just how overdue it was.

It also helped conflate personal and professional accomplishments. Now you may say, why would I want to conflate these? Isn’t it better to treat them differently? Well, I worry that too many people try to keep their work and their personal accomplishments separate, when both are controlled by the same limited resource — time. Having “get groceries” on the same list as “finish term paper” was a nice structural acknowledgement of the fact that both tasks trade on the same resource. I think it kept me from feeling bad when I didn’t get any “work” done in a given day. Hey, those personal chores were important! They were on the list!

It also helped that post-its are small. This reflects the limited time in a day and kept my ambition focused. I could only ever list a few tasks, so I figured out what I really needed to finish each day. It encouraged me to break up big projects into reasonable pieces, each only a couple of hours long, so I could check off a piece of the project on a given day. 

There’s another element which is also critical, but harder to explain. Nonetheless, I strongly believe it to be true. Having these limited post-its encouraged me to 1) do everything on my list as soon as possible, and 2) filled me with energy and a feeling of freedom afterwards. The same experience is described by Sascha Chapin:

And echoed in the responses: 

Whatever the reason, this is definitely a real phenomenon. In college, I churned through my requirements with astonishing speed — and then continued working really hard at whatever I was interested in.

This may have something to do with what Scott Alexander has called infinite debt (see also here). Your school/work/personal/whatever obligations — your schedule obligations — are in some sense infinite. You can always come up with new things to do. Like the moral equivalent, this can make your todo list feel really bad and overwhelming. This makes for bad designs — you don’t want to look at your todo list and feel like “your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” Ouch.

In contrast, by scheduling finite goals for each day, you can give yourself the sense of being on track — not discharging all of your schedule debt, but discharging all your schedule debt for that day. After that point, you’re free for the rest of the day! 

This works even better with my post-its-for-the-week approach. By scheduling out the major milestones for the week, when you finish your tasks for a day, you’re not just on track for the day, you’re on track for the week! 

This can even give rise to a feeling that is so powerful and vicious I can only describe it as “bloodthirsty”. Since your schedule debt is effectively infinite, you normally have no chance of catching up, let alone getting ahead. Scheduling out the day is better because you can catch up and be on track, but you still can’t get ahead. But if you mark out your milestones for the week, you can actually get ahead of schedule. If you finish your work for the day, and you feel energized (which you often will!), you can get that bloodthirst and chew through the tasks for later in the week! That makes you feel more accomplished, and it also gives you more free time later in the week, leading you to get even further ahead — it’s a positive feedback loop! 

The trick here is making each day’s set of tasks accomplishable in the 24 hours you have. But you should be doing that already. If you do this right, you feel great, you’re more productive than ever, and you get “bonus time”!

Example #4: The Modern Hybrid

Right now I am using something that is kind of like the pen-and-paper Trello checklist approach described above, but I’ve added a few features that I think are important. 

This fills a different niche from the post-its (and you could probably use both). Rather than daily organization, this is the near-term scope of 1-3 months or so. 

There are two-long running goals I’ve had for my todo organization, which I’ve struggled with, but I think these todo lists are starting to approach it nicely.

The first I’ll call “families”. This is simply a recognition that, while all tasks trade on time, different tasks belong to different classes or families. You have your personal list, your chores list, your work list, your hobby list, etc. Personally I find it very disorienting if I don’t keep track of which task goes in which family — or worse, if I don’t know how many families of tasks I have going on at all! This makes my todo list feel infinite, and as we covered before, infinite bad! 

So on the subject of families, you’ll see that my checkboxes are broken up into different sections, so I know how many families I have and what task belongs to which. I think any todo list worth its salt will break things up visually — possibly by color or shape, but even better is to be broken up spatially.

My ideal software would let me slide around tasks and families on the page much like I do when laying it out with pen and paper. This is another thing Trello approaches with its spatial organization, but you could certainly go a step or two further.

Two examples

Families also serve my second goal, which is a clear representation of dependencies. Tasks within a family often have a clear priority structure and sometimes even have literal dependencies, where one thing has to come before another. 

I’ve always really wanted a good way of representing dependencies, but actual graphs/connections and so on never worked for me. But in this notebook system, simple layout alone seems to work pretty well. In my first two passes (above), dependency is roughly indicated by a combination of left-to-right and top-to-bottom, like English reading direction. Things lower on the page and further to the right are generally lower priority and/or depend on things above and to the left of them.

Below is my most recent version, which instead uses top-to-bottom alone to indicate dependency. Each column is a family, and vertical order approximately indicates priority and dependency, with items higher in the list being higher priority and being requirements for lower items. 

I say “approximately” because it turns out, you don’t always need to indicate dependency explicitly. A todo list is a memory aid, not a memory replacement. I can remember what the dependencies are — the vertical organization just makes it easy for me to think about it, compare across families, not worry about tasks I haven’t reached yet, and so on. 

Having a quick visual shorthand for dependencies is useful and saves time. Actually bothering to map out all the dependencies tends to look cluttered, and does not save time at all.

In conclusion:

To make you feel pride rather than stress or shame, the ideal features of a todo system are something like:

  1. Accomplishments accumulate
  2. Long-term scope to see the arc of your success
  3. Multiple levels of scope to get sense of reward at multiple scales
  4. Recognize that tasks and events all compete for one resource — time 
  5. Limit your daily tasks and get “Bonus Time”
  6. Clear visual families & dependencies, probably through spatial organization




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francisga
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Lafayette, LA, USA
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COVID-infected hamsters in pet shop trigger animal cull in Hong Kong

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People in protective gear stand outside a colorful storefront.

Enlarge / Workers with Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department inspect the Little Boss pet store in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Authorities in Hong Kong are planning to cull around 2,000 small animals after a pet store employee and several imported hamsters tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report by the Associated Press.

On Monday, the pet store employee tested positive and was found to be infected with the delta coronavirus variant. Several hamsters in the store, which had recently been imported from the Netherlands, were also positive. The city, meanwhile, has been grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant.

It's unclear if the pet store cases are linked and, if they are, if the employee was infected by the hamsters or vice versa. But Hong Kong authorities say they can't exclude the possibility that the hamsters spread the virus to the employee. As such, they aren't taking any chances.

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francisga
9 days ago
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Lafayette, LA, USA
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Astronomers find growing number of Starlink satellite tracks

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A Starlink track running across the Andromeda galaxy.

Enlarge / A Starlink track running across the Andromeda galaxy. (credit: Caltech Optical Observatories/IPAC)

SpaceX's Starlink Internet service will require a dense constellation of satellites to provide consistent, low-latency connectivity. The system already has over 1,500 satellites in orbit and has received approval to operate 12,000 of them. And that has astronomers worried. Although SpaceX has taken steps to reduce the impact of its hardware, there's no way to completely eliminate the tracks the satellites leave across ground-based observations.

How bad is the problem? A team of astronomers has used archival images from a survey telescope to look for Starlink tracks over the past two years. Over that time, the number of images affected rose by a factor of 35, and the researchers estimate that by the time the planned Starlink constellation is complete, pretty much every image from their hardware will have at least one track in it.

Looking widely

The hardware used for the analysis is called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory. The ZTF is designed to pick up rare events, such as supernovae. It does so by scanning the entire sky repeatedly, with software monitoring the resulting images to look for objects that were absent in early images but which appeared in later ones. The ZTF's high sensitivity makes it good for picking out dim objects, like asteroids, in our own Solar System.

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francisga
10 days ago
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Lafayette, LA, USA
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Lafayette’s skater scene set to level up with new parks on the way

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ooti billeaud

Lafayette’s skateboarders have resorted to street skating for the last four years. Waxy sidewalks and handrails around neighborhoods, Downtown and campus are proof of that. 

After the Dust Bowl, a public skate park off of Johnston Street, officially closed in 2018, the only public infrastructure available to Lafayette skaters was three benches-turned-grind-boxes added to Parc Sans Souci in late 2020.

It looks like that’s finally going to change. After some vigorous advocacy, Lafayette’s skater community is on track to get two new skateparks. “In the last year and a half, we’ve made a lot of big leaps and bounds,” not only within Lafayette, but to the public as a whole, says Daniel Roberts, manager of Rukus Skate Shop in Downtown Lafayette.

Last week, the City Council approved $250,000 for a new skatepark at Thomas Park, using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a coronavirus relief fund that delivered more than $86 million to LCG. Thomas Park was chosen for its accessibility, location and size, and at potentially 30,000 square feet, it’s designed to be a “destination park,” Roberts says. 

Roberts and a loosely formed committee of skateboarding lifers worked for well over a year to get a skatepark approved by City Council. The project first appeared on the administration’s ARPA budget, which proposed a long list of quality-of-life projects but very little funding for coronavirus relief. 

The push, however, began long before the project landed on the ARPA budget. It all started with Rukus’ Go Skateboarding Day June 20, 2020. Bronson Sarver, another skater involved in the advocacy, credits the mayor-president’s wife, Jamie Guillory, with advancing their cause. She “took notice” that skaters had no proper park during the demonstration and jumped at the opportunity to help. She put Sarver in contact with Hollis Conway, LCG’s director of Parks, Arts, Recreation & Culture.

After the January vote, the skateparks’ first phase now has legs, and the committee of skaters will help shape the project from here. The skatepark committee isn’t opposed to anyone reaching out with ideas or curiosities.

“The door is always open,” Roberts said. “It’s an ever-welcoming group that’s just trying to do a good thing for a community of people that need it. And those people are parents, college students, business owners, teachers. Everyone.”

The committee is coordinating design plans with south Florida skatepark designer Tito Porrata, Sarver says. So far, the local design process is led by four planners who are gathering input from younger and older generations. Sarver added that the park will be “run by the city and kept up by the skateboard community.” 

Since the Dust Bowl closed, Lafayette has been an oddball. Other cities and towns in the region have thriving skate parks, despite their smaller size and populations. “I think it’s interesting because, at least locally speaking, skateparks have always been a really big success. Every skatepark, with the exception of maybe one in our region, has been built and then almost immediately upgraded because of the traffic it gets,” Roberts says.

Also joining the skatepark scene is Magnolia LA, a private park spearheaded by a Lafayette native, and a skate scene vet, Ooti Billeaud. 

Billeaud laid concrete for the Dust Bowl and runs Louisiana Concrete Skatepark, a nonprofit that provides information and funds to create parks across the state.

Now he’s building his own. 

“I always want there to be concrete skateparks, but there’s also a need for an indoor park here,” he says, just after he and his design team duck inside the warehouse that will house Magnolia to escape a drizzle. “There will be multiple weeks where it’s raining every single day. And it might dry up, but it’s a buzz kill.”

The 4,000-square-foot indoor park on the corner of Simcoe and Monroe streets will boast a 2,800-square-foot wooden flat bottom skatepark. A 5-inch layer of 2-by-4 with plywood and Skatelite will be the backbone of the seamless park. Billeaud’s goal with Magnolia LA is to have as few sharp edges as possible, for aesthetics and safety. Instead of a hard 90-degree angle for riders to hit, Magnolia’s grind box will have a smooth incline to hit a trick on the way up, or if riders miss, they’ll just get booped up. Billeaud’s trying to make it parent-friendly, professional, stylish, but most importantly, fun. “Because it’s such a small space, the park has to be well-designed and fun. None of the ramps can suck,” he says. 

With little room to spare, Billeaud knew he needed a smart park designer. So he turned to the man who helped him with previous ramps, Ryan Corrigan. Based in Austin, Texas, Corrigan owns Hold On Here We Go, a park designing business that has taken him around the world. Corrigan started as a BMX rider, stopping by Lafayette old school skatepark Buck Nutty’s Skate Ranch, and started building ramps while riding professionally.

Before Buck Nutty’s arrived on the Northside in the 1990s, Lafayette’s skater scene was mostly ad hoc with backyard and street ramps scattered around town. The space lasted until the early 2000, and other private skateparks have come and gone since — Skate Spot, The Spot and The Levee. 

Billeaud grew up in Lafayette during the Buck Nutty’s era. His first priority was location, sacrificing square footage for being close to home and Downtown Lafayette’s reinvestment.

He expects to be open by April, just in time to host The Magnolia Jam BMX contest on April 30 during Festival International. The space will also feature a BMX retail shop and snack area. “I feel like everything, in terms of photography, video, to any design or construction-related projects, my whole life has led up to this,” he says. “ … I want to do two things: build BMX culture and skatepark culture in Louisiana.”

Inclusiveness is something Mongolia and Thomas Park will have in common. Skate culture is bigger than skateboards now. Both will accommodate all kinds of wheels and action sports. 

“We want to be able to have that space, especially in a community where skateboarding and action sports isn’t as readily available as it is in other places,” Roberts says. “I didn’t have that growing up [in Acadiana] but I’ve lived in enough places that have, and I’ve seen all the positives for other communities. And I just want kids here to have the same opportunities.”

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francisga
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Reality is Very Weird and You Need to be Prepared for That

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I. 

Maciej Cegłowski’s essay Scott And Scurvy is one of the most interesting things we’ve ever read. We keep coming back to it — and we hope to write more about it in the future — but today we want to start with just how weird the whole thing is.

Scott and Scurvy tells the true history of scurvy, a horrible and dangerous disease. Scurvy is the result of a vitamin C deficiency — if you’re a sailor or something, eating preserved food for months on end, you eventually run out of vitamin C and many horrible things start happening to your body. If this continues long enough, you die. But at any point, consuming even a small amount of vitamin C, present in most fresh foods, will cure you almost immediately. 

We can’t do the full story justice (read the original essay, seriously), but just briefly: The cure was repeatedly discovered and lost by different crews of sailors at different points in time. Then in 1747, James Lind tried a bunch of treatments and found that citrus was more or less a miracle cure for the disease. Even so, it took until 1799, more than 50 years, for citrus juice to become a staple in the Royal Navy. 

Instead of diagrams depicting the horrifying symptoms of scurvy, please enjoy this picture of James Lind shoving a whole lemon into some unfortunate sailor’s mouth.

Originally, the Royal Navy was given lemon juice, which works well because it contains a lot of vitamin C. But at some point between 1799 and 1870, someone switched out lemons for limes, which contain a lot less vitamin C. Worse, the lime juice was pumped through copper tubing as part of its processing, which destroyed the little vitamin C that it had to begin with. 

This ended up being fine, because ships were so much faster at this point that no one had time to develop scurvy. So everything was all right until 1875, when a British arctic expedition set out on an attempt to reach the North Pole. They had plenty of lime juice and thought they were prepared — but they all got scurvy. 

The same thing happened a few more times on other polar voyages, and this was enough to convince everyone that citrus juice doesn’t cure scurvy. The bacterial theory of disease was the hot new thing at the time, so from the 1870s on, people played around with a theory that a bacteria-produced substance called “ptomaine” in preserved meat was the cause of scurvy instead. 

This theory was wrong, so it didn’t work very well. Everyone kept getting scurvy on polar expeditions. This lasted decades, and could have lasted longer, except that two Norwegians happened to stumble on the answer entirely by accident: 

It was pure luck that led to the actual discovery of vitamin C. Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich had been studying beriberi (another deficiency disease) in pigeons, and when they decided to switch to a mammal model, they serendipitously chose guinea pigs, the one animal besides human beings and monkeys that requires vitamin C in its diet. Fed a diet of pure grain, the animals showed no signs of beriberi, but quickly sickened and died of something that closely resembled human scurvy.

No one had seen scurvy in animals before. With a simple animal model for the disease in hand, it became a matter of running the correct experiments, and it was quickly established that scurvy was a deficiency disease after all. Very quickly the compound that prevents the disease was identified as a small molecule present in cabbage, lemon juice, and many other foods, and in 1932 Szent-Györgyi definitively isolated ascorbic acid.

Even in retrospect, the story is pretty complicated. But we worry that it would have looked even messier from the inside.

II.

Holst and Frolich also ran a version of the study with dogs. But the dogs were fine. They never developed scurvy, because unlike humans and guinea pigs, they don’t need vitamin C in their diet. Almost any other animal would also have been fine — guinea pigs and a few species of primates just happen to be really weird about vitamin C. So what would this have looked like if Holst and Frolich just never got around to replicating their dog research on guinea pigs? What if the guinea pigs had gotten lost in the mail?

Three of Theodore Roosevelt’s children posing in a photo with one of their five guinea pigs. Kermit Roosevelt is holding the pig.

Let’s imagine a version of history where the guinea pigs did indeed get lost in the Norwegian mail, so Holst and Frolich only tested dogs, and found no sign of scurvy. Let’s further imagine that Frolich has been struck by inspiration, and through pure intuition has figured out exactly what is going on. 

Frolich: You know Holst, I think old James Lind was right. I think scurvy really is a disease of deficiency, that there’s something in citrus fruits and cabbages that the human body needs, and that you can’t go too long without. 

Holst: Frolich, what are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense.

Frolich: No, I think it makes very good sense. People who have scurvy and eat citrus, or potatoes, or many other foods, are always cured.

Holst: Look, we know that can’t be right. George Nares had plenty of lime juice when he led his expedition to the North Pole, but they all got scurvy in a couple weeks. The same thing happened in the Expedition to Franz-Josef Land in 1894. They had high-quality lime juice, everyone took their doses, but everyone got scurvy. It can’t be citrus.

Frolich: Maybe some citrus fruits contain the antiscorbutic [scurvy-curing] property and others don’t. Maybe the British Royal Navy used one kind of lime back when Lind did his research but gave a different kind of lime to Nares and the others on their Arctic expeditions. Or maybe they did something to the lime juice that removed the antiscorbutic property. Maybe they boiled it, or ran it through copper piping or something, and that ruined it.

Holst: Two different kinds of limes? Frolich, you gotta get a hold of yourself. Besides, the polar explorers found that fresh meat also cures scurvy. They would kill a polar bear or some seals, have the meat for dinner, and then they would be fine. You expect me to believe that this antiscorbutic property is found in both polar bear meat AND some kinds of citrus fruits, but not in other kinds of citrus?

Frolich: You have to agree that it’s possible. Why can’t the property be in some foods and not others? 

Holst: It’s possible, but it seems really unlikely. Different varieties of limes are way more similar to one another than they are to polar bear meat. I guess what you describe fits the evidence, but it really sounds like you made it up just to save your favorite theory. 

Frolich: Look, it’s still consistent with what we know. It would also explain why Lind says that citrus cures scurvy, even though it clearly didn’t cure scurvy in the polar expeditions. All you need is different kinds of citrus, or something in the preparation that ruined it — or both! 

Holst: What about our research? We fed those dogs nothing but grain for weeks. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t get scurvy. We know that grain isn’t enough to keep sailors from getting scurvy, so if scurvy is about not getting enough of something in your diet, those dogs should have gotten scurvy too.

Frolich: Maybe only a few kinds of animals need the antiscorbutic property in their food. Maybe humans need it, but dogs don’t. I bet if those guinea pigs hadn’t gotten lost in the mail, and we had run our study on guinea pigs instead of dogs, the guinea pigs would have developed scurvy.

Holst: Let me get this straight, you think there’s this magical ingredient, totally essential to human life, but other animals don’t need it at all? That we would have seen something entirely different if we had used guinea pigs or rats or squirrels or bats or beavers?

Frolich: Yeah basically. I bet most animals don’t need this “ingredient”, but humans do, and maybe a few others. So we won’t see scurvy in our studies unless we happen to choose the right animal, and we just picked the wrong animal when we decided to study dogs. If we had gotten those guinea pigs, things would have turned out different.

III.

Frolich is entirely right on every point. He also sounds totally insane. 

Maybe there are different kinds of citrus. Maybe some animals need this mystery ingredient and others don’t. Maybe polar bear meat is, medically speaking, more like citrus fruit from Sicily than like citrus fruit from the West Indies. Really???

This looks a lot like special pleading, but in this case, the apparent double standard is correct. All of these weird exceptions he suggests were actually weird exceptions. And while our hypothetical version of Frolich wouldn’t have any way of knowing, these were the right distinctions to make. 

Reality is very weird, and you need to be prepared for that. Like the hypothetical Holst, most of us would be tempted to discard this argument entirely out of hand. But this weird argument is correct, because reality is itself very weird. Looking at this “contradictory” evidence and responding with these weird bespoke splitting arguments turns out to be the right move, at least in this case. 

Real explanations will sometimes sound weird, crazy, or too complicated because reality itself is often weird, crazy, or too complicated. 

It’s unfortunate, but scurvy is really the BEST CASE SCENARIO. The answer ended up being almost comically simple: it’s just a disease of deficiency, eat one of these foods containing this vitamin and be instantly cured. But the path to get to that answer was confusing and complicated. Think about all the things in the world that have a more complicated answer than scurvy, i.e. almost everything. Those things will have even weirder and more confusing stories to untangle.

This story has a couple of lessons for us. The first is just, don’t discard an explanation just because it’s weird or complicated. 

Focus on explanations that are consistent with all the evidence. Frolich’s harebrained different-citrus different-animals explanation from above does sound crazy, but at least it’s consistent with everything they knew at the time. If some kinds of citrus cured scurvy and other kinds didn’t, that would explain why it worked for Lind and for early sailors, but it didn’t work for the polar explorers after 1870. And in fact, that does explain it.  

It’s also testable, at least in principle. If you think there might be differences between different kinds of citrus fruits, you could go back and try to figure out the original source used by James Lind and the Royal Navy, and try to re-create those conditions as closely as possible.

FRUIT

We’re taught to see splitting  — coming up with weird special cases or new distinctions between categories — as a tactic that people use to save their pet theories from contradictory evidence. You can salvage any theory just by saying that it only works sometimes and not others — it only happens at night, you need to use a special kind of wire, the vitamin D supplements from one supplier aren’t the same as from a different supplier, etc. Splitting has gotten a reputation as the sort of thing scientific cheats do to draw out the con as long as possible.

But as we see from the history of scurvy, sometimes splitting is the right answer! In fact, there were meaningful differences in different kinds of citrus, and meaningful differences in different animals. Making a splitting argument to save a theory — “maybe our supplier switched to a different kind of citrus, we should check that out” — is a reasonable thing to do, especially if the theory was relatively successful up to that point. 

Splitting is perfectly fair game, at least to an extent — doing it a few times is just prudent, though if you have gone down a dozen rabbitholes with no luck, then maybe it is time to start digging elsewhere.

Scurvy isn’t the only case where splitting was the right call. Maybe there’s more than one kind of fat. Maybe there are different kinds of air. Maybe there are different types of blood. It turns out, there are! So give splitting a chance.

Be more forgiving of contradictory evidence. These days people like to put a lot of focus on the idea of decisive experiments. While it’s true that some experiments are more decisive than others, no experiment can be entirely decisive either for or against a theory. We need to stop expecting knock-down studies that solve things forever.

Contradictory evidence can be wrong! The person making the observations might have been confused. They might have done the analysis wrong. The equipment may have malfunctioned. They might have used dogs instead of guinea pigs, or they might have used the wrong kind of hamster. The data might even be fabricated! Shit happens. 

Things change as contradictory evidence piles up, but even then, it doesn’t mean you should scrap the theory you started out with. Everyone back in the 1870s made a big mistake throwing out their perfectly good “disease of deficiency” theory as soon as there were a few contradictory stories from polar explorers.

Their mistake was thinking “maybe the theory is wrong”, instead of “maybe the real theory is more complicated”. When you see evidence that goes against a theory, it could mean that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Or it could just mean that there’s a small wrinkle you aren’t aware of.

If you have a theory that’s been working pretty well for a while — it made good predictions, it solved real problems, it explained a lot of mysteries — you should stick with it in the face of apparent contradictions, at least for a while. When you hit a snag with a reliable theory, think “maybe it’s complicated” instead of “oh it’s wrong”. It may still be wrong, but it’s good to check!

Be careful of purely verbal, syllogistic reasoning. We make these arguments in conversation all the time. They seem plain, convincing, and commonsensical, but in reality they’re pretty weak. It’s hard to get away from commonsensical, verbal arguments since that’s how we naturally think, but don’t take them too seriously. They’re ok as starting points, but keep in mind that they’re not actually evidence.

“Different kinds of citrus fruits are more like one another than they are like polar bear meat” sounds very reasonable, but in this case it was wrong. Sicilian lemons really ARE more like polar bear meat than they are like West Indian limes, at least for the purposes of treating scurvy.

One of these things is not like the others. That’s right — the limes!

“Dogs are about as similar to humans as guinea pigs are” also sounds very reasonable. The three species are all the same class (Mammalia) but different orders (Carnivora, Primates, and Rodentia, respectively), so there seems to be some taxonomic evidence as well. But humans really are a lot more like guinea pigs than they are like dogs, or most other animals, at least for the purposes of getting scurvy.

IV.

We were tickled to see this paragraph near the end of Scott and Scurvy, for obvious reasons

…one of the simplest of diseases managed to utterly confound us for so long, at the cost of millions of lives, even after we had stumbled across an unequivocal cure. It makes you wonder how many incurable ailments of the modern world—depression, autism, hypertension, obesity—will turn out to have equally simple solutions, once we are able to see them in the correct light. What will we be slapping our foreheads about sixty years from now, wondering how we missed something so obvious?

This is really good, and we think it’s reason to be optimistic. We might be closer than we think to cures for depression, hypertension, and yes, even obesity

The answer to scurvy was just one thing, plus a few wrinkles — mostly “not all citrus has the antiscorbutic property” and “most animals can’t get scurvy”. This was only difficult because people weren’t prepared to deal with basic wrinkles, but we can do better by learning from their mistakes.

This means don’t give up easily. It suggests that there is lots of low-hanging fruit, because even simple explanations are easily missed.

Lots of theories have been tried, and lots of them have been given up because of something that looks like contradictory evidence. But the evidence might not actually be a contradiction — the real explanation might just be slightly more complicated than people realized. Go back and revisit scientific near-misses, maybe there’s a wrinkle they didn’t know how to iron out.





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francisga
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The Didactic Novel

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Shōgun

James Clavell’s Shōgun is a historical novel about the English pilot John Blackthorne. The Dutch ship he’s piloting crashes in Japan in the year 1600, and Blackthorne has to learn how to survive in what to him is a mad and totally alien culture. 

All historical novels are somewhat educational, but Shōgun teaches you about more than just Japanese society at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Blackthorne speaks a lot of different languages, and this is a big part of his identity. He speaks English natively and Dutch with his crew, but also Latin and Portuguese and even a little Spanish, which he uses to communicate with the few other Europeans he finds in Japan, mostly Catholic priests. This makes sense in the context of the novel — his ship is Dutch but their allies the English are the best pilots in the world, and they’re using stolen Portuguese documents to navigate strange waters, so he would need to speak that language too. 

So when Blackthorne finds himself stranded in Japan, he starts learning Japanese. At first this is hard because Blackthorne has only ever studied European languages before, and also because people keep trying to kill him. But he has a lot of experience learning foreign languages and little else to do, so he quickly starts picking it up.

What’s more surprising is that soon the reader is picking up some Japanese too. Linguistically, Clavell has put the reader in the very same situation as Blackthorne. The book starts out entirely in English, but suddenly you are confronted with words and phrases in a language you don’t understand. You end up learning many of these words and phrases just to follow along. 

Staged seppuku ritual, 1897

It seems like Clavell is doing this intentionally. The book is in English, but Blackthorne is the only English-speaking character in the novel. Except in the few cases where he’s talking to himself, all the dialogue is actually being carried on in other languages, but when the dialogue is in Dutch, or Portuguese, or even Latin, Clavell renders it all as English. When Japanese people are speaking Japanese to each other, he translates that into English too. But when Blackthorne encounters Japanese that he doesn’t understand, or just barely understands, it’s usually rendered as romanized Japanese. To follow these snippets you need to learn a little Japanese, so you do. And the interesting thing is, you learn this little bit of Japanese without any conscious effort.

It’s hard to read Shōgun all the way through and not learn at least a few words in Japanese. By the end of the first volume, most readers will know words like onna, kinjiru, wakarimasu, hai, ima, ikimasho, anjin, domo, isogi, and of course the omnipresent neh.

This isn’t a perfect language-learning tool. Shōgun is over 300,000 words long (and the original draft was considerably longer), but most of that is devoted to being a historical novel, an adventure story, and a romance, not teaching you Japanese. We love that there are lots of reasons to read it. But given the limited amount of space devoted to these basic Japanese lessons, it’s a very effective introduction.

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a dense novel that alternates between historical fiction and near-future sci-fi. 

There are two storylines. The first is set during World War II, and follows a group of characters pioneering cryptography in an effort to win the war, and inventing the computer — among the characters are a fictionalized version of Alan Turing and his even-more-fictional German boyfriend, Rudolf “Rudy” von Hacklheber. 

The second storyline focuses on the grandchildren of some of the WWII characters in the modern day, several of whom are putting together a startup in southeast Asia in an attempt to create an anonymous banking system using magic internet money. The novel was published in 1999 so yes, this seemed like an ambitiously futuristic scheme at the time. It also maybe helped create that future — Cryptonomicon was required reading during the early days of PayPal.

Unironically the best ad ever created

But implicitly, and at times explicitly, Cryptonomicon is a textbook on something like information theory. Chapter One includes a long discussion where Alan Turing and Rudy von Hacklheber teach Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (sort of the viewpoint character) about Russell and Whitehead, Gödel, the distinctions between mathematics and physics, how logic can be reduced to symbols, etc. If this sounds dry, it isn’t — you’ll probably learn more about philosophy of math in these 4000 words than you did during 4 years of college. Then Alan and Rudy give Lawrence a problem to go off and solve so the two of them can fuck. Sex comes up a lot in Cryptonomicon, possibly because sex itself is about the exchange of deeply encrypted source code, or possibly because Stephenson is just horny.

All that just in Chapter One. This is a book about cryptography, and so pretty much every other chapter has some lesson, implicit or explicit, about topics like symbols, languages, systems, inference, even actual algorithms or code snippets. Chapter 25 ends by walking you through the process of doing encryption and decryption with a one-time pad. There’s even information theory disguised (?) as small-business advice. It’s kind of Gödel, Escher, Bach in novel format, to the point that there are references to GEB hidden in a few places around the book. 

For the most part these lessons are subtle and deeply embedded:

One night, Benjamin received a message and spent some time deciphering it. He announced the news to Shaftoe: “The Germans know we’re here.”

“What do you mean, they know we’re here?”

“They know that for at least six months we have had an observation post overlooking the Bay of Naples,” Benjamin said.

“We’ve been here less than two weeks.”

’’They’re going to begin searching this area tomorrow.”

“Well, then let’s get the fuck out of here,” Shaftoe said.

“Colonel Chattan orders you to wait,” Benjamin said, “until you know that the Germans know that we are here.”

“But I do know that the Germans know that we are here,” Shaftoe said, “you just told me.”

“No, no no no no,” Benjamin said, “wait until you would know that the Germans knew even if you didn’t know from being told by Colonel Chattan over the radio.”

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Orders,” Benjamin said, and handed Shaftoe the deciphered message as proof.

But in a few places he does come out and state the idea plainly:

It all comes to him, explosively, during the Battle of Midway, while he and his comrades are spending twenty-four hours a day down among those ETC machines, decrypting Yamamoto’s messages, telling Nimitz exactly where to find the Nip fleet.

What are the chances of Nimitz finding that fleet by accident? That’s what Yamamoto must be asking himself.

It is all a question (oddly enough!) of information theory.

If the action is one that could never have happened unless the Americans were breaking Indigo, then it will constitute proof, to the Nipponese, that the Americans have broken it. The existence of the source—the machine that Commander Schoen built—will be revealed.

Waterhouse trusts that no Americans will be that stupid. But what if it isn’t that clear-cut? What if the action is one that would merely be really improbable unless the Americans were breaking the code? What if the Americans, in the long run, are just too damn lucky?

And how closely can you play that game? A pair of loaded dice that comes up sevens every time is detected in a few throws. A pair that comes up sevens only one percent more frequently than a straight pair is harder to detect—you have to throw the dice many more times in order for your opponent to prove anything.

If the Nips keep getting ambushed—if they keep finding their own ambushes spoiled—if their merchant ships happen to cross paths with American subs more often than pure probability would suggest—how long until they figure it out?

The whole book is backwards and out-of-order — not only because the chapters set in 1942 are intermixed with the chapters set in 1997, but because internal storylines are intentionally disjointed. Effects come before causes, explanations come many chapters before or after the thing they are meant to explain, critical hints are brief and easily missed. But this is intentional. The whole book is a giant combination lock, the final exercise left for the reader, and deciphering it is part of the reading experience and part of the lesson.

In any case, it’s hard to read Cryptonomicon all the way through and not learn something about information theory. You won’t be an expert, but it’s a damn fine introductory textbook. And because Stephenson is such a master, the book is designed to give up more mysteries every time you re-read it. Each time you revisit, you’re struck with stuff you missed the last time around. 

Writing novels that are secretly textbooks kind of seems to be Stephenson’s MO. Cryptonomicon has a prequel series called The Baroque Cycle. Just like Cryptonomicon deals with the invention of computing and information theory, these books deal with the invention of the scientific method, following historical characters like Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz. It’s also about the invention of banking/modern currency, and it’s heavily implied that the two are connected — a true historical fact is that in addition to his work in physics, Isaac Newton was the Master of the Mint, in charge of all English currency, for thirty years. He even went out to taverns in disguise to personally catch counterfeiters. 

The perfect disguise

Stephenson also seems to be aware that this is what he’s doing. Maybe this is not surprising given his other novel The Diamond Age, a book about a book that teaches you things. The Diamond Age follows a similar model and tries to implicitly teach the reader about the basics of computer science and macroeconomics.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMoR) is a 660,000-word Harry Potter fanfic by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Explicitly, HPMoR asks the question: what if Harry Potter were raised by an Oxford professor and was intensively homeschooled, instead of being raised in a closet by the Dursleys? Also explicitly, HPMoR is Yudkowsky’s attempt to teach the scientific method and “the methods of rationality” to a general audience.

Clavell and Stephenson seem somewhat aware that their novels are educational, but Yudkowsky is the only one of the three who comes right out and talks about how this is his goal, at least that we’ve seen. In a post on why he wrote the fanfic, he says:

But to answer your question, nonfiction writing conveys facts; fiction writing conveys *experiences*. I’m worried that my previous two years of nonfiction blogging haven’t produced nearly enough transfer of real cognitive skills. The hope is that writing about the inner experience of someone trying to be rational will convey things that I can’t easily convey with nonfiction blog posts.

Yudkowsky is referring to his other attempt to teach these skills as “The Sequences” on LessWrong. Elsewhere he says that these two attempts, fiction and nonfiction, don’t even communicate the same thought. But to editorialize a bit, it seems like HPMoR was more successful than the Sequences. It’s certainly reached a broad audience — among other things, it’s been reviewed in venues like Vice, Who Magazine, and The Hindustan Times.

(To editorialize a bit more, Yudkowsky’s writing on writing might be more interesting than either the Sequences or HPMoR. But of course we’re very interested in writing so we’re kind of biased.)

Yudkowsky describes his goal as teaching “real cognitive skills”, and he’s on the money with this one. Many skills are better taught through experience than presented as a block of facts — you’ll learn more Japanese from getting lost in Tokyo than you will from skimming a Japanese grammar. So for skills like these, a didactic novel is better than an explicit textbook, or at least a good complement.

HPMoR is spread a little thin — unlike Japanese or information theory, “rationality” is not really a single subject, so it’s a little less cohesive. But Yudkowsky does still have a lot of specific points he’s trying to make, and it’s hard to read HPMoR all the way through and not learn something about genetics, psychology, heuristics, game theory, tactics, and the scientific method.

The Didactic Novel

All three of these novels were extremely successful. All of them try to teach you something more concrete than the average novel tries to teach you. And all of them are at least somewhat successful.

Some skills, like oil painting or bicycle repair, are hard to learn from just reading about them — you actually have to go out and try it for yourself. But in many skills, the basics can be picked up vicariously. You won’t be a great codebreaker after reading Cryptonomicon, but it gives you a very firm foundation to start from.

Novels are powerful teaching tools because they’re more fun than textbooks, and fun is good. Educational and entertaining are treated like foils, but they’re actually complimentary. If something is entertaining, it holds your attention; if it holds your attention, you will be able to engage; if you engage you can learn something. If something is boring or tedious you will go look at twitter or pick your nose instead. Shōgun doesn’t teach you quite as much Japanese as you would get from a Japanese 101 course at the local university, but we guarantee it’s twice as fun and two hundred times easier to read Shōgun than it is to take all those quizzes. Japanese for Busy People is a pretty good textbook, but you don’t want to cuddle in with it on a snowy afternoon.

And frankly, fun sticks in your brain easier. 

Fiction is great. It engages. It inspires. Fiction led thousands of people to develop an intricate understanding of the history and politics of Westeros, including hundreds of characters and thousands of events and relationships. It led people to create detailed models of fictional castles in SketchUp. Fiction inspires people to scholarly discourse on the details of medieval sieges, or painstaking minecraft replicas of entire continents. Fiction leads people to totally overthink why an empire might destroy a province in a show of military might, or speculate in-depth about the project management that it would require. And yes, the power of fiction led to millions of words worth of Harry Potter fanfic from literally thousands of authors. Imagine if we harnessed even a little of that power.

Do you have strong opinions about which of these people you would invite to your birthday party? Which of them you would have an ale with? Which of them you would let look after your child? You do? FICTION

Language Learning

We think there should be lots more didactic novels — novels that try to teach you something concrete, like a skill. And we actually think that James Clavell got it right with Shōgun, that the best subject for a didactic novel is language learning. 

Shōgun is distracted by having many other priorities, but a novel that put language-learning first could be an engine of unimaginable education. Much like Clavell, you would start the story entirely in English, and introduce words in the new language one by one. Eventually you would start introducing basic grammar. The bits in the target language would start out on the level of “see spot run”, but would gradually become as complicated as the sections in English. As you move through the novel, the text would transition slowly from all-English to all-target-language. By the end, you would just be reading a novel in Swedish or Arabic or Cantonese or whatever.

This transition would have to be very slow for this to work, so the novel would have to be really long. But if you do it slowly enough, it won’t feel difficult for the reader at any point.

You might be worried that people won’t be willing to read such a massive story, but we don’t think it’s a problem. People already spend a lot of time on language-learning apps. Language-learning is a big market, and people are plenty happy to invest their time and money. As just one example, Duolingo is now worth more than $6 billion. And Duolingo isn’t even that great — it’s kind of bad. 

And while there’s a stereotype that people don’t like to read, or don’t like long books, the rumors of the death of our attention spans are greatly exaggerated. Shōgun itself is on Wikipedia’s list of the longest novels of all time, at over 300,000 words, and it sold six million copies in the first five years of publication. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, also about 300,000 words, was a smash hit and won a slate of awards. The entire Lord of the Rings series (minus The Hobbit), is about 500,000 words. Infinite Jest is about 550,000 words, all of them dense.

The entire Harry Potter series is more than 1,000,000 words long, and millions of pre-teens have wolfed it down without stopping for breath. If a school story with magic wands could inspire kids to do that, imagine how they would respond to a book that actually teaches them German, or any other language their parents don’t understand. Half the fun of any YA series is all the weird shibboleths you develop that adults can’t pierce. On this note, the web epic Homestuck was arguably even longer, and captured the minds of a generation, for good or for ill.

You really can engage 13-year-olds with 1,000,000+ words of arcane bullshit

Game of Thrones, the first book alone, is about 300,000 words long, and the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series is about 1,700,000 words so far. While most people have not read all the books, you can’t deny their impact. And it’s not like the sales have been lackluster or something, Martin is one of the highest-earning authors in the world.

You could make a pretty good case that Dune, almost 200,000 words long and with five sequels, is already a didactic novel about ecology, or maybe political science, or maybe the intersection of ecology and political science. I’m at the ecology. I’m at the political science. I’m at the intersection of ecology and political science. 

A Case Study

Since we think Clavell has done the best job so far, it’s worth taking a bit of a look at how he does it.

(Minor spoilers for Shōgun from here on.)

The prologue has no Japanese at all, since it’s set on a Dutch ship in immediate danger of going down with all hands. But in Chapter 1, things are immediately different. Blackthorne wakes up in a strange room. A woman comes in and says something to him in Japanese — “Goshujinsama, gokibun wa ikaga desu ka?” It’s the very first page, and already we get a full sentence in Japanese.

A few pages later, we learn our first word. Blackthorne points at the woman to ask her her name. She says, “Onna”. But this is a misunderstanding — “onna” is just the Japanese word for “woman”. This will come back to get Blackthorne in the ass, but not for a while.

A few pages later we learn the words “daimyo” (a type of Japanese noble) and “samurai” when Blackthorne talks to one of the local Catholic priests, who challenges him in Portuguese.

Then a samurai appears and says, “Nanigoto da,” a phrase we don’t understand, three times. Then we get our second full sentence. The samurai, whose name is Omi, asks Blackthorne, “Onushi ittai doko kara kitanoda? Doko no kuni no monoda?” which the Portuguese priest translates as ‘Where do you come from and what’s your nationality?’” He also explains that the Japanese use the suffix “-san” after a name as an honorific, like we use “Mr.” or “Dr.” before ours, so he should call the samurai Omi-san.

Clavell doesn’t give us the rest of the conversation in Japanese, but at the end Omi asks him, “Wakarimasu ka?” which the priest translates as “Do you understand?” Blackthorne is already itching to learn the language for himself, and asks how to say “yes” in Japanese. The priest tells him to say, “wakarimasu,” which is sort of correct. He also sees Omi behead a man and shout “Ikinasai!” twice. Most of what we hear at this point isn’t translated, but we’re already getting exposed to a lot of Japanese.

From the 1980 miniseries

Blackthorne talks to a few more samurai on his ship, and hears the phrases “Hotté oké!”, “Nan no yoda?”, and “Wakarimasen”, which astute readers might already notice is similar to “Wakarimasu ka?” and “wakarimasu” from before. When he uses signs to ask to go to his cabin, they say, “Ah, so desu! Kinjiru.” Based on how they threaten him when he tries to go inside, he correctly infers that “Kinjiru” means “forbidden”.

After spending a lot of time with his crew, he goes back to the house he woke up in. He hears “konbanwa” from the gardener, and while it’s not defined, context makes it clear that this is a greeting — in fact, it’s Japanese for “good evening”. 

Then he asks to see “Onna” and the joke set up at the start of the chapter comes full circle. He hears “hai” and “ikimasho” and “nanda”, not understanding, and then one of the women tries to get into bed with him, until the village headman, who speaks a little Portuguese, explains that “onna” means “woman”. We also see our first “neh”s.

And that’s all the Japanese in Chapter One. Blackthorne is taught the words onna, daimyo, and samurai, and is taught to use the suffix –san. He is sort of taught the word wakarimasu, and he correctly infers the meaning of kinjiru. He — along with the reader — is also exposed to several words that are not yet defined explicitly, and a few complete phrases, some of which get approximate translations. 

In Chapter 2, and forever onwards, daimyo and samurai are used as normal vocab, since these terms don’t have equivalents in English, and we see the suffix -san where appropriate. We also see one other full sentence in Japanese — “Ano mono wa nani o moshité oru?”, which isn’t translated — but that’s it. 

In Chapter 3, we learn the suffix -sama, meaning “lord”. We also learn that ronin are “landless or masterless peasant-soldiers or samurai.” But this chapter is also short, and we barely see Blackthorne at all, so both of these translations are provided by the narration.

In Chapter 4, we hear the word “isogi”, which is translated as “hurry up!” Then we hear it again. We also see “kinjiru” twice, with only the reminder that it’s “the word from the ship”, but context and the hint help recall the meaning. 

In Chapter 5, Blackthorne starts using Japanese himself, saying “kinjiru” twice to talk to a samurai.

In Chapter 6, the local priest tells him that the Japanese word for “yes” is “hai”. Blackthorne uses the word four times. We see the phrase, “wakarimasu ka” twice, which the priest translates the first time, but not the second time. We encounter the word “okiro” for the first time, translated as “you will get up.” We also learn the word “anjin”, which means “pilot”, when Omi tells Blackthorne that the Japanese can’t pronounce his name and will call him “Mr. Pilot”, or “Anjin-san”.

In Chapter 7, we learn the phrase “konnichi wa”, which they translate as “good day”. Blackthorne then uses the phrase six times to greet people, and we hear it once from someone else. We see the word “Anjin” at least a dozen times — Clavell wants us to get used to it, because it’s Blackthorne’s new name. We see “hai” twice, and “wakarimasu” and “wakarimasu ka” and “isogi” and “kinjiru” once each. 

During this chapter, Blackthorne also meets a Portuguese pilot (Rodrigues), who tells him that “ima” means “now”, and also uses the term “ikimasho”, a term we saw once in Chapter 1, but doesn’t define it. He also uses the term “ichi ban”, which he doesn’t explain, and throws around a bunch of “wakarimasu ka”, “kinjiru”, and “sama”. When he argues with some samurai, they say “gomen nasai”, which is translated as “so sorry”, and “iyé”, which isn’t translated but clearly means “no”. 

In Chapter 8, Blackthorne and the Portuguese pilot Rodrigues use “wakarimasu ka” and “hai” with one another, just as part of normal conversation. Blackthorne hears him use “isogi” again, asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him it means “hurry up”. Blackthorne uses the word not long after when he takes control of the ship in a storm. We see “wakarimasu” twice and “hai” four times. We see a new term, “arigato goziemashita” (not the common spelling), which isn’t defined but is clearly in the context of someone thanking him. We also see “iyé” again, in a context where it clearly means “no”, confirming its meaning.

In Chapter 9, we see “hai” twice, and “isogi” once. We also see “iyé”, and again Clavell refuses to define it explicitly. But by now, the reader has seen it three times in contexts that all clearly mean “no”, and is probably starting to pick up on that. 

In Chapter 10, we see “konnichi wa”, “isogi”, and “wakarimasu ka” once each, and “hai” five times. None of them are translated, and the chapter doesn’t miss a beat. These are all just normal vocabulary in the novel at this point, the reader is expected to know what they mean. 

At this point the novel takes a break from language education to spend a few chapters mostly focusing on plot, so we’ll stop here too. But already, you can see the pattern. 

Clavell mixes it up a lot, but the general formula goes like this:

  1. The first time you encounter a word, it isn’t defined and no one explains what it means, but there are often context clues.
  2. Soon after that, the word is used again and someone either tells you what it means, or Blackthorne guesses. 
  3. The next time you see the word, you get a little reminder either of the definition, or of the last time you saw the word.
  4. After a few more uses with clear context, the word becomes part of the general vocabulary. From then on, you are expected to know what it means!

This is essentially how you learn words as a child, or how you would learn Japanese if you had to use it as part of your daily life. The first time you hear a word, you have no idea what it means. Eventually someone tells you what it means or it becomes clear from context. The next time you see or hear the word, you might need a reminder. But once you’ve used it a bit, it gets locked in. 

Examples

Let’s look at some examples. The word “hai” means “yes”. You hear it first in Chapter 1, with a little context that suggests what it might mean. We don’t see it again until Chapter 6, when the local priest tells us what it means. It’s then used a couple of times in Chapter 7. In Chapters 8-10, it’s just a normal word, fully integrated into the story, with no further reminders. 

The word “kinjiru” means “forbidden”. Blackthorne hears it first in Chapter 1, and guesses what it means from context. We see it again in Chapter 4 with a simple reminder (just “the word from the ship”), and Blackthorne uses it in Chapter 5, where context makes it clear what it means. From then on, it’s in the vocab.

We first encounter the word “isogi” in Chapter 4, where the narrator translates it for the reader as “Hurry up!” But Blackthorne doesn’t get the benefit of this translation. When it reappears in Chapter 7, he still doesn’t know what it means. It comes back in Chapter 8, Blackthorne asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him. Later that chapter, Blackthorne is using the word himself. It’s the same principles, just slightly mixed up.

The approach Clavell is using is called spaced repetition, a memory technique that works by introducing new content and then bringing it back after a bit of a delay. This works because of something called the forgetting curve. When you’ve just learned something, it’s strong in your memory, but that trace gets weaker and weaker over time. If you’re asked to remember the thing right away, it’s still fresh in your mind and takes no effort — but if you wait too long, you’ve forgotten entirely. So the thing to do is wait until the memory has decayed just a bit, and then bring it back. This stresses the memory and reinforces it, sort of like how stressing a muscle builds strength.

Clavell is taking advantage of the fact that most people will not chug this 300,000-word novel in one sitting — most people will read it a few chapters at a time. This gives them time to partially forget many of these words between chapters, so that when they return to the book in a day or two and the words come up again, they are jostled out of memory, and the meaning of the word is reinforced. 

(Stephenson uses the same approach as a storytelling technique. Something called “Van Eck phreaking” is an important plot point near the end of Cryptonomicon, so Stephenson makes sure that it’s explained before it becomes important, and that it comes up a few times before it’s explained.)

This is how you should write your didactic novel too. Start with a character who doesn’t know the language at all, who is in the same position as the reader. Words and concepts are introduced in the background first, without any explanation. After the reader has seen the word a few times, a character comes out and tells the reader what it means, or else they guess what it means, or it’s used in a context that makes the meaning clear. Shortly afterwards, the word is used again, either in a context that helps reinforce the meaning, or with a gentle reminder. 

Use the word a few more times in situations where context helps make the meaning clear. After that, add the word to your “approved vocabulary” list, and use it wherever it’s appropriate in the novel — the reader is now expected to know what it means. If you teach people a couple words each chapter, you can outstrip the average language 101 class in a decent-length novel.

All you need to do is go harder than Clavell, and make language-learning your secondary focus. We say secondary and not primary because your primary focus is to make sure it’s an enjoyable read. The book won’t teach anything if no one gets through it!

Naturally, you can use all the same techniques if you’re writing a didactic novel about calculus or music theory. All the same ideas still apply — language learning just offers an exceptionally clear-cut example. 

A Narrative Addition

Clavell’s technique is similar to the hero’s journey. This is a template for writing and describing stories, where a person starts out in their comfort zone, is forced out by circumstance, confronts trials, gains knowledge, and returns to their comfort zone, but stronger than they were before.

Clavell doesn’t exactly use this technique, but you could easily combine the hero’s journey with his approach.

The hero’s journey can be as epic as a series of fantasy novels, or as unassuming as a man changing a tire in the rain:

Fade in on a meek-looking man driving a car. It’s raining. Boom. Flat tire. He struggles to keep the car from ditching. He pulls it to the side of the road and stops. He’s got fear on his face. He looks out his car window at the pounding rain… It doesn’t matter how small or large the scope of your story is, what matters is the amount of contrast between these worlds. In our story about the man changing his tire in the rain, up until now, he wasn’t changing a tire. He was inside a dry car. Now, he opens his car door and steps into the pouring rain. … Our stranded, rain soaked driver has finished emptying the contents of his trunk on the side of the road. He sees the spare tire and he lets out a very slight, very fast sound of relief. That’s all. This is a story about a man changing a tire. … When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. … You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God. Depending on the scope of your story, a “living God” might be a guy that can finish changing a tire in the rain. 

This is such an engrossing story format because it mirrors the process of self-improvement in the real world, which the reader can enjoy vicariously. You learn something unfamiliar, use it, and master it. But in the didactic novel, we can put the reader in nearly the same situation as the character, and have them go through the journey together.

This approach would work well with genres like adventure novels, police procedurals, sitcoms, detective dramas, or Monster of the Week shows, which lend themselves well to stories with explicit cycles. Anything super-pulpy should fit the bill, anything episodic or serialized. 

The American spy stranded in Russia needs to get home, but to survive for the moment, he needs to learn some Russian. He finds an old run-down garage where two old farts, who speak a little English, let him hide out. Each cycle goes like this: During the intro, Spy encounters some Russian that he doesn’t know, on the radio or in the newspaper or something. This is foreshadowing, phrases that will come up later in the cycle, and this is just to embed them in the reader’s subconscious. Then he has a conversation with one of the old guys, who tells him some vocabulary or explains some part of Russian grammar to him. 

After this, the spy goes out on a mission or a job or something — get some supplies, meet a contact, follow up on a lead, normal spy shit. During the climax he is in a real pinch, but he remembers the words the old guy taught him that morning, and he manages to fix things. He uses those words a few more times to really embed them in the reader’s mind, and then he goes back to his hideout. The words he learned today go in the vocab box, and the author will use them freely from now on, maybe making sure to give them a guest appearance next episode so they stay in the reader’s memory.

For obvious reasons, novels that want to teach a language will have an easier time if the novel is set in the past, because there were more places you could go where you’d have to learn the language to get by. For similar reasons, setting your story in a time before cell phones and the internet will generally help a didactic novel on any subject, since it lets you isolate your characters from textbooks and dictionaries. Post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and far-future settings would also work.

So if you decide to write a didactic novel (or other didactic fiction), give us a holler.





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francisga
18 days ago
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Lafayette, LA, USA
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