5 min read

Musings + Links (VIII)

Who Knows The Most About Life?

This is a question I think about sometimes. My leading candidates are therapists and clergy. The problem with therapists is that they see too many abnormal people, and as a group they don't seem particularly happy or admirable. Clergy see much more of a broad spectrum of society. Or, at least they used to, it seems like the type of person who is attracted to church has changed a lot over the half century or so.

One problem with clergy is that the profession often attracts a dogmatic type of person, who might too inflexibly apply their personal conceptions of what their religion says people should be like to accurately assess the actual people they interact with. This is probably more of a problem now than in the past, particularly when the priesthood was a more common occupation. I at first thought Catholic priests would have the advantage here because of confession but they are also severely limited in their full understanding of life by their (professed if not always attained) celibacy. Orthodox priests don't have this problem (they can get married) but the ones I've met always seem dour and unpersonable. Maybe rabbis come the closest. I'm not Jewish and so only have limited familiarity with them, but the ones I'm met often have fun, friendly personalities.

Aside from these groups I have one more speculative, less refined idea: professional interviewers. Now, this isn't a real profession, but many types of people fit into this, whether they are people who do a lot of hiring, journalists, media personalities, etc. Most of these people probably aren't that good at interviewing, but a few are, and it seems that to interview well you need three things: enough background knowledge to communicate at a high level with the person you're talking to, curiosity, and the ability to model another person's motivations. All these things seem conducive to understanding ways of life different than your own.

Draft Writing and Intelligence

Some writers pore over their drafts and constantly revise, some pretty much publish the first thing they put down on paper (or screen, today). I'm more in the latter camp. I don't think I'm a great writer, but I have a solid understanding of when a sentence sounds works or not, and if I don't change something that is clumsily worded (there are some examples of this in my first post on this blog) it's usually due to laziness rather than inability.

It's funny how revisers often assert the necessity of revision. I can't think of a single example of a single-drafter making a similar claim. I've never found revision to substantially improve my writing. I catch spelling mistakes, missed punctuation, run on sentences and the like, but I assume any competent editor would have no problem spotting and fixing these as well. I wonder if it has something to do with intelligence. We know that intelligence has something to do with working memory and the recent impressive performance of LLMs demonstrated that increasing the context available to the language model dramatically improves the quality of their output. Maybe smarter people have less need for revision because they can keep more context in their head while writing?

Flashman's Political Incorrectness

It's a shame no one has the stones to write a book like the Flashman series today. John Biggins' Otto Prohaska series has been compared to it, and though that is excellent in its own way (I would argue better than Flashman), it is not quite capturing the same thing. The problem with getting offended is you miss the deeper meaning that Fraser is getting at. Two examples:

I don’t know who ran the first chest of opium into China, but he was a great man in his way. It was as though some imaginary trader had put into the Forth with a cargo of Glenlivet to discover that the Scots had never heard of whisky. There was a natural appetite, as you may say. And while the Chinks had been puffing themselves half-witted long before the first foreign trader put his nose into the Pearl River, there’s no doubt that our own John Company had developed their taste for the drug, back in the earlies, and before long they couldn’t get enough of it.
I sat quiet for a moment—and if you want to know what I was thinking, it wasn’t what an almighty narrow shave I’d had, or of prayers of thanksgiving, or anything of that sort. No, I was asking myself when, if ever, I’d been so confoundedly fooled by two different women in the space of four days. Mrs Phoebe Carpenter and An-yat-heh, bless ‘em. White or yellow, they were a hazardous breed in China, that was plain.