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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example I: "Duncan Sabien is a teacher and a writer."

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

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

The sentence "Duncan Sabien is a teacher and a writer" is a sazen.

Example II: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

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

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

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

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

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

Example III: Open-notes quiz

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

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

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

Example IV: Focusing

A "handle" is a sazen for a felt sense.

Example V: Drugs

LessWrong user interfaces

(oh ha I just got the pun, nice)

LessWrong user interfaces writes:

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

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

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

Example VI: Wisdom

Elsewhere, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sazen (definition)

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

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

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

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

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

"Lossy Compression"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Forewarning people about the failure mode of sazen didn't cause them to locate my intended meaning any more easily, but it at least staved off the unfounded confidence that they otherwise would have had in their likely-wrong interpretation. It put them on guard against the misconception that otherwise would've gone unnoticed.
  2. Laying the groundwork for future revelation. One of the biggest problems with attempting to hand down wisdom to the next generation is the palpable mismatch between the fervor and intensity of the wisdom-sharer and the semi-bored, not-particularly-impressed skepticism of the kid or teenager who's not even sure that the person talking to them has viable wisdom to offer, let alone that this qualifies.

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

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

    Similarly, I like being able to say, to my conversational partners, "I can't quite explain this fully, but here's a sazen," and then just ... offering them a true summary, even knowing they might fail to regrow the same thought-tree.  It feels substantially less misleading to all involved.
  3. It seems to me to carve reality at a joint. I did not at all anticipate just how often this particular term would end up being useful to me personally.  In the scant three or four months since I coined it, I've found it popping up for me shockingly often. It's come up while trying to teach, in discussions with family in the middle of tense interpersonal drama, while reading parenting advice, and while trying to understand the often-confusing statements made by disease experts and political figures and people working in artificial intelligence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your mileage may vary.  Good luck either way.

  1. ^

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

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Occasionally there will be a concept that you kind of already know intuitively and from experience, but then when someone actually gives it a term and a crisp definition it just clicks and you're like "how did we not have an explicit concept for this before". Reading this post was one of those times for me, thank you.

Minor nitpick:

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

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

Some of those phrases sound like the kinds of experiences that one might get from meditation as well. And at least my own experience with them makes me a little skeptical about whether it's actually possible to convey them. It's not only the case that I read descriptions of them and totally didn't get them (even though I thought I did) until I ran across... (read more)

7[comment deleted]1y
Yeah! What you're describing is something a bit in between the informal definition of sazen:  And something that allows for some "uninitiated" people to quickly get it (if they've previously been thinking along similar lines).  However, there are people who will never get a new concept based on sparse info. Some people don't look at reality to ask themselves "What could be the concept that my interlocutor thinks carves an important aspect of reality at its joints? What might they be pointing at?" Instead, they only look at your words and the concepts they associate with these words, but they never do the back and forth between words-as-pointers and reality-where-the-structure-is, to help you with communication. They interpret all your words with the rigidity of not thinking of words as pointers (these are often people who do well at academic writing in formal contexts). You have to take them step by step with an entire sequence if you want a chance of conveying your creative discoveries to them.

So, this is just a silly comment, but...

"sazen" sounds a lot like "zazen", which just means "sitting meditation" from "za" sitting + "zen" meditation.

"sa" on its own could be many different words in Japanese, but the first one Google Translate gives me is "差" or "difference". So we could say you accidentally constructed a word meaning "difference meditation".

Not as tight a fit as I might like, but maybe that's because I haven't meditated enough on the difference between what the word "sazen" literally means and what it means after you understand it. :-)

I got also confused by the similarity. 
No, this is a very good comment. New words probably shouldn't use completely made up sounds. It can only add confusion. There may be existing similar words with completely different meaning; or worse, with distantly overlapping semantic fields. Good existing English words were mentioned: handle, pointer. Both naturally evoke an idea to the correct direction: they point to the idea of a pointer, they provide a handle to grasp the idea of a handle. "I didn’t intend to force my made-up words on people outside of that context, but alas, here we are" reads to me like an apology, which is proper; but wouldn't it still be better to just not do it at all instead of apologizing afterwards? Views on this differ for sure. This type of behaviour points to a serious lack of humility.

I have found in my note-keeping for my own use, that attaching made-up sounds to specific ideas that don't have words yet is actually very useful; whereas overloading words that already have other meanings is something that actively harms clarity.

I'd just sort of assumed the similar sound to zazen was intentional and that if I'd known Japanese it might make more sense.

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

Um. Do bears have tails?

From googling, it looks like some of them do, but they don't have tails like that

Have bears changed since ancient times? Or are these just the charismatic bears, which all happen to have short tails? [Another google image search suggests its not that one.] Is "bear" a mistranslation of something like "raccoon"?

I notice that I'm confused. Were the ancients just dumb? Why would they allocate three whole stars to the bear tail, if bears only have small nub tails.


On one hand wikipedia suggests Jewish astronomers saw the three tail stars as cubs. But at the same time, it suggests several ancient civilizations independently saw Ursa Major as a bear. Also confused.

Without the outline, the stars look really skinny. To my eye, it looks much more like an anteater.

I've got a little sample of a similar idea in my mind, which I think may be similar enough it's worth mentioning. I'll describe it using "is" language instead of "sounds like it is" language below for brevity.

A sazen is a description of a completed process which is not a description of how to start the process; an island of self-supporting concepts which you cannot jump directly to from pre-existing concepts.

Picture a resource-management game (like Dwarf Fortress, Factorio, etc). You might need Resource A to get Resource B and Resource B, like needing electricity to refine uranium and uranium to run a power plant. Saying "You need 2 power plants to every 5 uranium mines" is not useful to a beginner, because they can build all 7 buildings and nothing will happen. Instead, they will build iron mines and copper mines and coal mines and steam engines and ... all until they build those buildings, at which point they will see that 2:5 is the correct ratio.

Someone has already noted that the concept of sazen is related to that of shibboleths, but my above definition suggests that sazen is related to any kind of verify-only knowledge, like a cryptographic hash or any zero-knowledge proof.

Sazen are for verification, not teaching, and I hope explicit labeling of them as such is enough to get the benefits without the costs.

5[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
Strong upvote and strong agreement vote for the crystallization "Sazen are for verification, not teaching." Thank you.
3Alex Vermillion1y
Also koans. You give a pattern which will be significant when understood, but insignificant until then. The student tries random interpretations until the pattern is understood, and know that the random data they have found is valuable. This is done because the data is difficult to describe directly, but easy to hold once achieved.
4[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
The problem being, there can often be multiple things which "click" with the pattern! Or I guess "problem" might be too strong/overstating. Like, if you get value out of the koan then you got value out of the koan, regardless of whether it's the same value the koan-speaker hoped you would get. But it's a problem from a communication standpoint.
1Alex Vermillion1y
Yes, it's an interesting issue. I wonder if koans work best under partial supervision. Instead of the master having to check each attempt, they check 1 in 100 attempts, allowing them to teach roughly 100 times as many students at once. If any teachers out there use koan-likes, do they work well for homework?

Re: lossy compression.

Any compressed format is unreadable unless you know how to read it. So with a JPEG image, we're used to looking at the decompressed image (which is a field of color, same format as any image, compressed or otherwise). That's "the JPEG" to us. But if you think about it, the JPEG is "actually" the binary file which our computer knows how to display as an image.

With this in mind, the analogy to lossy compression becomes apt once again. The cryptic sentence "Duncan is a teacher and a writer" is like the compressed file, in that it does not resemble the original thing being described, but it does generate a good image if you know how to unpack it

However, I don't think just saying "lossy compression" will convey this to someone else automatically, so I don't think it's a great argument for cutting "sazen" and just saying "lossy compression".

In fact, I think there are other important disanalogies. 

If I say "Duncan is X feet Y inches tall" (fill in your actual measurements), this is a "very lossy compression" in that it chooses to preserve a very narrow range of information about Duncan, but it's not Sazen. 

A lossy compression in the computer sense is... (read more)

Sazen sounds like a dual of Inferential Distance. It seems to be the thing you get if you do not take inferential distance into account.

Fittingly, I… don't think those words actually identify sazen :P I claim that "the thing you get if you do not take inferential distance into account" for most people would be baffled non-comprehension, not active misunderstanding.
Hm, yes, I can see that would happen at higher levels of inferential distance. But for small distance wouldn't you say it's close?

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

I've heard "lies to children" for that. An initial simple and technically incorrect explanation that prepares the mind towards understanding the later more detailed explanation, by which you come to understand that the first explanation wasn't actually true.


I didn't know about Terry Pratchett's involvement in popularising the phrase until I looked it up just now.

i think another way to look at an opposite to the concept of may be "sazen is detail with no gist, what is all gist but no detail?" and i think that would be a douglas adams descriptive sentence.... I do think "lies to children" is the type of opposite he was looking for here though.
1Peter Hroššo1y
Was about to post the same! Btw I do know if from Pratchett.

There is an idiom in english about when you use words for communication where the literal meaning is different from the communicated meaning "you know what I mean".

"you don't know what I mean" is a phrase that probably hits sazen pretty squarely and is sort of understandable on the basis of the other idiom.

I guess it also goes a bit beyond in that in that phrase you understand that they misunderstand.

Closely related is "I am not making any sense, am I?" when you understand that they do not understand.

The double empathy problem also probably produces a lot of double illusions of transparency. It is not a trivial application of the theory of mind at all. Using a "world model" of how "things just are" comes a bit short when it comes to translating from one context to another context. You have to actually think about how people think about the stuff.

Related:  Wisdom cannot be unzipped

Reading Worth the Candle with a friend gave us a few weird words that are sazen in and of themselves. Being able to put a word to something lets you get a handle on it so much better. Thanks for writing this up. 

I'd be super interested in specifics, if you can think of them.
That this concept is related to my thoughts was on my mind the whole time I was reading. Thanks for linking! More generally, I think I was trying to convey the subjective experience of a subset of sazen - specifically the pithy saying - and the frustration in both sides resulting from an inability to communicate.

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


People often refer to this as an "oversimplification" - I think that term is a good one. Unfortunately, all google gives as examples of an "oversimplification" are of an "oversimplified cause fallacy" but I think it's reasonable to say things like "All objects accelerate towards the ground at 9.8 m/s^2" is an oversimplification because an expert would h... (read more)

other levels on that are * Falling objects are stationary so the proper acceleration is 0. They do not accelerate. * Object on tables etc actually accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2 up (equivalence principle etc, they feel the mediating force where they touch the table) If you take these naively and don't know about geodesics etc you would think these claim that an apple on a table would lose contact with the table by levitating away. But with proper (pun intended) definitions that is not at all what they claim. I do think these do not really fit on the category of "oversimplification". Rather they are "oversophisticated".
What I meant was, "All objects accelerate towards the ground at 9.8 m/s^2" is the oversimplification and the bulleted examples were the various reasons that the oversimplification is not technically correct.
I also missed that you were naming and giving examples to the unnamed concept. The examples are more of edge cases. Having a different definition what is an inertial object makes the old statements false also in their core. Disagreeing 180 degrees on the direction of the force is not a small disagreement or one that can be glossed over by a rounding error. I thought that the point of the unnamed concept was that it is false. The oversimplification examples seem rather have the attitude to classify the target as confused or muddled, "not even wrong".

Much of what you have said here about capturing ideas is why I (and perhaps others) tend to prefer deep narrative as a means of conveying a lot. I mean, read Puzo's original Godfather -- more is in there than the movie. And ye gods, the movie has a lot in it. A summary of the movie is more or less meaningless to capture the multiple highly-coherent gestalts and meta-models available in the movies. I'm not even sure it points well at them later. I don't know if you could even make something less than 1k-4k words that even points well at pieces* of the ... (read more)

2[comment deleted]1y

Related: aether variables, and the tradeoff of pushing the complexity into the representation or the traversal of an algorithm.

"the tradeoff of pushing the complexity into the representation or the traversal of an algorithm" could you say more?
without knowing aether I tried to look into i t a little bit. On the basis of shallow understanding: Aether variables are not standins for values but can also be standins for formulas. Say you want to draw a red box on the screen. The representation high complexity way of doing is it to have a function return a box and then giving it to a drawer (probably not goning to be valid aether) The algorithm high way of doing it is to not have intermediate representations That ends up drawing the same picture. Point is "simpler" in that it can stand in anywhere that a "semi-literal" like (13,3) can be, but it is "fuzzier" in that it has a lot of lazy evaluation happening when it actually gets used.

This is great and I'm looking forward to your book.

Some adjacent ideas:

I feel like I've been appreciating the nature of wisdom (as you describe it here) increasingly much over the past couple of years. One thing this has led me to is looking at tautologies, where the sentence in some sense makes no claim but directs your attention to something that's self-evident once you look. For example, "the people you spend time with will end up being the people you've spent time with".

In 2017, I wrote an article about transcending regret, and a few years later I shar... (read more)

This reminds me of the book The mind illuminated. When I started reading it I found it fascinating how well it described my own experiences from mediations. But when I got to later chapters I got to the point when I didn't have direct experience with what was described there and when trying to follow the instructions there I got completely lost in retrospect, they were totally misleading to me back then. Sazen.

The only cure I later found was to only read further when I felt I made a major progress and to read only as long as I had a direct experience with ... (read more)

My son's eleven, and I read him Hugo's "Ninety-three". I had known it was too difficult for him, perhaps boring, too. It did bore him at times. (But "hey, there will be a civil war, invaders, fire, a court martial, kids in danger and a beheading" worked just fine.)

I omitted some passages, too, like the description of the Convent's building or whatever it was. OTOH, I deliberately read to him the description of Paris itself. Not because he could understand it, with all those strangers and situations mentioned only once. Because it was exactly incomprehensib... (read more)

Duncan_Sabien you are one of my favorite authors here, thank you! I've got to say, I really like what you say in Example VI: Wisdom. I think about what you wrote here often: how juicy tidbits of helpful tips are rattling around in there for that uncomfortable situation that leads to that aha moment. You say "Elsewhere I wrote:" and I'd love to read your article this came from. For now, I'll archive this wisdom about wisdom in my digital scrapbook, fastidiously attributed to you.

2[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien8mo
That excerpt is actually from an unpublished, half-written book that I hope to finish drafting this year.

I feel like being the code master for Codenames is a good exercise for understanding this concept. 

I feel like there's a better name to be found for this. Like, some name that is very obviously a metaphor for the concept of Sazen, in a way that helps you guess the concept if you've been exposed to it before but have never had a name for it.

Something like "subway map" or "treasure map", to convey that it's a compression of information meant to help you find it; except the name also needs to express that it's deceiving and may lead to illusion of transparency, where you think you understood but you didn't really.

Maybe "composite sketch" or photofit? It's a bit of a stretch though.

I would agree that a subway map is a Sazen

I think this concept is potentially quite useful, but there is no way I am going to remember which specific subtle thing the word “sazen” refers to. Is there not some more memorable term which we might use…?

2[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
I am not opposed to suggestions for more memorable terms. =) In the meantime, though, just having crystallized the concept in your head will probably do, even if you don't use a pointer for it?
I asked GPT-4 to summarize the article and then come up with some alternative terms, here are a few I like: * One-way summary * Insider mnemonic * Contextual shorthand * Familiarity trigger * Conceptual hint * Clue for the familiar * Knowledge spark * Abbreviated insight * Expert's echo * Breadcrumb for the well-versed * Whisper of the well-acquainted * Insider's underexplained aphorism I also asked for some idioms. "Seeing the forest but not the trees" seems apt.
  1. Thanks!
  2. Why "sazen"? What is the etymology? What is the pronunciation? (English is not my native language)
  3. Shouldn't there be a tag for posts like this? Something like "Definitions of useful concepts"?
5[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
IPA: sɑzn Pronounced like the word "season" except replacing the first vowel with "ah" as in "father". The etymology is, uh, secret, because it's from another project I'm working on and not yet ready to talk in detail about.

Really great post! The concept I have in my head looks broadly-applicable though slippery

The section below sounded a lot to me like "you form a model from a set of words, and then later on you Directly Observe the Territory™, and this shifts the mental model associated with the words in an important way". 

Running on this model, I think a lot of the sequences was like this for me-- it wasn't until 1-2 years after reading them that I noticed concrete, major changes in my behaviour. Possibly this time was spent observing the part of the territory I call ... (read more)

Knowledge is a collection of many pieces of a puzzle. The piece that is precious to you (because it was the last one you needed to complete some imporant shape) may be useless to those who already have it (btw it does not mean they have that shape already completed, they may be missing a different piece) or those who are missing the entire context so there is nowhere to connect this piece to.

A part of the problem is long inferential distances, which in theory could be overcome by a sufficiently large book (that you don't have time to write, and the recipie... (read more)

Related, h/t Malcolm Ocean: https://siderea.dreamwidth.org/1773806.html

Your concept of Sazen is really interesting. I think it's an attempt to name an effect that exists only in an incorrect epistemology. Let's see if anyone agrees or disagrees:

(This is based on Popper's epistemology as taught to me by David Deutsch through "the Beginning of Infinity".)

All knowledge is inexplicit. Meaning no language can "capture" the idea. Instead all knowledge transfer relies on giving the listener enough clues to themselves recreate the knowledge on their own. Then applying the label to it.

When you learn your first language,... (read more)

2[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
I don't think I quite agree that all knowledge is inexplicit (or at least, I think something funny is going on with that phrase). But I agree that this-thing-I'm-pointing-at-and-calling-sazen has a lot to do with capturing the attribute of truth rather than transmitting a learnable piece of knowledge.

Curated. Like Kaj_Sotala said, this concept feels intuitively natural (and useful), and one that I have thought without having a name for it (or very lucid explanation!). It seems right that many sentences are a bundling of lossy compression + checksum + illusion of transparency. Alas. I don't really like the particular word chosen (and one other LessWrong mod said the same), would be a shame if it didn't catch on for that reason. (I also liked the concept of "metacog" that Duncan defined elsewhere, but there too feel dissatisfied with the name, like I don't expect to use the concept with others till I've thought of another name.) Still, the concept(s) is good, and a benefit to society that you wrote it up so well!

4[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
You probably already know this, but: the "metacog" term comes from "metacognitive blindspot," i.e. when your metacognition is impaired in a way that prevents you from noticing, via metacognition, that you are impaired.
Indeed ;) Still something about the conjugating feels off. But who knows I also thought "Lightcone" sounded too much like "Ice cream cone" to take off, but well...

Would you say "jargon-laden sentences" are, in the best instances, a kind of sazen?

3[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
I would, yeah.
I would say they are, in the worst instances a kind of sazen, and in the best instances recognizably enough jargon that they dodge the illusion of transparency being double. Similarly, the word "sazen" is not centrally sazen, because nobody's going to look at it and go "oh I think I know what that means".
1Jasnah Kholin9mo
I was sazened by the word Sazen when i saw Duncan use it on facebook, and though i understood it. to my defense i say that now i believe this word does not carve reality at the joints, and that folk wisdom and what-sazen-should-mean are two different, distinct things. 
2[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien9mo
My claim is that folk wisdom is a subset of sazen. It is one of the many places where the sazen-pattern appears. I agree that they are distinct, as subsets are often distinct from the larger set.
1Jasnah Kholin9mo
i want to write not short post that explains my own map of the sazen-adjusting part of ConceptSpace, so i postpone my longer response until i will write it. my map of it all now is that you throw bunch of very different things into this one concept, that i separate to different concepts - that should be treated differently. when i unpack folk wisdom i feel like now i understand it BETTER - but my core understanding remain the same. if someone will tell me Duncan is writer and teacher (And not Second Foundation Rationalist - which is how i think about you) i will suspect it unfriendly attempt at deception - or more likely, stupid joke, that play exactly on the fact this description is the sort that described in folk wisdom as "half  true - whole lie" folk wisdom, in my experience, is much more similar to the lossy compression picture then the sazen one - when i gained understanding, i feel like the fold wisdom pointer point exactly in the right direction, and what was missed is the emotional understanding. the picture representing it will be black-white version of the same picture. (and i don't call it lossy compression, nor i find this concept useful). it's different from the sazen as the picture that contains some distinct features that let you recognize it if you know what someone is talking about.  but i don't want to start this discussion now - it's better that i will write my own post first. 

I enjoyed this and find it a useful idea to keep in mind.

I'm wondering if you apply the implications of this post to your teaching methodology.

3[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
I used to apply a fumbling, half-aware version of it, and now apply them explicitly/deliberately. (e.g. putting the sazen chapter third in my list of 100 chapters rather than somewhere more like 50th)

I'm in the middle of writing a nonfiction book whose central conceit is something like "an abridged dictionary of Kadhamic." Not literally the actual canonical Alexandrian Kadhamic, but the idea is to present some hundred-or-so concepts that are long and complicated and difficult to convey in English, but which are not fundamentally more complicated than things we sum up with a single word like "basketball" or "gaslighting" or "cringe."


Very interested for when this comes out :O

Is sazen significantly different from obfuscating or esoteric ideas? Perhaps out of sheer mental habit, I find myself conflating the concepts.

3[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
......yes. It is not at all either of those things.
A motive to keep esoteric ideas on the low can be that misunderstanding them causes damage. So known high-frequency sazen with high impact damage is a reason to zip it about that idea. Obfuscation prevents meaning formation. A dessert where nothing great grows. Sazen is a formation not meant, a garden with all weeds and no flowers.
Similarly to the general post I just made, is there a significant difference between this definition of hieratic and the general usage of esoteric?
2[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
Yes, there is a very very large delta between this and either "hieratic" or "esoteric."
Wait, what? Do you mean colloquial hieratic (just literally priestly) or his hieratic: hieratic, adj. Of computer documentation, impenetrable because the author never sees outside his own intimate knowledge of the subject and is therefore unable to identify or meet the expository needs of newcomers. It might as well be written in hieroglyphics. Cuz the latter seems extremely close to sazeny, if maybe additionally connoting blame on the author.
I understand esoteric as something that's often either fundamentally difficult to grasp (ie. an esoteric concept described in a short cryptic text might not be comprehensively explainable with a text five times longer that would be straightforward to write by anyone who understands the subject matter) or intentionally written in a way to keep it obscured from a cursory reading. The definition of hieratic doesn't really connote conceptual difficulty beyond mundane technical complexity or a particular intention to keep things hidden, just that writing can be made much more terse if you assume an audience that is already familiar with what it's talking about.

Does this mean that Sazen(s?) can be used as Shibboleths? 

seems like you're inventing a new word where an old one would in principle be able to do; I see why you'd be hesitant to select an existing concept for describing the concept of something being a non-central example of its topic, but - well, non-central example seems like a fine description to me. what pays for the complexity of adding this word to my vocab?

6[DEACTIVATED] Duncan Sabien1y
Er. I'm ... not at all sure why you're asking a question that the essay explicitly answers, as if it's a new question? Certainly you're welcome to find the answer explicitly given in the essay inadequate, but. ("Non-central example" is a very very poor match for the concept described in the essay, by the way. Like, that's just straightforwardly not at all what's under discussion here (enough so that I'm genuinely baffled as to how you came to that, as an alternative proposal).)
-5the gears to ascension1y