In-Flight Notes

It’s becoming a ritual: writing on my work laptop as I fly home to New York every week, armed with Feedly (via over-expensive in-flight wifi) and free liquor. This particular post is probably derivative of some earlier thoughts I’ve expressed (this time more concisely!), and also borrows vocabulary liberally from recent reads/experiences.



Even without getting into Whorfian linguistic relativity, there is something to be said about rhetorical frameworks that we use as cognitive tools.

I recently took a course on impromptu speaking, and they introduced frameworks for smoother speaking on-the-fly. For example:

On the one hand [  ], but on the other hand [ ]

You know there are two hands. If you’re improvising a speech, you can run with one hand as long as you’d like. The other hand is waiting for you when you hit a snag, and you’ll be thinking about that other hand as you speak on this hand as well. Setting up an answer this way telegraphs your moves to the audience and creates two jars for you to fill with stuff before you come to a likely concluding though (agreeing with one hand or offering some compromise position, having ‘demonstrated’ a knowledge of the field in question).


The Method of Loci is one of the oldest tricks in the book, connecting spatial intelligence to matters of fact. More broadly, using a phrase or metaphor as a central idea provides an anchor (x is like y. X does this thing, and so does Y. X does this other thing, similarly to how Y does). Having a clear theme to return to gives the audience an expectation, and provides a framework for the speaker to relax and work his way through while thinking ahead to the next aspect of why x is like y.

Specifically, [  ] but more broadly, [  ] (or the reverse)

This version is good for bad news you need to acknowledge or brush off (or a topic you only know about in broad strokes)- excellent for politicians. The reverse is useful if you are an expert and want to make a point more concrete.


I’ve been using “states of matter” as a metaphor a lot lately. It’s a great go-to metaphor machine.

Other such topics could be mined from  Images of Organization:

(1) machines, (2) organisms, (3) brains, (4) cultures, (5) political systems, (6) psychic prisons, (7) flux and transformation, and (8) instruments of domination.

One of my oldest college papers that approached my public philosophy here was the State as Super-organism, in that it arises naturally, has a metabolism of sorts, has a (fictional) concept of self, etc.

I probably was fed this interest in geological metaphor through A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, a book I’m sure I less-than-half understand. Spengler’s mineral metaphor of pseudomorphosis was also a treat. I used the states-of-matter angle in my brief sequence on Apologetics (starting here) referring to the ossification or liquification of a tribe’s belief system. A great example from the outside Blogosphere is this essay on personality called “Prickles and Goo” on Melting Asphalt.



Example of this frame:

  • Thought is soft and continuous and fleeting (gaseous), and we usually can’t directly observe them happening.
  • Speech is fluid, more directed and deliberate (liquid). Thought to speech is condensation. Speech heard and converted back to thought is evaporation. (There’s a spatial sense of vapor going “up” into the head or the thought-cloud, if you want).
  • Writing is ossified thought (solid), more discrete, consistent, and lasting than speech. In order to digest it we might in some way “vaporize” it (gas). When we first learn to read, we actually have to take the intermediate step by merely “liquefying/melting” writing first, into spoken speech, and then further boiling that speech into meaning (vapor- thought).



Another rambling example:

Institutions are crystallized habits.

Institutional habits are formed through negotiation between agents within the institution. Common causes adhere parts of an institution together [let’s call it homophily]; differences push institutions apart, broadening/thinning them. Lysis is just as bad as implosion; there ought to be healthy balance of pressure.

The consistency and shape of an institution is formed by smaller tribal and institutional units (yes, institutions can be formed by smaller institutions, in the same way that organisms are composed of many independent/codependent organisms). Micro-institutions prop the larger institution’s shape through hard rules, defined plans, and marked processes. Tribes offer consistency through culture: reinforced biases and inclinations within the organization, partly molded by micro-institutional constraints and partly molded through self-reference. Cultures don’t change because hard rules do (necessarily)- they change through transactions: challenging undesired behaviors and incentivizing desired behaviors. It’s a massive, parliamentary negotiation with Champions as party whips and Historians as media pundits/stenographers and CEO [Founder] as a public face, a symbol for an ideal instead of a person. (Vocab introduced here. Interesting people-as-symbols piece stolen from Jordan Peacock here.)

Note the use of “mold” regarding tribes, and “hard” rules; micro-institutions as pillars (solid) and tribes as something more fluid/liquid/continuous. Transactions (eg. negotiations) are easy to see in terms of “fluid”. Institutions can be built or shaken, they can collapse or crumble. They are probably related back to physical buildings-as-institutions, which makes this framing easy.



Flows of traffic are already sort of described in “liquid” terms. Without any outside information, traffic flows are roughly predictable. Individual people are more random and difficult to pin down- their paths might be said to be more gaseous, fickle, excitable. In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, cities are described as a sort of calcification, semi-permanent fixtures in the flow of materials across the surface of the earth.



Slightly less related: Parables are also really great thinking tools. I’ve mentioned Pandora’s box before and how the story may have changed meaning. Here are some other fun examples that don’t match their common meaning for one reason or another: