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Perimortem on intuitive response to comment #18037

Date: 2020-09-16

Originally posted to


Here is the context around the perimortem – it’s necessary to properly understand it, but skimming is probably fine. I wanted a copy here (my site) anyway b/c I wrote a decent amount.

Each reply is sequential (earliest to most recent) and copied here in full.

Max said in #18032

Title of comment: Inefficient learning is like eating the seed corn

an ongoing conflict of mine - something to do with learning styles and methods. Sometimes I prioritize the wrong thing. I’ll spend time on fun (and maybe even slightly useful) ‘intellectual’ activities like coding, instead of doing more structured, efficient, and goal directed learning. That’s like eating the seed corn. It’s like: I end up fed, and I still have some seed corn left over, but the harvest isn’t going to be as good. What’s the point of learning and thinking if not for the harvest? indirectly related: #18025 and

curi said in #18034

#18032 Metaphorically seed corn = capital = e.g. machines. it’s stuff you can save for later. time is somewhat different in that you can’t save it for later. but, like money, you can spend time on things with later benefits (investment rather than consumption).

Max said in #18036

time is somewhat different in that you can’t save it for later. but, like money, you can spend time on things with later benefits (investment rather than consumption). I’m not sure if we disagree on something or not. I think we roughly agree but I’m thinking of time spent in a specific way (just a subset of the time we get). For context, I read a few minutes before having that idea. I liked these bits particularly (and liked being reminded of them) capital goods, not consumption goods accumulation of capital increasing the productivity of labor I think time can be sometimes seen like money and other capital goods. How do people save money? One option is a bank account, but that performs poorly, and is sort of like investing in loans/debt, anyway. Better investors save money by spending it on capital goods (and they choose the goods). After they spend money, they don’t have it any more, but they have something else they can exchange for money later. I think time spent on learning is similar, but not all time spent is similar. Granted, there’s no bank account for time, but you can spend time now so you get more of it later – that’s one of the reasons to learn and think, you - in essence - get more time in the future because you avoid making mistakes or being slower than you could be. In that sense it’s like investing in productive capacity. There’s a higher upfront cost, but you get a higher capacity and larger RoI than the alternatives. The choice to spend time learning ineffectively seems to me like spending some chunk of your factory budget on hookers and cocaine; fun at the time, but it’s in opposition to the main goal. Similarly, by analogy, learning skills that don’t end up helping you, but learning them effectively, is like market risk. Not every investment makes a profit, but diversification helps, and the better you are the less you waste. Time spent on things like downtime is different from normal money; that’s more like $100 of food stamps you both get once a week and have to spend the same week. You might only be able to spend it at low-quality grocers, but avoiding spending it only hurts you. An alternative thing about spending time on learning is trying to spend downtime doing pseudo-learning stuff. That’s more like trying to invest your $100 food stamp (not going to go well). I find trying to do ~learning stuff when I’m tired etc. often means I stay up later, sleep worse, and have less high-capacity time for important things.

curi said in #18037

Eating seed corn is like disassembling machinery for scrap metal, which is different (more destructive) than leaving it idle for a day (which sounds reasonably similar to spending a day of your time unproductively).

Max said in #18038

#18037 yeah okay, I see what you mean. I’ve changed my mind on the quality of my analogy. (I don’t think it’s super bad or anything, just not as good as I originally thought.)


My intuitive response (which would be put a bit defensively) is something like: disassembling machinery is like eating all the seed corn, and leaving it idle is like skimming a bit of corn off the top. Things keep working; there’s still productivity and returns, but less than otherwise.

(note: I think this is valid, and it’s why I don’t think my analogy was all bad)

I think that intuitive response is wrong though. It’s subtly moving the goal posts (similar to e.g. a “strategic” clarification), and would be expressing an idea like: “we’re both right, we should blame miscommunication”. That’d be dishonest though, because:

a) I didn’t see some limits of the analogy that I do now - this contradicts the idea of miscommunication being a primary issue (it’s not important if curi and I understood each other fully in every way; we understood each other sufficiently), and

b) the reasonable next steps from a miscommunication would be to figure out how to avoid it. Some miscommunications are due to like ~inferential distance but that doesn’t make sense here. The easiest solution (if it really was miscommunication) would have been for me to be clearer originally. If I advocated that (and claimed I could have done it) I’d be pretending like there wasn’t ever an issue; at the very least my lack of clarity would be an issue. Maybe I couldn’t have been clearer for lack of knowledge, in which case it’d still be dishonest–and evasive–to claim a miscommunication b/c that wasn’t the problem.

I don’t know any way that my intuitive response would have been good, which is the reason I wrote this perimortem.

I’m not sure if putting the response in this perimortem is like a roundabout (and/or cowardly) way of trying to say the idea anyway. However, I think writing the perimortem is a better alternative than making the titular reply, so I’m satisfied for now.

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