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The Whippet #76: Overapplying the new concept you just learnt

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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Last issue I was talking about what items we consider fungible - meaning interchangeable, it doesn't matter which particular one you have - and what we do not ("it matters that I have THIS one").

Alex Petralia of the newsletter Breaking Glass (subscribe here if you like rationalist-y explorations of mental models and thinking habits) wrote back to talk about the idea of 'salient characteristics' which is kind of the companion idea to fungibility.

'Salient' means something like 'relevant, important' - the features that matter. And that's going to be different for everyone. If you're lost in the woods at night, the only salient feature of a jumper is whether it's warm. But in your normal life, salient features might include appearance, price, comfort, sentimental value, etc.

Alex: "My cat is different from your cat because the salient features (personality, appearance) make it different. Your dollar bill is no different from mine because the salient feature is strictly the value".

Money is fungible, pets aren't. So whether something is fungible depends on what you consider its salient features to be.

One of the reasons it's offensive to treat sex partners as fungible is because it means you think their salient feature is pretty much just their genitals, and not any of the other features that a person likes to think matters about themself.

Where I find this interesting is how much culture is based around assumptions that we agree on what's salient.

For example: Wikipedia has a page called "List of statues by height". I wouldn't really think twice about that normally, but I had salience on my mind.

Because... it could just as easily be "List of statues by weight", right? And I would think... okay? I don't... really care about that? Maybe a little? Or, why not "list of statues by colour"? "List of statues from highest to lowest % of bronze"?

The Wikipedia page is based on a (correct, I think) assumption that most people consider height to be a salient feature of a statue. But to an alien, that might be just as arbitrary.

Every time you see a category, anywhere, someone has made a decision about what they think is a salient feature.

Also, if you've ever gone house-hunting with someone, you probably immediately discovered that you both have all kinds of assumptions about what should be a factor in the decision, and what's irrelevant.
"Ahh, you can tell these walls are solid brick. Plasterboard always feels so flimsy."
"I... have never tested the solidity of my walls before in my life. I did not know this was a thing you could have an opinion on."

Anyway, thanks Alex for giving me a new frame for looking at things! That subscribe link again!

(Photo taken from his new owner's instagram, thanks Jess)


(Oh man, pure coincidence but that tweet fits really well with the salience stuff above. The joke is partly the weirdness of identifying 'size' and 'keep vs send away' as the salient differences between those animals.)

What Michelin stars actually mean

As in, Michelin star restaurants. Like, why is a tyre company the final word on good chefs. It's not an out-of-5 rating, even one Michelin star is a huge honour.

So Michelin, being a tyre company, made travel guides to encourage people to drive around and see the sights (and wear out their tyres).

Based on that, the star rating is:
⭐ = Great restaurant. If you're in the area, this is the place to eat.
⭐⭐ = Worth a detour. Even if you're not in the area, if you're nearby, you should make a detour to eat here.
⭐⭐⭐ = Worth a special journey. Plan a fresh new trip just for the purposes of eating at this restaurant.

This is such a good system! Way better than out-of-5. They should have it for movies.
⭐ = if you're in the mood for a movie, this is the one to see.
⭐⭐ = if you're in the mood to do something tonight, see a movie, this movie.
⭐⭐⭐ = even if you don't feel like watching a movie, make an exception for this one, it's that good.

Origin of the word 'gun'

I was so sure this was fake!

But no, it seems to genuinely be a shortening of a Norse woman's name, Gunnhildr. Etymology is always hard to trace, but it looks like there was a specific cannon given that name in the 13th century (like how in WW1 there was a huge howitzer nicknamed 'Big Bertha') and from there it spread to cannons in general, and then small arms.

For more detail, see the always-worth-your-time Online Etymology Dictionary.

Death Metal Cover of John Cage's 4' 33''

Look it's a cheap joke but they really lean into it and it gave me a laugh.

If you're not familiar with the original 4'33", it's a piece by a famous composer that consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Except it's not actually silence, it's meant to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds in which you pay attention to whatever environmental sounds are happening. Part of his point is that there is no such thing as true silence. In a totally soundproofed room, you can hear your own heartbeat.

It's sort of like the sound equivalent of this: the frame isn't the art, the frame is trying to get you to pay attention to the world in a way you might not normally.

Solicited Advice

"What kind of questions are really good for starting interesting conversations with people you don’t know very well?"

This is such good timing Caitlin, I've actually been meaning to spruik Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing, a newsletter which includes - among other things - a reader-suggested 'icebreaker' each issue. Use according to your own situational comfort level.

I like these ones because they're not just new-person conversation starters. They work for people you know and like but haven't seen in a while and can't remember how to get past the small-talk "catching up" stage and back into natural flow.

The first one is suggested by John Baglio, who adds "it leaves the option of going deep, but the person answering really has control over how exposed they want to be" - that is a perfect type of getting-to-know you question. One that doesn't put the other person on the spot, but creates space for them to open up if they want to.

"Tell me something about yourself that I could never tell from looking at you."

"What is your oldest or most cherished grudge?"

"What are you into now that you never thought you would be into?"
(I like this better than the other way around - it leads the conversation in a better direction I think.)

Also from The Art of Noticing: "Kio Stark, author of the book When Strangers Meet, advocates the “triangulation” approach to starting conversations. Picture three points: you, the person you’re talking to, and a third thing you can observe together: the weather, the food, or some eye-catching artwork in your host’s home."

I would add, though, that I'm not sure asking questions is the best way to start an interesting conversation! If there's something that interests you, that you want to explore, then just... talk about it! Find out if they're interested too! Don't monologue obviously, but summarise the idea and then leave space for them to give them their own thoughts on it, or to bring up a related idea (or to change the subject if they want). Again, it lets them decide whether they want to respond on a deep level or a surface level, according to their own comfort.

(I would suggest here that you bring up ideas you're still exploring, not ones you're settled on, or you might end up accidentally lecturing them instead of opening up a conversation.)

My small talk in real life is pretty much identical to The Whippet (but like, shorter and more reciprocal). As in:
"Hi, how's it going?"
"Good, and you?"
"Yeah not too bad."
" I just found out what Michelin stars actually mean, it turns out it's a really neat system!" or "I've been thinking a lot recently about the idea of 'salience'', as in [brief overview of my thoughts]"
(and then you use your social skills to pause and wait for them to go "yeah I already know" or see if their face seems interested or bored by the idea of hearing about Michelin stars / salience.)

(Basically I know some people will hear my suggestion of "don't ask, just talk about what you're interested in" and get flashbacks to some date who launched into a 30-minute explanation of the best Tarantino films without checking whether the other person cares or already knows all this stuff or has their own opinions. But that is not what I'm suggesting. Don't do that. Only talk about your thing briefly before checking in with the other person, use your context clues and all that.

I'm just talking about a way of trying to bridge the gap from "not sure how to begin a conversation" to "reciprocal back and forth that everyone is enjoying". And I think so often there are two interesting people having a boring conversation because both of them are too self-conscious to bring up something that might seem weird. So, make the first move I reckon.

Lastly the icebreaker of mine that Art of Noticing published is a sillier one, but one I think about a lot:

"If you could safely eat any inedible object, what would it be?"

For me it's a lit lightbulb, they seem crunchy and like they would fill you with goldenness.

(In my experience you need to give your own example for the other person to get what you mean by the question.)

Mmm, delicious.

I also like "what's something you were super-wrong about?" which again probably requires you to go first for the question to make sense.

Here's Rob Walker's:
"Many years ago, at a movie theater with E, I watched a trailer for an upcoming film that looked absolutely horrible and certain to flop, and whispered to her with total confidence: "Well, that's the end of that guy's career!"

"That guy" was Leonardo DiCaprio, still a newish figure at the time. The film being previewed? Titanic."

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.
Don't eat lightbulbs, that one's a freebie.

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