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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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The aim of this post is twofold: to find out whether a certain mental habit of mine is common, and to draw parallels between that habit and the writing of essays.

I don’t know whether this is common or not, but when I’m feeling particularly not-alert (for instance, when I’m nearly asleep, or while I’m doing routine tasks like cooking), I sometimes accidentally latch onto a topic and mentally explain it to myself, as if I were teaching it to the Ancient Greeks (who, naturally, speak English). As an example, last night’s topic of discourse was “the composition of soil”, in which I “talked” about soil, in a manner roughly according to the following diagram. It is laid out so as to display roughly what occurred to me, and the order in which it occurred to me to “say” it.

The contents of soil

  • Soil contains fungi

    • what is a fungus?
  • Soil contains fungi, lots and lots, which contributes to

  • we eat fungi

    • we don’t just eat mushrooms, we also are starting to eat Quorn etc
  • we eat fungi - more specifically, the reproductive organs of the mycelium

    • what is a mycelium? it’s a web that can span large areas
      • “fairy circles” - mycelium is why mushrooms often appear in arcs, because the mushrooms - the reproductive organs - appear at the periphery of the web
  • Soil contains fungi, lots and lots, which contributes to its taste

    • I once accidentally ate some of a mouldy slice of bread, and it tasted just like soil
      • the mould looks the same as the mould which you get in damp areas of a house
    • you can actually see something which is closely related to a mycelium on mouldy bread - webs of fungus
  • we eat fungi - Quorn, for instance, something similar to which was eaten during the first world war in Germany because of famine

    • Quorn can be made in huge vats, 250 kg can be made using the same resources as would make a kilogram of chicken
      • chicken is the most-eaten meat in the world, and our treatment of them can be horrible
      • there are environmental problems associated with using the resources that could produce a quarter of a ton of food to instead produce a kilogram of chicken

You get the idea. I’m essentially doing a depth-first search of my internal knowledge-base, starting from a particular place. When I feel that a topic is getting too big to include (for instance, I stop after “environmental problems” because that leads to a very large nexus of topics in my knowledge-base), I stop the search and backtrack. When I feel that a fact is particularly interesting but doesn’t have too much relevant content after it, I stop (for instance, the “fairy circles” fact, which could lead to a digression on myths and legends, but I deem that too big a logical leap).

This rings a bell with an essay Paul Graham wrote about essays, and more strongly with an anecdote which (infuriatingly) I can’t find or recall the name of, by a teacher of English. As an exercise, he (I think it was “he”) set a student an exercise to “write an essay about your home town”. She looked at him blankly, and so he refined it to “write an essay about the High Street of your home town”. The process continued until it got to “write 500 words about the top-left brick in the front of the bank on the High Street of your home town”. The student left, almost in tears. The next day, she returned with five thousand words of essay, and said that “once I got started, I just didn’t stop”.

What I am doing is very close to this view of writing an essay. If I kept going long enough (in an awake state), I would presumably hit areas I don’t know much about (for instance, how is it that there is a kind of mushroom that can punch through tarmac? Hydraulics, I know, but that’s a stop sign.) That’s where the research would start, and where I would start discovering new things - and that’s where Paul Graham’s view of writing an essay would happen.

This very post was written somewhat in this manner, but to save space and time, I made the knowledge-tree much smaller. (Alternative ending to that sentence: “I destroyed my time machine and burned all my papers”.) Naturally, when actually formulating an essay from such a tree, it is important only to keep that which is interesting and/or useful, and it is necessary to restrict the output to a reasonable length. A blog format, in particular, prefers shorter pieces, so maybe I should