I have been thinking a lot lately about lists. Partially because I have been getting into functional programming languages (like Clojure, Common Lisp and Racket), and partially because I have been thinking about thinking and learning (metacognition). I think that lists can be a form of mental discipline and a tool in understanding the world.
I am also trying to figure out how to use them properly. As Funakoshi said, the art must serve the man, not the other way around.
Sometimes I make to-do lists, especially on weekends or while at work. I don’t always accomplish every task on the list. But it does help me get started and stop wasting time (like surfing the net all day). I also try to keep a list of things I need from the grocery store. Many times I would tell myself that I need something in particlar, then go to the grocery store and NOT buy what I had been telling myself I need, only to remember it when I got back.
James Altucher talks about making a list of ten ideas every day to work his idea muscle. (I admit I have already fallen off that wagon.)
Recently, I found an article by Paul Graham on lists. He attacks articles in magazines that are just lists. His one example is “Seven ways to please your man” in Cosmo. He instead praises the essay, because it allows for exploration and is more sophisticated.
I don’t agree with all of it. He seems to be committing a couple of logical fallacies here: Fallacy of composition, and straw man.
“The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.”
You could discover new things while making a list. Maybe he knows more people who work at magazines than I do, but he seems to have a bizarre idea that he always knows how people think about things.
Maybe, as he says, Cosmo has an article about “7 Things He Won’t Tell You about Sex.” How does he know that they decided from the start to come up with seven? Maybe there were ten, and they felt that some were not very good. Or they cut some out for space. Or they started out thinking the article would be a list of 5, and came up with two more.
And this from a guy who pushes a language whose name derives from “list processing”
“This can only happen in a very limited way in a list of n things. You make the title first, and that’s what it’s going to be about. You can’t have more new ideas in the writing than will fit in the watertight compartments you set up initially. And your brain seems to know this: because you don’t have room for new ideas, you don’t have them.”
He seems to be assuming that when you make a list, you ALWAYS decide ahead of time how many items your list will have, and you ALWAYS come up with that number, and you NEVER delete any items.
“An essay can go anywhere the writer wants.”
But I as the reader have a right to decide what to do with my time. If you are going to meander, I will do something else. You want to dilly-dally, do it on someone else’s time.
“A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start.”
A list can also be dynamic. You can change it as you make it, and as your understanding of a topic changes. I know Paul Graham tells me otherwise, but I know it’s true. I have done it, and I have seen others do it. Maybe that is what happens when Paul Graham makes lists. If so, that’s his problem.
“Because the main points are unconnected, the list of n things is random access. There’s no thread of reasoning you have to follow. You could read the list in any order.”
Not necessarily. Isn’t a mathematical proof a form of list? You could break a narrative story into a list. An outline is really a nested list. When you get a set of directions it is usually in the form of a list. Try boiling an egg in any order sometime.
But, Paul Graham writes essays, and he can’t tell you that essays are better if he doesn’t make you think that all lists are bad.
He also has an “essay” that is a list: Six Principles for Making New Things
Maybe there is a mathematical definition of list that he is using.
Aren’t sets, stacks and queues types of lists? Aren’t maps and trees?
“You make the title first, and that’s what it’s going to be about. You can’t have more new ideas in the writing than will fit in the watertight compartments you set up initially. And your brain seems to know this: because you don’t have room for new ideas, you don’t have them.”
What makes you think that is the way that everybody makes lists? He seems to think he knows what is going through everybody’s head all the time and that he understands how other people think better than they do.
Lists can be used as a tool of exploration as well.
The military uses a style of writing called “bottom line up front”. I wonder how they would react to Paul Graham telling them that writing should be about exploring. Give someone the conclusion first, then let the reader decide if they want to drill into the details. What he calls exploring, some might call self-indulgence.
He praises essays because the essay is more “sophisticated” than a list.
Here is the origin of word sophisticated from Dictionary.com:
1350-1400; Middle English (adj. and v.) < Medieval Latin sophisticātus (past participle of sophisticāre to tamper with, disguise, trick with words), equivalent to Latin sophistic (us) (see sophistic ) + -ātus -ate1
Plus, sometimes people feel that working within constraints can make them more creative (see James Altucher’s site for some thoughts on this).
I think this is more of Paul Graham telling himself he’s a special snowflake. “Smarter programmers use Lisp! And I use Lisp! What a coincidence. People who write essays are smarter than people who write lists. I write essays and don’t like lists. Isn’t that amazing?”
I think Paul Graham is a smart guy. Judging from his essays, I don’t think he is as smart as he thinks he is.
I think people should use lists more. I get field tickets for a very large, complex web app used by a state government in the US. Sometimes parsing what people are asking can be difficult. Writing out what they did when they encountered the problem in the form of a numbered list would make my life easier.
And a lot of stuff about this app is not written down. Or how to use some of the tools to support the app (like source control). Having all this written down in list format would make my life easier.
Image by Pierre Bonnard, from The Barnes Foundation, assumed allowed under Fair Use.