Dumbing down

post by Martin Sustrik (sustrik) · 2024-06-09T06:50:47.469Z · LW · GW · 0 comments

In past few years I've been blogging in Slovak, that is, downscaling from writing in English, a language with 1457 million speakers to a language with 7 million speakers.

From the point of view of the writer, this has been a very different experience. It's not only that for a topic that interests one million English speakers, the equivalent is five thousand in Slovakia, scaling down by factor of 200. It's also that topic that interests 100 English speakers, interests one half of a hypothetical Slovak speaker, that is, nobody. In fact, not everybody reads blogs, so the population in question is likely smaller by an order of magnitude or even two, resulting in even more fractional Slovaks... In other words, the reader population is not as big as to fill in all the possible niches and the writing thus has to become much more generic.

It must also be "dumbed down". Not because Slovaks are less intelligent than other nations, but because the scale of the existing discourse is much smaller. While in English, not matter how esoteric your topic is, you can reference or link to the relevant discussion, in Slovak it often is the case that there's no discussion at all.

The combination of the two factors above means that you have to explain yourself all the time. You want to mention game theory? You have to explain what do you mean. You want to make a physics metaphor? You can't, if you care about being understood. You want to hint at some economic phenomenon? You have to explain yourself again.

And often even the terminology is lacking. Even such a basic word as "policy" has no established equivalent. I had to ask a friend who works as a translator at the European Commission, just to be told that they use word "politika" for this purpose. Which is definitely not a common meaning of the word. "Politika" typically means "politics" and using it for "policy" sounds really strange and awkward.

(All of this gave me gut-level understanding of how small populations can lose knowledge. Joe Henrich mentions a case of small Inuit population getting isolated from the rest and gradually losing technology, including the kayak building skills, which in turn made it, in a vicious circle, unable to import other technology. This kind of thing also tends to be mentioned when speaking of dropping fertility rates and possible inability of a smaller global population to keep the technology we take for granted today. Well, I can relate now.)

Anyway, it's interesting to look at what kind of topics were popular in such a scaled-down environment.

Interestingly, the most popular article (17k views) was a brief introduction to Effective Altruism. I have no explanation for that except that it was a chance. Maybe it was because I wrote it on December 29th when there was not much other content? The readers, after all, judging from the comments, were not convinced, but rather experienced unpleasant cognitive dissonance, when they felt compelled to argue that saving one kid at home is better than saving five kids in Africa.

(From comments:) Nice article. I've decided to support charity on regular basis, but here in Slovakia, even if it's more expensive, because I think that maintaining life forcibly in Africa, where it is not doing well, goes against the laws of nature. I can imagine Africa without the people who kill each other in civil wars, who are unable to take care of their own offspring and the country. If someone wants to live there, mine diamonds or grow coffee, they should go there and start life anew, and perhaps on better foundations than the ones damaged in Africa years ago by the colonizers.

A series of articles about Swiss political system (all together maybe 10k views). Interestingly, the equivalent in English was popular on LessWrong [LW · GW], which is a world apart, indicating a curious overlap. Maybe this kind of hands-on deep dive on a topic that's both interesting and not well understood is simply appealing to everybody.

Next comes an article about how Protestants and Catholics made peace after 30-year war (7000 views), showing an example of how compromise tends to win in the end, after non-compromising has already caused a crazy amount of damage.

When the warring parties finally get to sit down to the negotiating table in 1648, it turns out that they hate each other so much that the peace conference cannot be held in one place. Neither side is willing to come to the territory that is under the military control of the other side. So one conference takes place in Osnabrück, the other in Münster. Messengers ride between cities with proposals and counter-proposals.

An article about kidney donation (6000 views) - the point of view taken is more of an economic one (repugnant markets) rather than EA one - is still popular, there are new views every day even today, a year after it was published. I once even got a message asking whether I, by chance, want to buy some human organs.

(About repugnant markets:) And what about dwarf-tossing? It is a discipline where a fully grown person throws a midget into the distance. When dwarf-tossing was banned in France, a French midget who made a living in this way took his case to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. The French side argued that it's an affront to human dignity. The dwarf replied that the essence of human dignity was to have a job, and there weren't many suitable jobs for midgets. However, the UN ultimately sided with France.

Retelling the convoluted story of the discovery that fresh fruit cures scurvy (6000 views).

A story about the looting from the looter's perspective (based on the dairies of a soldier in 30-year war; 3000 views). This became popular when the shocking news about Russian soldiers looting in the occupied Ukraine were first published.

Peter Hagendorf hasn't had luck. Moments after the breach, he was hit by two bullets. One went through the torso, the other stuck in the shoulder. The injuries were not fatal, but they disabled him. His comrades took him to the infirmary, the medic did surgery on him while he was fully conscious, then they took him home. The problem now was that he couldn't participate in the looting. Hagendorf's wife, Anna Stadlerin, took the initiative. She left their sick, two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Elisabet in the care of her husband and went to the city herself. In his diary, Hagendorf describes how worried he was about his wife. The city was burning and there was a threat that the looting troops would get stuck there.

A history of Haber-Bosch process. (3000 views) Written during the protests in Sri Lanka when the government decided to ban import of artificial fertilizers and switch to fully organic agriculture.

One does not need to know about the Haber-Bosch process at all to realize the magnitude of the problem. One just needs to know a bit of history. Just remember how much the medieval world revolved around shit. Each turd was carefully collected and stored. A pot of dung used to be a burden that the common peasant was obliged to pay to the lord. And all that because the harvest in the fields was largely limited by the amount of available fertilizer.


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