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> Selection


Here's a nice puzzle I heard in electronics class. If a resistor has a silver band, so that it's guaranteed to be within ten percent of its marked value, what's the probability that it's actually within five percent? If the resistances followed a uniform distribution, the probability would be 1/2; and if they followed a normal distribution, the probability would be higher; but in fact the probability is zero … because all the resistors that were within five percent were marked with a gold band, not a silver one! In other words, the process isn't “make good resistors”, it's “make lots of resistors and pick out the good ones”.

The same idea, generalized by allowing the concept “resistor” to vary, is what I call the principle of selection.

If you want to make good Xs, make lots of Xs and select the good ones.

Selection is somewhat counterintuitive. Normally, if you want to make good Xs, Xs of a certain quality, you just work carefully and make nothing but good Xs. If you can't think of a way to make good Xs reliably, selection, a.k.a. quality control, is essential; but even if you can, selection is still worth considering. It can often produce more and better Xs than direct creation.

There are plenty more examples of selection in the context of manufacturing and quality control—notably, integrated circuits—but mostly I'm interested in it in the context of art. (Sadly, I don't know the correct art jargon for it.) Let's start with some simple examples, in various media.

  • The songs on a “greatest hits” album are selected from all the songs a group has recorded, or perhaps from all the songs recorded during some period of time, like, say, since the last compilation. Often the result is that the best one or two songs are selected from each previous album.
  • The songs on the radio are selected from all the songs that are available … and, again, the result is that the best one or two songs are selected from each album. (I'm under the impression that on some stations you have to pay to get a song into rotation. Even so, what's going on is still selection, it's just selection based on different parameters.)
  • The comics in a newspaper are selected from the comics in syndication.
  • The articles in a newspaper that aren't local news are selected from the articles available on the news wires.
  • The articles in a professional or technical journal are selected from the articles that are submitted to it. (Or, to put it another way, a submitted article is accepted or rejected.)

In those examples, selection is absolutely necessary, because there's a distribution channel with limited capacity. We can get slightly different examples by deforming that condition in one way or another.

  • The works of art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) in an art gallery are selected, but not distributed … and there's a good reason for that, which is that it's not very easy to make identical copies of such works. On the other hand, the limited space in a gallery is just like the limited space on an album; the difference is simply that there's only one instance of the gallery. (The essay Instances and Copies is relevant here.)
  • The web pages on the web don't need to be selected, because the channel has essentially unlimited capacity. There are limits on things like bandwidth, of course, but there's no practical limit on the number of pages that can be made available. The web is also interesting because it encompasses other media. Just for example, it contains songs, stories, articles, essays, comics, pictures, and movies.

    Yet another thing that's interesting about the web is the fact that selection happens even though it's not strictly necessary. In fact, the pages can be selected and (re)distributed by anybody who's willing to put up a page full of links … see, for example, Fark, or Instapundit. I'm pretty sure the first such page I saw was Robot Wisdom, which is still there, but seems to be inactive at the moment.

That brings me to my next point. So far I've talked about what kinds of things are selected, but not about who the things are selected by. In all the examples above (except the last), the people who perform the selection are professionals, editors and the like, but certainly amateurs can select things too. Even me!

  • A few years back, I started cutting out and saving comics that I especially liked; more recently, I put them all together into a book. It's still surprising to me how funny the result is … I hadn't expected selection to have such a powerful effect.
  • I do the same thing with articles and other things from the Onion, and with any nice pictures that I happen to see in print or on line.
  • Perhaps the most obvious example is that I select songs by buying albums that I like. More recently, the same goes for movies.

    In fact, the same goes for any consumer product! In that sense capitalism is all about selection … instead of making only good products, we make lots of products, and lots of companies, and let people select the good ones. I'll come back to that in a minute, right now it's a digression.

  • Books deserve special mention, even though technically they're just a kind of consumer product. I love books, and have lots of them. Maybe one day I'll go through and enter them all into the list of works, so that you, too, can see all the lovely books I have. At the moment, though, they're all packed away in boxes, because if I keep them out in sight on shelves, I spend way too much time re-reading them.

    Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that my books have been selected twice: once when I bought them, and then once when I moved back here, when I went through and got rid of all the ones that weren't really so good. Now, with the worst third gone, the ones that are left are awesome!

Actually, my books have been selected three times, because first they had to be selected for publication. That kind of multilayered selection is fairly common.

Occasionally, I like to break a work into parts, and then pick and choose from among the parts. Consider, for example, what I did with The Matrix Reloaded. That's an unusual case, but the same kind of thing happens every time I pick out an excerpt to go in an essay. I especially like the passage from Cryptonomicon that I included in Thoughts About Stephenson, but there are plenty of examples in other places, too. A lot of good ones are filed under Quotations.

Fun Latin trivia: I'm glad I got to use the word “excerpt” here, because as a verb it's just a fancy word for “pick”, or “select”. Here's how my dictionary explains it.

Lat. excerptum < excerpere, to pick out : ex-, out + carpere, to pluck.

Now, before I break a work into parts, it exists as a whole, but before that there was another time when it existed as parts, namely, when it was being created. The creator of a work typically has an excess of parts, some that are variants of one another, all performing the same function, and others that are purely optional. As a result, ve has to pick and choose from among the parts … and that gives us yet another kind of selection.

  • When I'm writing an essay, the first thing I do is try out different outlines, different possibilities for the overall structure. Once that's settled, I start at the beginning and write; that's mostly a process of trying sentence variants until I find the right sequence and the right words. (After that, I make another pass or two to proofread and revise, which is what I'm doing right now.) And, although you wouldn't guess it from this essay, I do sometimes discard parts, or save them for future use.
  • I'm not sure where it was, or who it was by—maybe Roger Zelazny?—but I once read some interesting advice on how to write a novel. The idea was, one should have in mind, or maybe even write down, one or more episodes that delineate the history of the characters and/or the world of the novel. Omitting the episodes, then, is a form of selection.
  • Sometimes, when I go hiking, I take my camera along, and take pictures. If I see something really beautiful or unusual, I might take two pictures of it, from different angles or with different settings, but mostly I just take one picture and hope for the best. A professional photographer, I think, would do better not only by composing the individual pictures in better ways, but also by taking lots and lots of pictures, and using selection.

    One thing that's strange about pictures (as a medium) is that although there may be many variant parts, once a variant is selected, the part is the whole.

  • There's a huge amount of selection that goes into making a movie. I knew there could be several takes of a scene, of course, but I had no idea just how much selection and editing was involved until I watched the extras on the Terminator 2 DVD. (Of course, there are many ways to come to the same realization; that's just the way it happened to me. On the other hand, the extras are well done, and are very detailed.)

A particularly clean example of selection of parts is The Top 5 List. The way that that site works is, first, a topic is announced; second, on the order of a hundred different contributors submit entries; and third, an editor picks the best five (or so) and makes them into a list. The whole is pretty much just the sum of its parts, but so what, it still demonstrates the power of selection.

I imagine the same kind of thing goes on internally at The Onion … probably they have a group meeting where everyone throws out random ideas, then they pick the best ones and go off and make articles and things out of them. In other words, they brainstorm.

Now let me step back for a moment and summarize what I've been doing. In this essay, there were three things I wanted to accomplish. First, I wanted to capture the slightly peculiar meaning that I attach to the word “selection”. (In other words, I wanted to define urticator.selection.) That was taken care of within the first two paragraphs. Second, I wanted to stir up your mind with innumerable examples of selection in different contexts. That, too, has been taken care of, I hope. Finally, I wanted to write down the following paragraph.

As we've just seen, brainstorming is a way of applying the principle of selection within the context of ideas. But, it's a way, not the only way—and there is, in fact, another way that is far more important. Everyone, every day, goes around throwing out ideas, and then picking the “best” ones by choosing which ones to remember and repeat. In other words, memes operate by selection! But then, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Genes, to which memes are analogous, also operate by selection: selection by Nature, or, if you prefer, natural selection. (Natural selection isn't the same thing as evolution, but it's close; see Evolution for details.)

That's really the end, the rest is just gravy.

  • We also select ideas by choosing which ones to pay attention to. I know that probably sounds exactly the same as what I said before, but there's a slight difference. Memes don't have to propagate across space, between minds, they can also propagate across time, within a single mind. (There's that turn of phrase from Miscellaneous Zelazny, again.) On the other hand, any meme that propagates only across time will sooner or later find itself exposed as an evolutionary dead end.
  • Now that the link to evolution is out in the open, I can finish that thought about capitalism. Just as natural selection drives the evolution of organisms, the selection produced by capitalism drives the evolution of commercial superorganisms.


  See Also

  Antiviral Memes
  De-Sentimentalization (2)
  Design Influences
  Other Approaches
  Personality Types

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