The Name of the Blog

Why is this blog called “Dark Gray Matters”?

The true answer is mundane: I was trying to come up with a name and I liked the sound of this one.

But sometimes ideas — if they’re good — reveal surprising depth. I realized that this name can be decomposed in six different ways: three individual words, and three two-word combinations. Each of these subnames has meaning of its own, and thinking about them helps me define what the blog is about.

Here’s an overview.


This word is the toughest to extract meaning from, since it carries connotations of evil. But not all that is dark is evil. The night is dark, and yet the night can be soothing, or beautiful, or exciting.

Often, it is when we look at the darker corners that we find what is most interesting. And darkness allows light to shine more brightly. It makes contrasts, and emphasizes what is good: art, for instance, is a beacon in the darkness.

This blog is about the darker, more interesting bits of the world.


If the world were monochrome,1The world isn’t actually monochrome, so I get to pick another official color for the blog than gray. That color is purple, because purple’s great. almost nothing would be pure white or pure black. Everything would be some shade of gray.

In probability, there are never absolute certainties: everything is gray. In politics, no one is always absolutely right: everything is gray. In science, we seek truth, but we never find it fully: everything is gray. In relationships, we always find people to be simultaneously flawed and marvelous: everybody is gray.

This blog is about the grayness of things.


The noun “matter” has many meanings. The verb “to matter” has only one, but it is a striking one. “To matter” is to be important. What could possibly be more important than discovering, and acting upon, what is important?

This blog is about finding what matters.

Dark Gray

Now we’re looking at word combinations, and this allows us to get more precise.

I said the world is not black and white. But neither is it a perfectly neutral, balanced gray.

Paul Graham distinguishes “intentional moderates” from “accidental moderates.” Intentional moderates strive to be in the center, and purposely choose their opinions to be away from the extremes. Accidental moderates end up in the center because they think for themselves — and since both black and white are equally wrong, they become gray.

You recognize an accidental moderate from the diversity of their opinions. Rarely will they be neutral gray on any given question. They almost always give the dark gray or the light gray2In the abstract, light gray and dark gray are the same. answer. Only on average are they neutral gray.

This blog is about picking sides.

Dark Matters

We don’t really know what dark matter is. That’s why we called it that. But whatever it is, there’s a lot of it. 85% of all matter is dark matter.

This is an obvious metaphor for the fact that we know very little about the Universe. Almost everything is still unknown, waiting to be discovered. Some of that is the infinite smallness of fundamental physics, and some is the infinite largeness of the cosmos. Some is about how our planet works. Some is about how we, the humans, work.

This blog is about curiosity, pointed at the entire Universe.

Gray Matters

And the most awe-inspiring part is that there are things in this Universe that are able to look and wonder at the rest.

That’s us. The humans, and to varying degrees, other animals. We have nervous systems, which include a brain, which includes a mass of billions of neuronal cell bodies, enmeshed together. We call that part gray matter. It is able to do something really bizarre: it thinks.

Nothing would matter if there were no thinking beings to experience it. Everything comes together because we’re able to think. And the world can be a better or worse place depending on how well we think.

This blog is about us.


Thanks to Gregory for help with the first draft.


Things You Shouldn’t Abstract Away

We use words to abstract things. When you say the word “tree,” you summon the abstract idea of a specific concrete thing that looks like this:

No real tree is being moved, harmed or otherwise affected when you use the word. This allows you to do whatever you want. With words, you can cut down trees, paint them pink, make them represent the entire history of life, make a political promise to plant two billion of them, or even pretend the entire world is a tree, and at no point are actual trees being involved.

That’s how powerful abstraction is. In fact, the use of language to manipulate imaginary objects is probably a defining feature of humanness and a big part of why we’re so successful as a species.

But sometimes, that power feels greater than it truly is.

“I don’t want [X] to matter”

Take charisma. It is an abstract word that refers to a real phenomenon, but that phenomenon is remarkably difficult to describe. A charismatic person is one who is persuasive, charming, attractive, fascinating, good at speaking, good at leading, or any number of similar ideas in that space. Fortunately, you generally don’t need to do the heavy work of defining what you mean: you can just use the convenient word “charisma” to encapsulate part or all of that.

Since you have this word, you may be tempted to say something like: “I don’t want to choose politicians according to their charisma. I want only their ideas to matter.”

Reasonable, right?

The thing is, it’s really hard to actually ignore charisma. Suppose you heard ideas from two candidates during a debate. One is articulate, pleasant to listen to, and crystal clear. The other is boring, monotonous, and vague. Regardless of the quality of their ideas, chances are you’ll be convinced by the former. You may not even realize it’s because of their charisma.

It’s not impossible to discount charisma. You’d need to make a conscious effort and say, “I know this guy is much better at expressing his ideas, but that doesn’t mean his ideas are the best.” And you need to do that for his seductive voice. And his joke telling. And whatever other qualities get lumped into the word “charisma.”

Hiding away all of these things, and using the word “charisma” as if it were something you had control over, actually puts you at greater risk of falling for charisma. In fact, it puts you at the same risk level as someone who’d have no awareness of charisma at all.

Marketing works in a similar way. You want to buy the best product, not the one that is best marketed. But how do you know which product is the best? You need to acquire the information somehow. And unless you’re an insider, the information you’ll get is likely to be heavily influenced by various forces — the product’s name and design, or the number of times you’ve heard of it, which is directly related to the money spent on advertising — that we often call, together, “marketing.”

To complicate matters a bit, marketers know that people don’t like “marketing” (especially ads), so the successful ones go out of their way to make their marketing not feel like marketing. You didn’t pick the restaurant that had paid ads on Facebook — you just went with the one your friend recommended. It never occurred to you that this recommendation might have been the result of clever marketing.

(as usual, there’s a relevant xkcd)

So, just like true charisma includes the capacity to win over people who are wary of abstract “charisma,” true marketing is able to reach even people who actively dislike abstract “marketing.”

My third example is networking. People think of networking as this thing you do. You go to “networking” events. You “network” by adding people on LinkedIn. You complain that you can’t get a good job because only the people with a better “network” get them, regardless of their competence.

It’s easy to realize that networking just means meeting people, but somehow we rarely think of it as “networking” when you make a new friend and eventually get help from that friend. Even when you get a very clear advantage from your network — say, you have a family member who’s good at manual work and gets some improvement done on your house — you won’t think of it as a result of your networking. I mean, that’s what family and friends are for, right?

And if you wanted to get rid of networking as a hiring criterion — well, you’d be attempting to tame something that’s too strong. The better-networked people are more likely to have heard of the job, or to know somebody at the company who can refer them. You can’t do much against that (and probably shouldn’t try).

Abstracting power away

The phrasal verb to abstract away is used mostly in computer science. It means to hide the complexity of a task behind some sort of black box, in order to simplify. You don’t care how exactly a computer program sorts the items in a list; you’re happy to just click some command called “Sort alphabetically” and trust that your Excel data is now in alphabetical order.

More generally, I propose to use this verb for situations where using a word — i.e., abstracting a thing — hides most of the power of the thing.

Abstracting away is a step beyond plain abstracting. (Plain abstracting boils down to using language, so this isn’t surprising.) When you refer to a concrete object like a tree, nothing powerful gets hidden. Trees don’t have any power over you1At least, I hope they don’t..

If the power of a thing is obvious, you’re also not usually abstracting it away. It’s quite clear to everyone that “gravity” or “the government” refer to important forces that influence people, so there’s little risk of thinking you have a better hold on them than you really do.

Charisma, marketing, and networking are in the dangerous middle: they’re powerful concepts, but not obviously so. That’s why it’s easy to abstract them away, and get confused about the world.

So, be careful. Abstract language has given you great power. But there are other things out there that are powerful. Don’t think you can defeat them that easily.


Thanks to Annie Bastien and Gregory Yang Kam Wing for reading a first draft and providing discussion.


Techno-Optimism vs. Pessimism vs. Nihilism

Narrator: This is Lair of Anthropomorphized Attitudes Towards Technological Progress, the new Shark Tank / Dragon’s Den spinoff where anthropomorphized attitudes towards technological progress evaluate whether to invest in an entrepreneur’s project.

(it’s not a very popular show, hence the crappy logo)

“I call it the Truly Life-Changing Invention,” contestant Dr. X tells the panel. “TLCI for short.”

“What does it do?” Optimism asks.


Life in Gray

To kick off the blog, here’s a translation and update of the first essay I published on my French blog in May 2017.


Let us imagine Bob.

It’s Bob’s birthday today. His friend Alice, a somewhat stingy person who also was not exactly struck with inspiration when she was selecting Bob’s present, has given him a wonderful thing: a Lotto 6/49 lottery ticket1Lotto 6/49 is perhaps the most well-known lottery game in Canada..