Book review – Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making

Tempo is a book with a lot to say and not quite enough space to do it in. Purporting to examine narrative-driven decision-making through the lens of narrative time, it digs deeply, if somewhat narrowly, into how we see time in the context of our individual lives.

Initially, it began life as a cookbook, an outgrowth of the author’s use of food preparation as unwinding time. Cooking remains a theme, showing up again and again as the author discusses the manner and timing of our decisionmaking process. Tempo, a measure of the rate of events, is the “thin red line connecting all of the ideas, but for all that it retains the “discursive, grab-bag feel to it” that it had as a course.

This isn’t to say that Tempo is a bad book, or a useless book. Tempo has a number of fascinating things to say, but it’s sometimes difficult to judge how Venkatesh Rao is making the leaps between these ideas that they are. Having read the Gervais Principle, my expectations were higher than Tempo was able to reach. That said, it has enough interesting thought on narrative time for me to have quoted it more than once, and I suspect I’ll reread it to see if I can’t get more on a second pass.

Tempo leads with a breakdown of what exactly is meant by ‘tempo’ – “The set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.” From a restaurant kitchen, to the workplace, to a well-optimized date, examples are given and discussed, and the skill of tempo-doodling is introduced, a means of illustrating the state and rate of interactions.

It further delves into rhythms, the sense of timing, the narrative timing carried in the state of a kitchen, and flow – going with it and disrupting it. The relationships of events in time take a section, illustrating the different ways the time of different events can be laid out. From momentum and mental models, we discuss the kind of conversational narrative that makes it possible for humans to have fast-paced high-density interactions, rather than conversations punctuated by minutes of silent consideration.

While I found Tempo somewhat disjoint, I did not find it without value. If you have time to invest in the contemplation and perhaps rereading, and you want a better understanding of time as we experience it as creatures of narrative, Tempo is worth the investment.

And if not?

Well, there’s always next week’s review…

On “One Piece”

Sorry for a short, kinda fluff-y ramble this week. I’m working on a longer and more interesting post, partnered with a partner, but it’s not going to be done in time to post, so I’m writing this up instead.

“Anime was a mistake.”

It’s a troll, fictional quote, but a lot of people agree with it, and you can fairly easily get even more people to agree if you bring up One Piece. With an incredibly long backlog and lack of certain kinds of depth, one can be forgiven for thinking that One Piece was a mistake, one that’s acquired far more money and fandom than it deserves. I won’t try to argue that it’s deep and thought provoking, or that it doesn’t require an inordinate amount of time to be an active fan of.

What I will argue, and this hill I will die on, is that One Piece is great. Not everything has to be the Rifters trilogy, or Madoka Magica, or Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s okay for something to just be fun, to be about enjoying yourself and having a good time and setting down your cares for a while without worrying that a character will be [REDACTED] and then killed.

Really, it is.

I think there’s a certain tendency to dismiss things that don’t confront serious themes like this constantly as, “kid stuff”, and you can take it that way, but what’s wrong with kid stuff? When did we decide that to be an adult meant having to give up simple pleasures? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Madoka Magica, but it’s okay to not always be thinking about self-annihilating sacrifice in your entertainment time. It’s even good for you, in ways that I’ll tie back here in upcoming pieces.

Aside from that, One Piece does have valuable lessons. Important ones, that it’s easy to lose sight of, being an adult, especially a grim and serious one.

Quick diversion – /r/egg_irl. It’s a subreddit of memes involving people denying being trans, trying to shove it off and be something else or claim they can just bury it and they’ll be fine or whatever. I was browsing it the other day and thinking about some people I know who think that it’s a negative influence, spreading the trans viral meme to people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.

I don’t know enough about the etiology of being trans to say they’re wrong in all cases, although I didn’t catch it from anything like this. I realized my gender was broken, and then I went researching and found out about transness. I think for at least some people /r/egg_irl and other ways people become aware of being trans and what it’s like are great!


Because it’s helpful to get it rammed into your skull from several angles that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT”. I spent a few hours one evening talking to a close friend, about her feelings about things, and encouraging her to really look instead of pushing her desires aside, at the end of which she acknowledged that she was in fact trans, and started acting on it. She’s much happier now, to the best of my knowledge.

Why am I talking about a trans meme subreddit in a post on One Piece?

I watched ~ 600 episodes of One Piece during the Lost Decade and it kept ramming into my thick skull that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT” and eventually I did.

The thing that really got through to me was Nico Robin’s pre-timeskip arc. There’s a scene that I find really powerful, with the Straw Hats on one side of a gorge talking to Robin on the other. Luffy demands that if Robin is going to choose to die, that she *tell him so*, in a way he’ll believe. Confronted with evidence that there are people in the world who care about her, enough to go to war with the world, people who want her to exist, she cries out words the World Government has declared taboo for her – “I WANT TO LIVE!

I fell to thinking about how I’d love a place on the Going Merry / Thousand Sunny, to have friends like that, to have a dream to be pursuing. To have comrades and a quest. When I looked, really looked, in the way I later urged my friend to, there was a well of pain and void deep enough that it hurts now to reflect on.

I wanted to have people that I would lay down my life for, without a regret.

I wanted to have something that I wanted so badly that it wouldn’t matter if I died pursuing it, because it was what I wanted.

I wanted these things so badly that running that memory brought me to the edge of tears again now.

So dismiss One Piece because the characters aren’t rent with agony one way and another over every decision they make.

Deride it because it’s happy and colorful and silly, if you must.

But don’t you dare say it has no redeeming value. It taught me that I did want a community, that I did want a dream. This realization pushed me into joining Wildstar again and eventually saved my life. It led me to be standing where I am now, in Berkeley, with comrades brave and true, and it led me to hold the dream that I can matter, that I can help save the world. Value, and to spare.