Coarse Actions, Fine Actions

A Happy New Year to all ribbonfarm readers. It’s been a month since my last post, primarily due to a chaotic 3-week vacation in India. 2008 is shaping up to be a year of action for me, so I thought it would be appropriate to start off my 2008 blogging year by chasing down some elusive thoughts on the nature of action that have bothered me for a while. The theme of these thoughts is roughly this: we recognize and apply distinctions between coarse big-picture and fine, detail-oriented thinking. We also recognize equivalent distinctions in sensation, observation and measurement through sophisticated notions of precision, resolution and noise. Yet we don’t commonly apply the same distinction to action, outside of specialized domains like painting (“broad strokes”). I don’t mean here distinctions like strategy vs. tactics — those apply to thinking about action. I mean a distinction of coarseness/fineness applied to actions themselves. The sort implied by adjectives such as ‘surgical’ or ‘blunt instrument.’ Let’s poke. Carrot: I’ll end with a personality test on your action ‘type.’

A Visual-Visceral Idea-Chase

But let me back up and share something of the origins of these ideas, since that is an interesting story (you can safely skip this story if introspective thought-archeology bores you).

I started down this trail of thought back in 1993, and for 15 years, the trail remained one of fleeting visual impressions and visceral sensations, until finally some coherent verbal thoughts began to form a few weeks back, and led to this article.

The first impression is from my first view of Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (VT) railway station in 1993, where I arrived to start college. The image that stuck in my mind was that of the rust-and-ochre local commuter trains juxtaposed against the long-distance express trains a few platforms away. In the bustle of VT, the local trains seem to exude confidence, competence, agility and intelligence, rapidly disgorging hundreds of passengers in minutes and swallowing hundreds more, before dashing back up the few dozens of miles to the terminii at the other end of Bombay’s north-south extent. Next to these trains, the express trains seem weary, lumbering and stupid. Clueless village mice to the local trains’ town mice. If you ride the express trains out of Bombay though, you will notice a subtle change in your impressions as you slowly chug out of the city. As you leave the outermost local stations behind, and the powerful engines start to open up in preparation for crossing the Western Ghat mountains into the hinterland, a sense of awesome power and peace envelops you. It is now the pert, darting little local trains, left behind at the last few dimly-lit stations, that seem somehow forlorn, tragic and doomed to a sad life within the confines of Bombay, forever denied the exhilaration of the open tracks that snake for thousands of miles across India.

But back then, I didn’t think all this. The visual impression just hit me, and burned into my brain, thanks to a powerful, poignant and opaque emotion — a mix of longing, peace and sadness. I had no idea then why the mere sight of a bunch of trains should evoke such a feeling.

Impressions like this continued to accumulate over the years. The same feeling overcome me at New York Penn station, watching Amtrak and NYC subway trains together. Then again, looking out across Bar Harbor in Maine, watching the large silent, cruise ships at anchor and the smaller lobster and whale-watching boats dashing around around them. I felt a particularly powerful instance of the impression on one of my first drives in the US, on a bridge in Ann Arbor, across an Interstate. The sight of the 70 mph traffic thundering away to the horizon under me, hit me hard in the stomach. Since then, I have never been able to suppress a sense of sadness mixed with peace, when watching Interstate traffic from the vantage point of local traffic. In every American city that I have lived in since, I occasionally drive out to look at Interstate traffic.

I collected my most recent such impression at JFK airport last month, flying out to India. Walking down the long, glass-windowed jetway, and looking at the Boeing 777-300 parked patiently on the tarmac, I was suddenly struck very powerfully by the contrast between the huge transcontinental jetliner and the sprightly little domestic airplanes I fly more often (737s, Canadair regional jets and the like — between 80-120 feet long, compared to the 777’s wide-bodied 200-plus feet).

Finally, mulling my 15-year collection of visual memories and sensations over the break, some verbal thoughts began to take shape. I wouldn’t say my thoughts capture everything contained in the impressions, but it is a start.

Coarse Actions, Fine Actions and a Personality Test

Actions are a concerted application of energy and information processing. Actuation and control, if you will. For example, consider the action of driving. Visualize yourself on a long road trip, with Mapquest directions lying on the passenger seat. Chances are, of the dozen of so instructions, one or two account for the bulk of the mileage of the trip, with a half-dozen or so local instructions at either end, accounting for no more than a few miles. Imagine yourself simultaneously watching the gas indicator go down and ticking off completed instructions. One tracks energy, the other tracks quantity of control information processing. Obviously, you’ll be paying a lot of attention to the directions at the start and the end, and the gas indicator during the middle.

Many types of action besides motion are structured this way. If you consider the ratio of (control) information processing to energy usage to be a measure of fineness of action, most actions take on a bathtub profile over time, fine-coarse-fine. Consider:

  • Most travel (air, train, ship or road)
  • Bootstrap, normal operation, and shutdown of a computer (watch a Linux computer boot up with verbose diagnostics, if you like feeling snowed by detail)
  • Writing a book or thesis (I remember with particular annoyance the initial LaTeX formatting troubles and final tiresome binding and paperwork, but my memories of weeks of steady writing in between are mostly positive)
  • Moving (packing, loading/unloading boxes from trucks, unpacking)

If you separate out the ratio, you get four sorts of action: high-energy, high-control (the only examples I can think of are fighting, like boxing), high-energy, low-control (“heavy lifting”), low-energy, high-control (needlepoint, say), and low-energy, low-control (stirring soup).

This yields a personality test and definitions for common characterizations of personalities of action:

Action types
I am definitely a “heavy lifter” — I like to build up a certain momentum, no matter what I am doing, and then chug along intensely until I run out of energy. Switching costs (take off/landing or boot-up shut-down, pick your metaphor) and start/stop action drain me. During heavy-lift action, there is no ‘meta’ track of control thought in my head. I also prefer highway driving to city and box-lifting to box-packing during moves. Note that the diagram is relative to a single person’s energy/control limits. There might be a detail-oriented person who can summon up more energy than I can. In his/her diagram, I’d be ‘lazy.’

The diagram also suggests another interesting line of thought, this time a normative one. How do you measure the most effective level of coarseness required of an action to achieve an end? When is an action too precise or too coarse?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I do not get the connection to the sadness and peace you associated with different modes and speeds of transportation. Is the relative size and power of the modes a metaphor for the control/energy ratio?

  2. I haven’t yet explained the emotional ‘signature’ of those transportation scenes, I just noted them because that’s the reason I remembered them for so long.

    I wouldn’t say the transportation scenes are a metaphor for the control/energy thing — more like direct examples. For example local trains have regenerative braking and large doors to allow more rapid start/stop and rapid boarding/disembarking, which are effectively a larger control capability. Small planes take off/land more often per mile flown than big ones.