These posts were originally published on the Tempo book blog between 2011-14, and imported here in 2019 when that blog was shut down and replaced with a single page.

Functional Fixedness and Kata Learning

I am spending a couple of days here in Atlanta with Ho-Sheng Hsiao (Hosh). He invited me to join him for the monthly meeting of the Atlanta Ruby User Group (ALTRUG), and I jumped at the opportunity, since for whatever reason, a lot of programmers (and I think Ruby programmers in particular) seem to read my writing. The event provoked a fertile trail of thought on the nature of learning.

[Read more…]

Freytag Staircases in Nashville

One of the key concepts in Tempo is something I call a “Freytag staircase” (the term is derived from “Freytag triangle,” a well-known model of simple narrative structures). I am working on putting a glossary for the book online, but I am mentioning it now because the Freytag staircase is a way to visualize birth-to-death life narratives and use the visualization to frame your decision-making. And the reason I am bringing it up is that I never really thought about how it might work for people with different religious beliefs. In Nashville, where I bunked with musician Micah Redding of the Redding Brothers and his wife Emily,  I dropped in on a very interesting local meetup (Micah and Emily are part of it) devoted loosely to debating religious themes from a wide variety of perspectives.


[Read more…]

The Car/Truck Ratio


The drive down the center of America from Detroit to Nashville is fascinating. Among the interesting Tempo-related things I noticed was that the car/truck ratio was much lower than on the coasts. Correlates to the lower population and greater presence of logistics industries, and gives driving here s very distinct feel. It’s like being in a forest of semis instead of an open road.

Week 2: Ann Arbor, Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans

I am in Ann Arbor, MI as I write this, preparing to head south tomorrow. The plan is to wander down to New Orleans over the week, and then start up along the Mississippi next week. For the coming week, I have Atlanta plans nailed down and Nashville and New Orleans plans almost nailed down. According to Google Maps, Dayton, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, Montgomery and Mobile are along the route. If you suspect you are within a reasonable band off this route, give me a holler.

Here are links to my the posts I liveblogged on the Tempo blog during the first week. Delay-blogged rather.

Some reflections on Week 1 follow, for those interested in the metatext.

[Read more…]

Time Travel for Ghosts

Situation awareness and mental models are much weirder phenomena than people realize. In Tempo, I mostly talk about their non-weird, intuitively obvious aspects. The weirdness comes in when you start to become conscious of, and understand, the logic behind some of the seemingly odd things the brain does. A commonly cited illustration is Proust’s madeline. It makes no kind of logical sense that a specific kind of cookie should be the starting point for a process of gradually uncovering a lifetime of memories. But it makes a great deal of narrative sense. This is one reason fragmented memory landscapes are a popular plot device with film-makers. Movies like The Machinist and Vanilla Sky come to mind (I’d like to compile a list of such movies and rewatch them. Any other suggestions? I vaguely recall a movie with a fragmented-memory type plot that had the motif of scissors running through the story).

One of the best ways to understand how situation awareness and mental models work is to return to a place of significance in your life after a very long period of absence. You will experience the surreal logic of your mind. The best description I can come up with for the experience is “time-traveling ghost.”

[Read more…]

Darwin, Some Rationalists and the Joker

After my little trip into the Laurentian mountains, it was Ottawa for me yesterday. There I met up with reader Alex DeMarsh and a few friends he’d pulled together from a local Less Wrong meetup, at the pleasant Fox and Feather pub. Reading left to right, we have Corey, Alex, Miranda and Ben. Alex and Ben are ribbonfarm/Tempo readers, while Miranda and Corey had never heard of me.  I like that kind of ratio of (digitally) familiar and unfamiliar people. The meeting was very interesting, since it helped me further clarify how the idea of narrative rationality that I have developed in Tempo relates to traditional notions of rationality.

For those of you aren’t familiar with Less Wrong, it is a community of rationalists associated with the Singularity Institute. I admit I was rather wary and curious at the same time. The Less Wrong world seems to overlap significantly with my readership. I have no idea why. Quite often, a new reader will mention Less Wrong and ask whether I read the site. The answer is, I don’t. I have looked a bit, but have never been able to get into it, even though they discuss a lot of the themes I discuss on ribbonfarm and particularly in Tempo. I suspect I am in a sort of evil-twin relationship with the Less Wrong philosophy of cognition and decision-making. When I said this at the meetup, one of the attendees remarked, “…and you’re the evil twin.”

I have a pleasant ongoing email conversation with some of the folks behind Less Wrong (Michael Vassar and Jasen Murray), but though I like lots of bits and pieces of the thinking that seems to emerge from the community, I sense that my intellectual DNA is fundamentally different in some deep way that I haven’t yet figured out.

To my pleasant surprise though, the meeting was a great deal of fun. I guess I was sort of expecting an inquisition by a panel of Spocks given the views I espouse, but it was mainly a freewheeling open-ended discussion that went down plenty of interesting rabbit holes. Beer, nachos and bad geek jokes flowed freely.

Building on the evil twin theme, a big meme for the evening was Batman rationality vs. Joker rationality. The Batman vs. Joker (Heath Ledger version) sheds a surprising amount of light on questions such as whether you should want to live for ever and whether rational people necessarily want good things for everybody.

I wish now I’d recorded the conversation. Suffice it to say that we explored some very fertile territory, and a good time was had by all.

I am now less wary of the lesswrongers than I used to be. They bring a healthy sense of doubt, irony, aesthetics and skepticism to their passion for rationality. I expect I’ll continue making fun of them on occasion though. I can’t help myself. A dedicated group of world-saving, optimal-living optimists with a deep faith in the power of rationality suggests far too many irresistible jokes to someone with a bloody-minded sense of humor like me.  I expect they’ll actually succeed in their effort to save the world, and I’ll go to atheist hell where Richard Dawkins’ ghost will torture me.

Following the pub meetup (which included a game of darts where I came in dead last), we moved to a party somewhere else in Ottawa and returned rather late to Alex’s house, where I shared the futon for the night with his cat, Darwin, who likes to sit inside dresser drawers. I took this amazingly evil picture of Darwin that I am itching to post in an intelligent design forum. Dawkins bless camera flashes and cat corneas.


Peak Oil and the Tempo of the Earth

There is a certain human cognitive deafness when it comes to rhythms with periods longer than a typical human lifespan. Peak Oil is part of one such cycle, the slow rise and fall of major energy sources powering human civilization. The transition movement is an effort to deal with Peak Oil, and I got an interesting look into it on Saturday morning.

One of the folks I met in Montreal, Tibi (short for Tiberius; that’s a pretty impressive name) rode along with me to a village in the Laurentian mountains north of the city, Val David. At the village, I briefly toured Chaumiere Fleur Soleil, a retreat/teaching center founded by Jacques, a former RCMP instructor. Here are Tibi and Jacques.

The village is a major site for the Canadian transition movement. It’s best understood as an edge-cultural lifestyle motivated by the goal of preparing for Peak Oil by transitioning existing communities to more oil-independent ways of functioning. Tibi is attempting to build some technology tools for the community.  The transition movement is an offshoot of the broader permaculture movement, which I recently learned about.

Both seem to be a reinvented version of commune/kibbutz style models from the 60s. The primary difference appears to be a different relationship with technology. Where the 60s radicals railed against the military-industrial complex, the newer variants appear to have a more complicated relationship with technology. The movement includes both off-the-grid log cabin survivalists and those who want to use the Internet to help ride out Peak Oil. Tibi is attempting to bring technological solutions to some of the challenges faced by the transition movement, such as managing local natural resources better.

An early reader shared the opinion that he thought the themes of Tempo might be very relevant to the permaculture movement. I don’t know enough about it to judge, but I am now curious to figure out what this whole thing is, and how it is different (if it is) from older local/green/organic/sustainable living ideologies. I tend to be a sort of kind-hearted skeptic about such things: I am not sure such efforts can scale or have serious impact, but I am willing to be convinced and I usually like the specific lifestyle components they end up advocating. I do sense something of a mismatch between the scale of the problems such movements usually seek to address, and the nature/magnitude of the efforts.

Talking Temporal Illegibility in Montreal

Seb Paquet, a rather unorthodox professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, runs an interesting group in Montreal called Technologies et Savoirs. I did a short talk on why the distinctions between clock time and narrative time can matter in managing the lifecycle of organizations. Very cleverly, I spent more time talking about James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (see my review/summary of the main idea) than about Tempo.

Here’s the video, captured with my iPhone. As Daniel Lemire, another professor at UQ at M, remarked, I was replacing a whole room full of expensive A/V equipment with a $60 microphone for the iPhone. I am beginning to understand why mobile is so disruptive. Anyway, here goes.

Though the recording quality was great, the quality of this video isn’t as good because I had to compress the file using Windows Movie Maker to get it uploaded to YouTube within a reasonable time. And here are the slides (PDF).

It was a cozy little gathering. The other attendees were Mark Frazier of Open World, Martin Lessard and Tiberius Brastaviceanu of the Multitude Project.  A very edge-cultural group in short. After the talk we had an extended, wide-ranging discussion that continued through lunch and beyond. Tired me out a bit, but well worth it.

Why Some Drives are Fun

Still figuring out the art of dashboard cam live video-blogging. Bear with the umms and aahs.

The One Way of the Beginner

This meme keeps turning up so often that I’ve decided to backlog it as something to research more deeply. It’s about the 4 stages of competence due to Maslow. Long-time reader Ilya Lehrman and I discussed this idea, among many others, over lunch at the Riverstone Cafe. Ilya introduced me to the related idea of Shu Ha Ri, which I am embarrassed to admit, I hadn’t heard of before, despite managing agile software development teams for many years (I’ve relied mostly on learning agile development/product management via apprenticeship and haven’t actually read the major classics or taken any training; I have an aversion to that kind of training). The discussion meandered to broader musing about the fundamental idea of learning. One idea in particular, I want to share: beginners wanting only one way to do something.

The four levels of competence are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence (i.e., Duning-Kruger land)
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence (“mastery” if you like that kind of lingo)

As a learner progresses through them, a great deal happens that we could talk about endlessly, but I wanted to note one interesting thing in particular. To use Ilya’s words (I don’t know if he was quoting someone else), “beginners want only one way to do something.”

This leads to an interesting effect when a beginner who has learned only one by-the-book way to do something encounters somebody with enough mastery to do the same thing in a million improvised ways. If no status or expertise indicators are available, in such situations, the beginner will often assume that the master is incompetent because s/he is doing it “wrong.” I suppose this is one specific way the Duning-Kruger effect plays out.

I have no idea whether this view of learning is implicit somewhere in the view I’ve developed in the book, so I am going to think about it. If it isn’t, I am going to incorporate it in the next edition. If you can connect the dots for me, please do so.