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.

Resilient Like a Fox

Last week, I was at the LIFT Conference in Geneva to speak on “resilience.” I did my 20 minute talk using a very Tempo-esque angle on the subject, using the fox and hedgehog archetypes that I talked about in Chapter 3 of the book. My thinking on using archetypes to analyze complex themes has been slowly getting more sophisticated, and I hope to do a stronger treatment of the idea in a future edition.

I’ve embedded the talk below, and you can also get to it via this link. You may also want to check out some of the other talks. If you’re based in Europe, I highly recommend the LIFT conference. It is unusually well designed and choreographed.

I’ll be developing this fox/hedgehog theme further in my upcoming talk at ALM Chicago in March.

Data is Eating Clocks

It struck me recently that Marc Andreessen’s now-famous observation, that software is eating everything, has a special case that is particularly interesting for students of the history of the industrial revolution.

Data is eating clocks.

Fifteen years ago, I used to wear a watch.  One day, I lost it and never replaced it. The only time I look at a clock these days is when I have to catch a train or plane. I only think about the date when I have to sign a legal document. Most of the time, the day of the week matters more.

The clock was both a motif for the industrial revolution and a critical piece of technology driving it. Every small town in Europe gradually acquired a village clock tower. In the US, time zones emerged alongside transcontinental railroad clocks.

One reason precise time-keeping was so important in the industrial age is that when data is scarce, synchronization becomes critical to many activities. If you don’t know where your friend is, you have to set a precise  time and place to meet: “let’s meet at Starbucks at 10:30. But if you can text, you can coordinate in much looser ways: “I’ll text you when I am close to downtown and we can figure out where to meet.”

Behavior becomes more responsive to real-time situational details, and more robust to delays. Synchronization, a fragile coordination technique, becomes less necessary.

Interestingly enough, Chet Richards, a close associate of John Boyd, told me that Boyd hated the idea of synchronization, which was antithetical to his conception of maneuver warfare. Synchronization, however, was central to the idea of network-centric warfare, which is often viewed as an opposed doctrine.

I think the human world is increasingly going to become liberated from clocks and calendars. This is the literal manifestation of atemporality. Clocks will remain extremely important to coordination between artificial technologies, however. Cellphones, satellites, data centers: all need very precise clocks to talk to each other properly.

The artificial world is going through its own industrial revolution apparently, going by the increasing importance of clocks to the inner workings of technology.

Roundup of 2012 Tempoblog Posts

Here’s a roundup of the original posts from 2012 on the Tempo blog, not counting reblogs, announcements and such-like. A total of 28 posts. Here’s the 2011 roundup. I am quite surprised I managed this many, but I see that most of them are from the first half of the year. Things got kinda crazy in the second half. I seem to be developing a somewhat different style here on the Tempo blog, different from my main blog at ribbonfarm. I spent a lot of time through the year thinking through some of the core themes of the book in greater depth and identifying interesting patterns of ideas for incorporation into the book.

  1. The Examined Life
  2. Annealing the Tactical Pattern Stack
  3. Demystification versus Understanding
  4. Breakout Moves and Exponential Outcomes
  5. Positioning Moves versus Melee Moves
  6. Stress Failures versus Decay Failures
  7. Not Important, Not Urgent
  8. Fertile Variables and Rich Moves
  9. Analysis-Paralysis and The Sensemaking Trap
  10. Appreciative versus Manipulative Mental Models
  11. Time Lensing
  12. Forged Groups
  13. The Daily Ugly
  14. How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov
  15. Creative Desks versus Administration Desks
  16. The 6-Hour Maker-Manager Work Day
  17. Hacking Grand Narratives
  18. Trigger Narratives and the Nuclear Option
  19. The Tempo of Code
  20. The Fundamentals of Calendar Hacking
  21. Routine, but Cannot be Automated
  22. The Second Most Important Archetype in your Life
  23. Live Life, Not Projects
  24. Motifs, Mascots and Muses at Refactor Camp, 2012
  25. The Tempo Glossary
  26. Does Culture Eat Strategy for Lunch?
  27. Steer, Ready, Fire
  28. Squeakastination: The Opposite of Procrastination

Should You Count Near-Misses as Successes or Failures?

Wired has an excellent article on research on near-misses:

It is the paradox of the close call. Probability wise, near misses aren’t successes. They are indicators of near failure. And if the flaw is systemic, it requires only a small twist of fate for the next incident to result in disaster. Rather than celebrating then ignoring close calls, we should be learning from them and doing our very best to prevent their recurrence. But we often don’t.

“People don’t learn from a near miss, they just say, ‘It worked, so let’s do it again,’” Dillon-Merrill says. Other studies have shown that the more often someone gets away with risky behavior, the more likely they are to repeat it; there is a sort of invincibility complex. “For ego protection reasons, we like to assume that past events are a product of what we controlled rather than chance,” Tinsley adds.

This reminds me of similar research mentioned in Tom Vanderbilt’s Trafficon driving accidents and a device that teaches young drivers using near-misses, which are far more common than the drivers realize others.

HT: Jordan Peacock

Jason Ho on Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Jason Ho has a very practical, yet philosophical post up on his blog, on themes very relevant for students of decision-making. Well worth a careful read (the whole blog, not just this post). There’s more between the lines than just the personal examples he describes.

Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Every once in a while, when a hobby like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu captures my fascination, it takes me by surprise. Since I’m usually interested in more things than I have time for, I tend to be very selective of the hobbies I take up. When I find myself falling in love, I take a cautious step back and start asking questions.

Why have hobbies like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, programming, and bodybuilding captured my fascination, when others have lost their appeal? What do they have in common, if anything? Why BJJ but not Muay Thai? Why computer science but not engineering?

In a world full of options and not enough time, often the hardest decisions are not what to do, but what not to do.

It occurred to me that my love-at-first-sight attraction to BJJ was more than just serendipity. BJJ, and its underlying principles, are a perfect representation of the kind of philosophy I’ve internalized. If I could compress all its wisdom into one motto, it’d be this: Spend your time and effort on where it will make the most impact.

He cites an old post on this blog that I’d forgotten about and just re-read. I didn’t really understand what the heck I was thinking back then. This often happens to me these days. I must be headed downhill.

The Examined Life

A useful idea for people interested in narrative-driven decision making is the Socrates quote: the unexamined life is not worth living.

Fair enough, but how do you actually apply this insight? Clearly you need an element of living to provide fodder for the examining. You cannot be born and raised in a dark sensory-deprivation chamber and do any useful examining (in fact, horrendous medieval experiments along these lines generally destroyed the unfortunate victims).

How do you balance examining versus living?

Here’s a quick primer. It’s more subtle than you might think.

[Read more…]

Annealing the Tactical Pattern Stack

Human behaviors are complicated things. They are easy to describe, as fragments of narratives, but hard to unpack in useful and fundamental ways. In Tempo, I offered a model of behavior where universal tactics (universal in the sense of arising from universally shared conceptual metaphors, and being enacted in domain-specific ways) form a basic vocabulary, and are enacted through basic decision patterns, which are like basic sentence structures in language.

I suggested that there are four basic kinds of tactical pattern: reactive, deliberative, procedural and opportunistic, that could be conceptualized via this 2×2, where the x-axis represents the locus of the information driving the action (inside/outside your head) and the y-axis represents whether the information has high or low visibility (i.e. whether it is explicit and in awareness, or whether it is part of the frame/background, and below awareness).

 While writing the book, I tried to figure out whether these behaviors also form a natural hierarchy of sorts. I was unable to make up my mind, so I did not include the idea in the book. Now I think I have a good model. The stack looks like this (the simplicity is deceptive):


Why? And how should you understand this diagram?

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Demystification versus Understanding

I am getting really interested in distinctions between types of knowledge these days. I think these distinctions are very important to the invisible structure of mental models.

One distinction whose importance I have come to increasingly appreciate, is the one between demystification and understanding. Both are types of appreciative knowledge. I define them as follows:

  • To demystify something is to understand it to a level where you no longer feel anxious about your ignorance.
  • To understand something is to have the same priorities as experts regarding that something.

The latter is in fact an implicit chicken-egg definition of expertise.

There is a shallow sense in which I can come across as very “knowledgeable.” Very few important things utterly mystify me that do not also mystify everybody else. When I encounter a new idea, I usually have some way to parse it. I am rarely at a loss over what to make of it. But this knowledge is only slightly deeper than the knowledge of a librarian who knows how to classify a book on any subject in a catalog.

So what is real understanding? Why is having the same priorities as experts a good test?

[Read more…]

Breakout Moves and Exponential Outcomes

Humans differ in abilities by at most an order of magnitude along dimensions that can be meaningfully measured, such as speed or height. When humans compete on the basis of such “Olympics” variables, you tend to get a linear relationship between effort and outcome. If you can run twice as fast as me, you will cover twice as much distance over any given period of time.

It takes civilized tools and social constructs to create greater differences. Written language and mathematics are civilized conceptual tools. Guns and computers are civilized physical tools (because it takes civilizations to manufacture them).  Money is a social construct.

A race that depends strongly on tools, and with outcomes measured in terms of social constructs, can lead to exponential relationships between efforts and outcomes (due to compound-interest style accumulation dynamics), as well as orders of magnitude differences in relative outcomes.  How does this work?

[Read more…]

Literary Darwinism

Spotted this interesting piece on the evolutionary origins of literature, and its potential purposes via John Hagel.  Here’s a brief extract:

The real mystery is not just the evolutionary origins of literature, but movements and attitudes such as modernism that insist on transcending the traditional plot lines that Booker diagnoses. If Booker is right and all stories fall into seven basic templates, then writers who strive for complete originality might be out of luck. The human mind, it appears, has its limits on literature. This is supported by several cross-cultural studies clearly demonstrating that all humans gravitate towards similar literary theme. As Hume said, “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousands years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.”

Of course, the fact that humans share certain literary hot buttons didn’t stop Joyce from throwing out plots altogether in Finnegan’s Wake. Nor did Virginia Woolf hesitate when crafting the free-flowing Mrs. Dalloway. For various reasons, writers in the 20th century were motivated to create stories that don’t appeal to the senses. Pinker explains that a “compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.” Why, then, were so many authors in the 20th century obsessed with disjointed narration, bewildering characters and exhausting prose? And why did they (and do they) look down on the mainstream?

The piece is agnostic about the Big Question here: whether narrative-making/reading is merely some sort of pleasure-seeking behavior pattern or whether it  serves a utilitarian purpose in decision-making.

Obviously, I am personally inclined to the latter view. The big mistake anti-narrative types make is in inferring from the existence of a handful of dominant narrative patterns that they cannot process information. In this post for example, the author notes that Jaws is like Beowulf and both are examples of the “defeat the monster” pattern in Booker’s taxonomy of 7 basic narrative patterns.  Booker’s is one of many taxonomies and there are others with dozens to hundreds of “types.” But this does not mean each instance of a story is identical in the role it plays in cognition.

I haven’t made up my own mind about how narratives process information, but my basic theory is that they are patterns that help us organize our understanding of boundary conditions, which obviously differ from context to context. In Beowulf, one boundary of human civilization is an unknown ocean with a dangerous monster. In Jaws, it is a known ocean, with a known beast. But in each case, we understand something about the boundary conditions within which human lives play out. This is one reason why narratives so often involve extreme or improbable or corner-case scenarios: they are not about characterizing normal, but about characterizing the limits of normal.

Read the whole post here: The Literary Darwinists: The Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling