Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

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When is a Year not a Year?

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales at once, you can do the translation by using time scales. I made up this handy guide to thinking on single time scales versus multiple time-scales:

First, clock time is lost when you get more abstract in time, so you get this kind of outcome for clock-time thinking.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare for a week at a time, you get 182 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a month at a time, you get 91 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a year at a time, you get 45 days in a year

On the other hand, narrative time gains with such temporal abstraction, so long as you layer on the time scales bottom up instead of switching.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare fora day and a week at a time, you get 730 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month at a time, you get 1460 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month and a year at a time, you get 2920 days in a year

This is just an approximation of course, and you can abstract much more smoothly, without arbitrary calendar boundaries. You can add in intermediate layers and get similar doubling effects.

I am not kidding or exaggerating. I really do think there’s almost a Moore’s Law like exponential potential in how much narrative time you can unpack out of a given unit of clock-time. It’s like the fractal length of Norway’s boundary gets bigger and bigger as your ruler gets smaller and smaller.

Notice, I said prepare not plan. Planning at any time scale is more often harmful than helpful: planning activity subtracts in a zero-sum way from clock-time. Preparation adds in a non-zero-sum way to narrative time. The specifics of what preparation entails differ from person to person and context to context, but they all involve being more mindful of multiple time-scales at once.

What I called narrative time in Tempo is really what one might call mindfulness time. While clock time is something you look up on a clock, mindfulness time is something you develop like a muscle. For most people, the dynamic range of the muscle goes from a day to a year in clock time. Attempts to expand the range beyond a year tend to fail. Attempts to expand the range downwards into hours and minutes tends to work better, down to perhaps 25 minutes (the Pomodoro technique), but below that, it takes serious effort.

So if you find yourself running out of clock-time, don’t add more clock-time. Deepen the narrative time somehow.

 

Effort Shock and Reward Shock

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in recent times is the idea of effort shock. It’s in a great post by David Wong of Cracked, How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World.  

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.

Effort shock captures the nature of what I called the The Valley in Tempo, which roughly corresponds to the montage phase of many movies built around the character learning somethingThe insight Wong adds to the party is the tendency to actually think of the phase as a five-minute montage set to music, instead of the long, arduous phase with no music. Due to this tendency, we vastly underestimate the effort involved even in modest projects, to the point that when we actually understand what’s involved, we wonder whether the reward is worth it at all.

The good news is what I’ve started calling reward shock. In some (not all) domains, it is more than enough to offset effort shock.

When you overcome effort shock for a non-trivial learning project and get through it anyway, despite  doubts about whether it is worth it, you can end up with very unexpected rewards that go far beyond what you initially thought you were earning. This is because so few people get through effort shock to somewhere worthwhile that when you do it, you end up in sparsely populated territory where further gains through continued application from the earned skill can be very high.

Programming, writing and math are among the skills where there you get both significant effort shock and significant reward shock.

Language and Strategy

This fascinating article (HT: Mark Maxham) explores a Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard and crew meet a species that communicates entirely through metaphor and narrative. The article draws a smart (and in my opinion, correct) lesson from the episode:

“Strategy” is perhaps the best metaphor of all for the Tamarian phenomenon the Federation misnames metaphor. A strategy is a plan of action, an approach or even, at the most abstract, a logic. Such a name reveals what’s lacking in both metaphor and allegory alike as accounts for Tamarian culture. To be truly allegorical, Tamarian speech would have to represent something other than what it says. But for the Children of Tama, there is nothing left over in each speech act. The logic of Darmok or Shaka or Uzani is not depicted as image, but invoked or instantiated as logic in specific situations. In some cases, apparently, this invocation takes place with limited transformation, such as in the application of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra depicted in the episode’s main plotline. In other cases, those logics are used in situations with more play, as when Dathon reassures Picard after the former’s injury, “Kiazi’s children. Their faces wet.” 

Incidentally, such languages might not be as alien as they sound to English speakers. It seems like Chinese might actually have some of the characteristics of Tamarian, especially in written form.

Running Lean, Running Fat

The term lean has become way too overloaded with complex management ideologies and procedural scaffolding. This is one reason I have come to dislike it. Leanness is a variable in a process optimization model, not an ideology. Cutting the fat is not an unqualified good idea and can actually be dangerous. Lean as ideology often turns into anorexia.

But the core idea is a useful one. In any work process, leanness is simply the amount of work in various stages of completion between input and output. Stuff near the input is raw material inventory, stuff near the middle is parts inventory, and stuff near the output is completed inventory. The sum is Work-In-Progress (WIP), loosely speaking.

I suspect lean became an ideology because of the obesity of 1970s industrial processes in America. Now we’ve come to the other end of the pendulum swing. Anorexia is widespread.

How do you manage leanness without ideology?

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When Finishing is Easier than Starting

When you are young, beginning new projects is easy and finishing them is hard. As you grow older, beginnings get harder, but finishing gets easier. At least, that has been my experience. I think it is true of anyone of at least average intelligence, creativity and emotional resilience. The reason is simple.

When you are young, the possibilities ahead of you, and the time available to explore them, seem nearly infinite. When you try to start something, the energizing creative phase, (which comes with internal brain-chemistry rewards on a fast feedback-loop), gives way to exhausting detail-oriented work, maintenance work, and unsatisfying overhead work. You need to get through these to bank distant external rewards (money and such) that only come with completion. It is then that you are most vulnerable to the allure of exciting new beginnings. So you abandon things halfway. You bank the internal rewards of beginning, but not the external rewards of finishing.

But with age, this changes.

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New Year’s Resolutions as Self-Directed Camp

I’ve written a couple of whimsical posts about resolutions in the past, but I can’t bring myself to write about them seriously. Resolutions are not serious. Not anymore. I vaguely recall reading old novels whose characters took them seriously, but in our time, New Year’s resolutions are widely regarded as a joke. Very few expect to actually accomplish them.

I think Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “failed seriousness” applies to New Year’s resolutions. They are a ritual we repeat as a kind of entertainment we manufacture for ourselves.

But while camp of the normal sort involves laughing at others, resolution-camp involves laughing at ourselves. There is a part of us that secretly hopes we will be able to miraculously figure out how to achieve our resolutions this year. The camp arises out of another part of ourselves laughing at the serious, but naive and wishful, part.

Which is why we actually follow through on resolutions by taking first steps in many cases. The cliched example is signing up for a gym membership, going once in January, and then failing to keep it up.

It’s an expensive way to get your campy entertainment. It’s probably smarter to just indulge in a marathon viewing of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies

The Three Clocks of Trial and Error

I am not very good at troubleshooting. I get impatient and end up either giving up or breaking something by trying to force a solution too quickly (for example, in assembling a piece of Ikea furniture where the parts don’t seem to match the drawings).

But I’ve been getting better slowly over the years.

The key to effect trial and error processes is to switch from your regular sense of time to a sense of time governed by three clocks. If you do this right, the process should feel like time standing still for the most part, as in the movie Groundhog Day, where the character of Phil is stuck in the same day until he gets everything exactly right and wins the girl, via a trial and error process that takes months in experienced time.

In normal situations, one or two clocks will do.

  • When you’re doing something you already know how to do, and doesn’t evoke strong emotions, one clock — the physical clock — will do. Up to a point, you can speed up and slow down, pay more or less attention, depending on the urgency.
  • When you are dealing with churning emotions, you need two clocks: the physical clock and the emotional one (which runs faster when you are experiencing positive emotions, and slower when you are experiencing negative emotions).

But in trial-and-error you need three clocks.

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Coincidences and Correlations

Most people have heard the admonition, “correlation is not causation.” Few have heard the related admonition, “coincidence is not correlation.”

In common usage, a coincidence is about pairs of rare events that have a background relationship within a model. Like thinking about a friend you haven’t thought about for ten years, and then running into him the next day. But here, I mean a more banal technical sense of “coincidence” — juxtaposition. Co-incidence, as in “occurring together”

So if you and I are at a coffee shop at the same time, our mutual presence is a “co-incidence” whether we are long-lost friends or strangers who ignore each other.

But why are these two admonitions necessary at all? Why would we assume relatedness among unrelated things, or see causal relationships where there are only correlations? They are necessary because decisions enacted in the real world as opposed to inside your head, share physical time and space with other enactments in progress: situations.

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Lagrangian and Eulerian Decision-Making

This metaphor is not for everybody, but if it works for you, it will probably be very useful.

Writing Tempo has sparked a lot of  fascinating conversations for me. People either seem to immediately get the decision-making model, or find it completely counter-intuitive and bizarre. Some tell me, “this is exactly how I think, thank you for describing the process clearly.” Others tell me, “nobody could possibly think this way, this is ridiculous.”

In reflecting upon the bimodal responses, it struck me that they were coming from two very different kinds of people. The ones who find the model natural are (predictably) somewhat like me: they do most of their thinking inside their heads with models. The ones who find it unnatural seem to do most of their thinking outside their heads by “watching machines work” as it were. What Myers-Briggs types refer to as the Ti vs. Te distinction (ask your friendly neighborhood Jungian to explain this to you). In terms of concepts in the book, this is the difference between narrative thinkers and situated thinkers.

Narrative thinkers tend to process by following a flow of causation, by keeping an evolving model of it going in their heads. Situationist thinkers focus on the logic of the events flowing through a particular static block of space and time: the one they happen to inhabit at the moment. It’s like following a case as it winds its way through the police investigation, different courts, judges and jurys, versus sitting in a courtroom all day and watching slices of different cases each evolve through a chapter locally.

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