The Fine Art of Opportunism

There are four major approaches to decision-making: deliberative, reactive, procedural and opportunistic. The first three are well-understood. Academics study them, business and military leaders practice them, self-improvement gurus teach them and hippies protest them. Ordinary people understand them in common-sense ways. Opportunism though, is both the least-understood and highest-impact approach to decision-making. Here is my immodest 101.

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Visual Thinking with Triangles

We use triangles to visualize certain types of mathematical and non-mathematical relations and concepts. Unlike 2d and 3d visualizations, triangles aren’t mathematically coherent in any intuitive way. So let’s try and figure out the logic of triangular representations of ideas, and why we use triangles so extensively but not other shapes. Here are two common examples:

Triangle Visualizations

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The Deeper Meaning of Kindle

The Kindle ebook reader, the Wacom digitizing tablet, and a variety of scanning digital pens. Add it all up, and you get a possible revolution in one of the oldest technologies of humankind: written language. Only an impact on fire or the wheel could top a serious revolution in reading and writing. This is not a product blog, and for a technophile (but not gadget-phile) engineer, I am surprisingly behind the times. While my wife is all about the iPod, personal DVD players and electric toothbrushes, I am still at two-bladed shaving. But reading and writing (and drawing) get to the core of who I am, and constitute possibly the only sphere of gadgetry where I am willing to be an early adopter. So here are some deeper thoughts on what this potentially perfect storm of technologies might mean for us slaves of the written word.

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Iron Filings on Your Brain

Much of work-life balance, I think, is about trying to match what you need to get done to what your current energy pattern can handle. It is no use trying to control your energy patterns — the day-to-day wins and losses around whatever is absorbing you at the moment will drive that. But you can be smart about fitting other things into even the deepest energy troughs. Right now, for instance, having been through a couple of brutal weeks at work, I simply don’t have the energy to finish any of the complex drafts I am working on. But I do have enough energy to write about a simple idea. It’s a trick I use to squeeze the last drop of mental energy out of even the lowest energy trough. I call it the ‘Iron Filings on Your Brain’ trick. Ponder this picture of magnetic lines of force rendered visible by a sprinking of iron filings (public domain image):

magnetic lines of force

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Work-Life Balance: Juggling, Spinning or Surfing?

I have encountered three metaphors for what most people call the ‘work-life balance’ issue. These are: juggling, keeping multiple plates spinning on sticks, and surfing. Each has its strengths and flaws. All share in common the problems that arise from calling the whole thing a ‘balance’ problem in the first place, but the ‘balance’ point of view has some merits. Here is a straight-faced analysis. I conclude that ‘surfing’ is the best-of-breed within the whole ‘balance’ category or metaphors. Here is why.
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Seth Godin’s Dip and Multi-armed Bandits

Seth Godin, who I first discovered through his bestselling Permission Marketing has made something of a specialty of writing compact and focused books around single clear ideas. His latest, a tiny little book called The Dip, is his most abstract yet, but still fits the mold and develops a single punchy idea. The idea is this: there is a transient dip in the effort-to-returns graph of any project, and deciding what project to quit, and when, in terms of this graph, is a critical skill. It is almost too much of a complex idea for him to handle, but he just makes it. It is interesting to see him arrive at a fresh insight into a problem that has nearly a half-century long history in the context of an academic model of decision making called the multi-armed bandit. His fresh and original take provides some insight the bandit mathematicians never stumbled upon, but at the same time, he seriously underestimates the complexity of the idea, and the difficulty of operationalizing it.

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Meditations on Cataloging the Telluride Library

In the winter of 2001, for a variety of deep and compelling reasons, I found myself faced with the prospect of spending yet another vacation alone in Ann Arbor. Having previously learned everything that being miserable and bored has to teach, I doughtily resolved to explore other dimensions of enforced solitude. So, with an inspiring vision of myself as a latter-day Thoreau in mind, I made myself a plan for living a life of soul-cleansing monastic discipline within the confines of Telluride house for two weeks. [Read more…]

Dan Pink, Howard Gardner and the Da Vinci Mind

Do labels like “broad thinker,” “generalist,” “synthesizer,” “right-brained,” or “conceptualizer” get at aspects of a coherent personality type? Call this mind the “Da Vinci” mind for short. Recently, two rather interesting takes on such minds have appeared: A Whole New Mind (WNM) by Dan Pink and Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. Do you have what these two authors think is the kind of mind that will dominate the future? Are you sure you want such a mind, even if they are right? Let’s get to the answers through some right-brained meandering.

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The Parrot

This piece was written in Ithaca, in 2005, and is as accurate a phenomenological report of an actual mental response to real events as I am capable of. At the time I thought — and still do — that a very careful observation of your own thoughts as you react to sensory input is a very useful thing. Not quite meditation. Call it meditative observation. Stylistically, it is inspired by Camus.

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Breadth-Depth Metaphors and Beyond

We commonly use a set of dynamic spatio-temporal orientation and observation conceptual metaphors to talk about knowledge, its communal organization, and individual styles of knowing. We use depth-versus-breadth to talk about track records and abilities, “long-term” versus “short-term” (and “upstream/downstream”) to talk about intentions and decision-making, and “big-picture” versus “details” to talk about the scopes of discourses. All these will come up for critique and more analysis as I continue developing the themes of this blog. But I want to start off this fresh new week with a question for you to ponder: how do you organize your view of knowledge, and how much faith do you have in your organization?

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