Startups, Secrets, and Abductive Reasoning

Guest post by Joseph Kelly.

But we must conquer the truth by guessing, or not at all.  CS Peirce

An early episode at at my last company demonstrated one of the paradoxes of startup product development.  At this time our product was still early and undefined.  I had spoken with a potential client about their goals for a project and was trying to create a sales proposal with the engineering team.

Pretty quickly I grew frustrated.  When I’d ask the engineers what we could do for a particular feature, every answer was “well, how does the client want it?”  I wanted to present the client something concrete, but being capable engineers, my team believed they could build anything.

This went on for several minutes before I broke the cycle and said: “If you’re a contractor and the client asks you to build them a gazebo, you don’t ask them everything from what roof pitch angle they want to what kind of screws to use.  You pitch one gazebo design, or a few, then you work together to reach a final version.”  That clicked instantly and we were able to move forward.  My anecdote forced us to adopt a lesser-known mode of reasoning that I’ll explore in this essay, called abduction, which is critical to developing your product strategy.

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The Systems of the World

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Martial artist and folk hero Bruce Lee founded the martial art known as jeet kune do, “the style of no style.” Lee said of his style, “True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems…I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns and doctrines.”

Compare my friend David Chapman on the post-systematic system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.” The systems and patterns that can oppress us are also extremely useful. Growing beyond them does not mean throwing them out. Chapman describes skillful use of systems as piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.

Bruce Lee begins his article with reference to a Zen koan:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too. …” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

A naive reader might expect that Lee would only accept novice students, already-empty cups, free from the shackles of systems. But in fact he generally selected experts in some style of martial arts as his students. This is not a contradiction. Both Lee and the subject of the koan were speaking to those who already have a full cup.

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Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer—how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means—are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.

It’s been noted that the best writers know the rules of writing well enough to break them in creative ways. The rules in this way are more than rules. In the beginning, they are crutches. Later, they become guides and useful defaults. Eventually, they become springboards. They crystallize the moments where a writer has to decide what she believes, who she isn’t, and by process of elimination, who she is.v7.001

This is the same role, I believe, that “tips and habits” play in productivity: rules that are designed to be broken in a journey of self-discovery. They resist a little bit, asking “Are you sure you want to choose your own adventure?” Which is helpful, because many times you shouldn’t. This changing role makes it irrelevant whether a piece of productivity advice is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is how fruitful of a domain it circumscribes, and thus whether it’s worth the effort to redesign it. It’s not important whether you “believe in it” or not, but whether you can articulate how it fits (or doesn’t) within your personal system of truths.

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Goodhart’s Law and Why Measurement is Hard

The other day, I was failing to teach my 3-year-old son about measurement. He wanted to figure out if something would fit in an envelope, and I was “helping” by showing him how to measure the width of the envelope, then comparing it to the width of the paper he was trying to insert. It turns out that this is a trickier concept than I had assumed; the ability to understand even simple measurements requires a fair amount of cognitive maturity. 3-year-old kids can compare directly, but the concept of using a measure to compare indirectly is more difficult. I finally let him try to fit the paper in the envelope to see it wouldn’t fit.

As with many other cognitive skills, the fact that it’s a counter-intuitive learned skill for children means that adults don’t do it intuitively either. So why are measures used? There are lots of good reasons, and I think a useful heuristic for understanding where to use them is to look for the triad of intuition, trust, and complexity.

Measuring a Network

Measurement replaces intuition, which is often fallible. It replaces trust, which is often misplaced. It finesses complexity, which is frequently irreducible. So faulty intuition, untrusted partners, and complex systems can be understood via intuitive, trustworthy, simple metrics. If this seems reductive, it’s worth noting how successful the strategy has been, historically. Wherever and whenever metrics proliferated, overall, the world seems to have improved.

Despite these benefits, measuring obscures, disrupts, and distorts systems. I want to talk about the limitations of metrics before expanding on some problems that are created when they are used carelessly, and then show why the problem with metrics — and algorithms that rely on them — isn’t something that can be avoided.
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The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”

The-Holy-Grail-of-Online-Engagement

In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

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The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.

ContendingEmotions

Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

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Productivity for Precious Snowflakes

We’ve been told for years now that what our parents and kindergarten teachers told us is not, in fact, true — we are not each and every one of us special unique snowflakes destined for greatness. In this essay I want to offer a new theory of productivity for those of us who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still believe there is something valuable about our particular point of view. I will argue that the fundamental driver of creative work today is not values, goals, or processes, but unique states of mind.

Two identical snowflakes, via the NYT

Let’s start by taking this idea to unreasonable extremes: hyper-advanced aliens and digital souls.

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The Awe Delusion

Art is a technology. If you did a Casablanca / Law & Order double feature you might notice that although Casablanca perhaps has more ‘artistic value’ (that horribly vague phrase), Law & Order tells its stories with a mind-boggling efficiency that vastly outstrips the former. Some time after 1960 filmmakers learned how to tell more story with less. They learned how to convey more information in less time and without losing depth. If this kind of compression is one example of artistic technology, in other words, we’ve gotten so much better at it that even the workingman filmmakers that produce network television can do it. It’s artistic electricity. Literacy.

According to this model, you could call some artistic movements technological inventions. Or even technological revolutions. Painting realistically, non-linear narrative, or syncopation are all examples of things that had to be invented. And these practical inventions reflect more systemic, abstract inventions that could better be described as ‘ways of thinking.’ The invention of realism, for example, changed the scope of things art could (or should) be about from what was moral or pleasurable to what was truthful.  Modernism, in turn, suggested that what was truthful could be approached by methods other than object-level realism. And so on, and so forth.

My interest in art as a subject is not because of philosophical fascination on its own merits. My interest is fundamentally practical: I want more art that is good. I write about art because of the sneaking suspicion that on some level ‘artistic value’ is a technology too. That ‘good’ is a technology. That it’s something that can be in some way broken down or optimized. That it’s something people can be literate in.  

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Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.

2x2b.001

This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

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Why Nerds Have Bad Taste

This is a continuation of my Better Art Vocabulary series. You don’t need to have read the others, but feel free.

I grew up encouraged to an old-school sense of taste. Not as old-school as opera and $300 bottles of wine, but as old-school as liking literature and paintings and museums for no real reason other than that I was supposed to, and thinking that other stuff was kind of…unclean. I have two peculiarly strong memories from when I was young: one was my mother saving up to take me to a DaVinci show in New York, and the other was being caught watching Pokemon–which struck about the same fear in my heart as being caught masturbating might have done. Taking me to that show was a truly beautiful thing to do, and an important youthful artistic experience, but it caused some internal conflict. Why did certain artistic things deserve sacrifice, and others shame? 

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