Learning is the Opposite of Healing

I was trying to analyze the difference between various ways of learning-by-doing, and came up with a 2×2 that captures an idea that is in hindsight very obvious: learning is the opposite of healing. Learning is an activity with a high failure rate, and therefore high probability of damage and injury. Which means the opposite is an activity that heals. I got to the idea by taking what I consider the three basic kinds of learning (goal-directed or project-based, habit-directed or play-based, and recipe-directed or rote-based, corresponding to the three ethical orientations), classifying them by certainty in means versus certainty of ends, and realizing that you could complete a 2×2 like so.


Moral of the story: always complete a triad into a 2×2. You don’t know what obvious-in-hindsight idea you might be missing. By performance in the diagram, I mean an activity that is expected to result in the generation of value in the external world, through some sort of means-ends reasoning. By this definition, ritual that is informed by sincere and literal belief in religious ideas is not actually ritualistic. It belongs in one of the other three quadrants (usually recipe-directed), even though it is based on unproven or false causation models.

This 2×2 suggests that there is or ought to be a distinct ethics associated with ritual-directed behavior, similar to deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics informing the first 3 quadrants. I think it is ironic ethics. To do something in a genuinely ritualistic way is to do it ironically. This is why the anti-performance label works.

The Four Forces for Sociology

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the four fundamental forces in physics ever since I first learned of the idea. I used it as a metaphor for Big History in A Brief History of the Corporation a few years back. Brian Skinner’s meditation on Coulomb interactions and some conversations with my favorite crazy engineer Artem Litvinovich (blog, twitter) have gotten me thinking about the four forces again.

I made up a metaphorical mapping of the four forces to sociology. It’s not pretty, but it’s interesting.

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The Chinese Compressibility Parable

I read the story somewhere as a kid and can’t recall the source now (perhaps one of you can help me). It goes something like this.

There was once a Chinese emperor who wanted to know about everything that had ever happened. This was before Wikipedia, so he instructed his court scholars to go write it all down so he could read it. The scholars toiled for 10 years, and returned with a caravan of 20 camels.

“Here you go,” said the chief scholar. “Twenty camels, twenty beautifully bound volumes per camel. I think we got everything.”

“Are you kidding?” the emperor yelled. “There’s no way I’m going to get through that in one lifetime. Go write me a shorter version. Include only the important stuff that happened.”

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Inbox Zero versus Flow Laminar

The world of stream-metaphor workflows in tools like Slack and Github — with strongly emphasized temporal structure, and the realistic probabilistic expectations of chat replacing the illusory deterministic expectations of email — has made me reconsider how I think about information processing. In particular, I’ve moved from an Inbox Zero mental model to a Flow Laminar mental model, as illustrated in this picture.

Inbox Zero, while a great concept within the limits of email and paper (“Clean Desk policy”), is a fundamentally authoritarian high-modernist concept. It creates a strong, bright line between profane and sacred regimes of information, and encourages you to get to illusory control (a clean inbox) by hiding precisely the illegible chaos that’s tempting and dangerous to ignore (if you use folders, you likely have one or more misc folders even if you don’t call them that). This is dangerous because you’re just moving unprocessed chaos from a procrastination zone with strong temporal cues (the Inbox) to a denial zone with broken temporal cues (the set of de facto misc folders).

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Puzzle Theory

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Let me set the mood by revealing that the starting point for this investigation was the movie Room 237, a “fan theory” documentary about people contemplating Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. A fan theory is an interpretation of an item of art, usually fiction of some kind, that is surprising, bizarre, novel, or disturbing, and puts the item of art in a new perspective. TVTropes calls the phenomenon “fridge brilliance” (that is, theories that you fumble toward after the show is over, when you’re camped in front of the fridge swigging from the milk jug). Movies, television, and books are the usual stuff discussed in the mode of fan theory; the phenomenon also manifests in discussions of the meanings of song lyrics.

In Room 237, theories about The Shining range from the plausible to the bizarre. We are presented with evidence for a subtext of the holocaust, and for a related subtext of the genocide of the American Indians. Individual frames are scrutinized for references to minotaurs and labyrinths. The case is made that Kubrick cunningly alludes to faking the documentary footage of the Apollo moon landings (while the fan theorist explicitly says his theory has no bearing on whether the famed moon landings are factual and happened, he proposes that the iconic Apollo video footage is fake).

One has the sensation of creeping into a labyrinth of enormous size and complexity. The movie is pleasantly chilling, but also profoundly satisfying, hinting at promised gifts, unexplored creation, a frontier. [Read more…]

The Mother of All 2x2s

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I had made up the mother of all 2x2s — taxes vs. play/death vs. life — and that a large fraction of the models I’ve been playing with over the last couple of years, here on this blog, seem to fall neatly into (or are amenable to being forced without too much arbitrariness into) this 2×2. Understandably, there was some skepticism. Well, here we go. I’ve put not one, not two, but thirteen of my models (some of which I haven’t shared before) in 2×2 forms. Not only that, I figured out a personality test of sorts based on these models. For convenience, I made a deck out of the 2x2s rather than making this a blog post with 13 images. If you have trouble viewing the deck below, use this link to view it directly on slideshare.

I am working on refining this, and also developing versions for businesses, cities and nations.

I suspect this will not make much sense to people who haven’t been following along on this thought trail, and will require some work even for those who know where this is all coming together from. At some point, I’ll put together a talk track or an expository essay, but if you’ve read at least some of the posts linked on the first slide, you should get at least a sense of the multi-model. You should be able to usefully try out the personality test even if you don’t quite understand every 2×2, but are able to classify yourself on most of them.

Learning from Crashes

I came up with a neat and compact little definition of a crash as a result of the recent ongoing obsession with the idea we’ve had around here. A crash is an unexpected subjective reaction to an unexpected real-world outcome.

Both parts are important. If you have an unexpected outcome to an activity, but are able to just roll with it without experiencing any mental states you haven’t encountered before, it isn’t a crash. Having a flight canceled isn’t a crash. It’s simply a contingency that you deal with by replanning your travel. Annoying, but hardly a case of unexplored emotional reaction territory.

Equally, having an invisible and private emotional meltdown with no visible external trigger events is not a crash (though it might lead to one).

A crash is something like a failure, but more general and less loaded with negative connotations (think “crash a party”). You can generally predict the kind of emotional reaction in a failure, but not the degree. A crash generalizes this idea: with a crash, both kind and degree of emotional reaction are unexpected. So unlike failures, crashes can be both positive and negative, and are invariably interesting, which to me is a more interesting feature of a situation than its emotional quality.

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Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground

Earlier this year, I turned forty.

I’ll give you a moment to choose between “crap I’ve been listening to an out-of-touch old dude who looks younger than he is” and “crap, I’ve been listening to a ponderously self-important kid whose picture I never bothered to look at.”

Forty is an milestone in the middle of the uncanny valley of life. At forty, you’re supposed to be silently suffering the mistakes of the previous generation and making mistakes for the next generation to suffer. It’s a time of life to be shutting the hell up and doing Real Things in short.

Some of my old college friends are doing that. And making obscene amounts of money, collecting titles and stuff.

Failing that, it’s a time to be raising kids by way of apology for not doing Real Things (implicitly hinting that your kids will do Real Things, which seems to involve teaching them to play the piano for some reason that has never been entirely clear to me).

Many more of my old friends are doing that. Clearly, the next generation will not suffer from a lack of piano players.

Forty is not an ideal age to be blogging. Because it’s not an age anyone is particularly eager to hear from. At twenty-five, you’ve got inspiring dreams and ideals to share. At fifty, you’ve got complete stories to tell and lessons to convey.  At forty, if you’re not overworked and too busy to blog, you’re just a distraction for everybody.

As far as I know, none of my old friends is blogging. One is a journalist, but that’s different.

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Don’t Surround Yourself With Smarter People

There is an idea that I have been guilty of uncritically parroting and promoting in the past: surround yourself with smarter people. Another popular version is never be the smartest guy in the room. 

Beneath the humblebragging  in both versions (your cut-off for smart is a de facto declaration of “look how smart I am; only Einsteins are worthy of surrounding me, and I understand the things they say!”), there is a basic logical issue: If the smarter people are dumb enough to surround themselves with the likes of you, they are dumber than you, which means they’re smart and you’re dumb. Wait. What?

This is not just a cute paradox, it’s a fatal Godel-level error that crashes the whole smarmy idea. The only way to make it work is hypocrisy: adopt at least a double standard (and preferably an n-standard, where is the number of people) for “smart.” You’re street-smarter than me. But I’m book-smarter than you. And our friend over there is potato-smarter than both of us. This is the juvenile stuff of folk tales, caper movies and self-consciously different band-of-misfits superhero coalitions.

Yet, there seems to be a germ of truth to the idea.  My alternative to the heuristic, which many of you have heard in off-blog conversations, is that I am only interested in people as long as they are unpredictable to me. If I can predict what you’ll do or say, I’ll lose interest in you rapidly. If you can keep regularly surprising me in some way, forcing me to actually think in unscripted ways in order to respond, I’ll stay interested. It’s reciprocal. I suspect the people with whom I develop long-term relationships are the ones I surprise regularly. The ones who find me predictable don’t stick around. We’re not talking any old kind of surprise, but non sequiturs. Surprises that you can’t really relate to anything else, and don’t know what to do with. Mind-expanding surprises rather than gap-closing surprises.

Huh?! rather than aha! or ooh!

So smarter isn’t the word here (even though there’s one definition of smart that’s close to “unpredictable”). Neither is different. I can often predict the behavior of smarter and/or different people of both unconventional and conventional types. The trick is to surround yourself with people who are free in ways you’re not. In other words, don’t surround yourself with smarter people. Surround yourself with differently free people.

That’s going to take a bit of work to unpack.

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How to Fall Off the Wagon

Self-help ideas generally belong to one of three schools of thought, whether the originators realize it or not: values-first, goals-first or process-first. Norman Vincent Peale (Power of Positive Thinking1952), Wayne W. Dyer (Erroneous Zones, 1976) and David Allen (GTD, 2002) are the authors of the pioneering mainstream classics of each sub-genre. Those dates are significant: the schools evolved and matured in that order, each building on the last to some extent.

In the process of exploring the question, “what’s the best way to fall off the wagon in each school?” I accidentally created a visualization that turned out to capture a grand-unified-theory of self-improvement. Well, at least a unification of the parts that interest me personally. I knew triangles would eventually be of actual use in my visualization tool-kit.


Note that self-help types have a tendency to use people and values interchangeably. It is a very revealing conflation that I might explore someday, but for the moment assume that they are the same thing: that people can be reduced to their virtues and vices. They similarly conflate habits and processes, which is also a revealing conflation I might explore some day. In a business/organizational context, goals and values are generally called visions and missions, but that’s irrelevant for this post.

The arrows represent destabilizing forces that act on each of the three schools.  The green triangle of arrows, going clockwise, represents a pattern of falling off the wagon that feels natural to reformers (those who work within a prevailing social order) and wrong to disruptors (those who work from outside). The red triangle of arrows, going anticlockwise, represents a pattern of falling off the wagon that feels natural to disruptors and wrong to reformers. Equivalently, disruptors are exit people (leaving a social order is a primary problem-solving technique), reformers are voice people (driving reform within a social order is a primary problem-solving technique). If you’re not familiar with the exit versus voice model, check out the Wikipedia page.

Hidden in the diagram, there is actually a pragmatic right answer to the question in the title: continuously, and in a circular fashion. The only question that remains is this: clockwise or anticlockwise? Reformers fall around clockwise, disruptors fall around anticlockwise.
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