The Creation and Destruction of Habits

Just for fun, I decided to try and weave a tweetstorm-style chain of thoughts through a chunk of my writing over the last few years. As you might expect, it isn’t exactly short, but at 42 tweet-sized chunks, it’s a decent feat of compression. I’ll spare my twitter followers the actual storm though.

1/ There are two kinds of stories: about forming habits, and about preserving them. Superhero movies and Christmas movies.

2/ While you have room to grow in your life, forming habits is much easier than breaking habits. Neither is easy, however.

3/ A habit, once formed, demands use. This is because it exists as a sunk cost. Disuse would imply depreciating value.

4/ A living habit generates returns and grows more complex over time. This is growth. Growing habits occupy more room over time.

5/ A dying habit generates losses and grows  simpler over time. This is decay. Dying habits decay to occupy less room over time.

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Portals and Flags

The point of complex debates is not to prove your side right and the other wrong. Smart people make this mistake most often, and end up losing before they ever get started. The point of complex debate is always seduction: winning-over rather than winning. You do this not through logic or even novel insight, but by demonstrating a more fertile way of thinking. One that promises to throw up an indefinitely extended stream of surprises within an ever-widening scope. 

Such intellectual seduction settles the original issue not by establishing an unassailable position around it, but by turning it into a portal to a hidden universe of thought. You cannot win over everybody, only the adventurous. But winning over an adventurous minority that joins you in passing through a portal, on a journey of discovery is enough. It allows you to eventually overwhelm those who prefer to plant a flag on a conquered hill of browbeaten minds, and sit around by it awarding each other medals of honor. Because adventures tend to yield riches that make whatever was originally being contested seem worthless by comparison.

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The Physics of Stamp Collecting

Ernest Rutherford’s famous line, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting,” has bothered me ever since I first heard it. I’ve used it to make fun of biologists, and I’ve used it as a critical perspective on physics.

Rutherford almost certainly meant it as an insult to non-physicists, but there is a deeper and non-prejudiced philosophical thought underneath the dichotomy. To get there you have to ask: is there such a thing as a physics of stamp collecting?

I’ve discussed the quote once before, in my extended post on foxes and hedgehogs (short version: foxes are stamp collectors, hedgehogs are faux-physicists), but let’s dig a little deeper.

Turns out, the distinction between sustaining and disruptive variants of deliberate practice, which I discussed last week, is a consequence of the distinction between physics and stamp collecting.

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The Legibility Tradeoff

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at

I am fascinated by organizations as a technology for agency transfer — getting people to follow some plan outside of their selves. We’re not yet very good at building such agency transformers; our organizations get gamed, taken over, taken advantage of, treated as externalities, captured by minority interests, ground down to gridlock, etc. But we’ve been getting better at it, finding better ways to influence others than the coercion and threat of violence that we started out with. In this post I want to survey the progress we’ve made, and suggest that there’s still wisdom to be milked from the old saw of “don’t micromanage, delegate.”

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The Cactus and the Weasel

The phrase, strong views, weakly held, has crossed my radar multiple times in the last few months.  I didn’t think much about it when I first heard it, beyond noting that it seemed to be almost a tautological piece of good advice. Thinking some more though, I realized two things: the phrase neatly characterizes the first member of my favorite pair of archetypes, the the hedgehog and the fox, and that I am actually much better described by the inverse statement, which describes foxes: weak views, strongly held. 

If this seems counterintuitive or paradoxical to you, chances are it is because your understanding of the archetypes actually maps to more commonplace degenerate versions, which I call the weasel and cactus respectively.


True foxes and hedgehogs are complex and relatively rare individuals, not everyday dilettantes or curmudgeons. A quick look at the examples in Isaiah Berlin’s study of the archetypes is enough to establish that: his hedgehogs include Plato and Nietzsche, and his foxes include Shakespeare and Goethe. So neither foxes, nor hedgehogs, nor conflicted and torn mashups thereof such as Tolstoy, conform to simple archetypes.

The difference is that while foxes and hedgehogs are both capable of changing their minds in meaningful ways, weasels and cacti are not. They represent different forms of degeneracy, where a rich way of thinking collapses into an impoverished way of thinking. 

I seem to have been dancing around these ideas for about a year now, over the course of three fox/hedgehog talks I did last year, and even a positioning for my consulting practice based on it, but I was missing the clue of the strong views, weakly held phrase.

It took a while to think through, but what I have here is a rough and informal, but relatively complete account of the fox-hedgehog philosophy, that covers most of the things that have been bugging me over the past year. So here goes.

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Technical Debt of the West

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt. This is the finale of his residency.

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

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Morality for Exploded Minds

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

This series of posts has explored a variety of ways in which agency – the ability of something to initiate action – can be rethought, redistributed, and refactored. Agency can be assigned to things that normally don’t have it, or we can undo our everyday sense of personal agency and think of our behavior as the output of a mechanical process. My not-so-hidden agenda is to battle against the everyday notion of the self, the idea that at the core of a person is something simple and unitary. Maybe this isn’t a battle that needs to be fought – perhaps everyone, these days, is perfectly aware that they are a conflicted assemblages of drives, that personae are fictional, that autonomy is an illusion. Isn’t that conventional wisdom by now, and am I not preaching to the already converted? Hasn’t Freud been repackaged for mass consumption for decades now?

Maybe, but it seems to me that our everyday notions about agency are so baked into our culture and into the very grammar of language that the struggle against them must be ongoing. In this final post I want to explore some of the reasons why you might want to dissect your mind, and why society conspires to make that difficult. In the course of this, we’ll explore some of the moral aspects of the unity and disunity of mind. Fundamentally and perhaps obviously, morality is tied at a very basic level to the idea of a person, so that to attack the idea of personhood can seem to be be almost immoral.

I haven’t focused too much on the pragmatics of actually performing this kind of operation – such as psychological methods for refactoring yourself, or the benefits that might be obtained by doing so. A couple of interesting efforts in that line have recently come to my attention – a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems, and an online group trying to encourage each other to develop tulpas, “autonomous consciousness, existing within their creator’s mind…A tulpa is entirely sentient and in control of their opinions, feelings, form and movement. They are willingly created by people via a number of techniques to act as companions, muses, and advisers.” (h/t to Kevin Simler). These efforts are quite interesting, if also somewhat alarming – with this sort of stuff, if you can’t make the leap to considering the products of your imagination literally then it won’t work, but on the other hand if you do, there are very real psychological dangers. When these independent mental entities manifest on their own, we call that schizophrenia, which is no joke.

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Our Diurnal Civilization

As a kid I used to be afraid of the dark. I grew out of it, as most kids do. Now, as an adult, I find it hard to sleep if it isn’t pitch dark. Being a diurnal species with greater vulnerability to nocturnal predators, the association between fear and darkness has some basis in reality. It takes thousands of safe and undisturbed nights to flip that genetic predisposition through conditioning.

As Marshall McLuhan observed, industrial civilization is a highly visual one, based on an extension of sight over other senses. This suggests that any inherent biases in our visual processing are likely to show up in our larger-scale, collective civilizational behaviors. In particular, I am convinced that the metaphor of darkness is how we viscerally process uncertainty of any sort. We turn any lack of conceptual visibility into stories of hidden dangers real and imaginary. We prefer high-visibility conditions, even if they represent greater real dangers.

In other words, our civilizational itself is a diurnal one, partly driven by fears of monsters lurking under beds at night. We have a fear of dark ages.

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So I Shall be Written, So I Shall be Performed

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

I want to take it as a starting point the idea that there is a certain fictional quality to our selves. The elusive nature of the self has been a perennial issue for psychologists and philosophers; there are nihilistic and mystical and mechanistic and pluralistic theories of what we mean when we talk about the self, the thing inside of us that defines who we are. But I find that the most useful theories of the self come from literature and drama, and take as their central point the idea that selves are to some extent roles we make up and perform in the dramatic improvisations of daily life. It’s perhaps a trite observation given its presence in one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines; Goffmann turned it into sociology; for now I just want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about Facebook and the way selves are now in the Internet era.

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The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal

I’ve been thinking a lot about curiosity lately. Specifically, about curiosity in the sense of  the proverb curiosity killed the cat: a potentially self-destructive pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that leads to unnecessary risk-taking. In humans such risk-taking often threatens not just the individual or even family/immediate group, but the whole species. Some people just have to go around figuring out new ways to blow things up, often with the noblest of intentions.

At a selfish gene level, the trait seems complicated, but not  mysterious. The question that really interests me is this: how do our selfish genes fool us into being curious creatures, who sometimes get themselves killed, to teach our gene pools more about the environment? Altruism, a similar potentially self-destructive trait at the individual level, manifests subjectively as love (especially for kin), a sense of belonging to one’s community, and a capacity for attachment to some notion of greater purpose. What might be the analogous subjective experience for curiosity?

Curiosity does not seem to be a fundamental drive, unlike what I am told are the  three basic biological drives (seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy), so it is probably derived. Curiosity requires a certain energy surplus, since its visible signature is a restless dissipation of energy, but it does not seem directly motivated by energy conservation concerns. So is it derived from pleasure-seeking or pain-avoidance or some mix of the two? Does that make a difference?

I think it does, and I think the answer is that curiosity is primarily derived from pleasure seeking, not pain aversion. This has certain observable consequences.

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