Here we are again. Or so it seems. It’s true that the planet is pretty much back where it spun a year ago relative to the sun (though the planet itself is a lot sicker). This relative position also affects our seasons so it’s natural that we take some stock-taking, review, and do some planning. There’s nothing wrong with following some of the paths set down by your culture, so long as you’ve taken the time to check in with the larger picture and asked yourself whether those are paths you really want to follow; are they paths that feed the good wolf in you or the bad wolf? Most paths don’t really do much one way or the other, but some paths do. Paths? You know who you are. So, a review and a plan are fine. See below.
But while we are more or less in the same position relative to the sun, our whole solar system is moving around the center of the Milky Way at 140 miles/second (and there are other giant moves beyond that). So, in that sense we are about 4.5 billion miles from where we were last year. Four and a half billion is a good number. That’s also our best estimate of how long life has been evolving on earth. Every individual of every species of life on earth is a cousin or yours and mine. Around 50 to 100 thousand years ago, our ancestors began wandering off in different directions. As explained in this Myth of the Veritas, the fact that humanity proved adaptive, resilient, and successful enough to inhabit regions hot and cold, dry and wet, sunny and cloudy, on islands and mountains and forests and plains — this success, this massive success of our ancestors at populating the earth — this is what our species accomplished! Naturally, enough, as people lived in different physical situations, they evolved slightly different physical characteristics and slightly different cultures. It’s kind of a cosmic joke that we often treat these minor differences as an excuse to “hate on” — instead of sharing congratulatory high-fives all around (and all the other variants of celebration of mutual success) that we’ve survived in all these amazing circumstances. That’s what we should be doing! You survive in igloos! Wow! How amazing! You survive in the desert! Wow! How amazing! You survive in rain forests! Say more! You live at 12,000 feet! That’s so cool!
Honestly, it’s hard for me to believe we are so stuck on that misunderstanding that we cannot yet go on to the next step of collectively determining how we are going to keep from destroying the ecosystem that we all depend on for life itself, both human and non-human. I’m still hopeful that greed and power on the part of the few will not overcome the will to live that our species has. That will to live must exert itself though. And I think it shall.
In the first half of 2018, I blogged about “best practices” in collaboration and cooperation. I put these in the form of a “Pattern Language” inspired by Christopher Alexander. I wanted to do what I could to improve cooperation and collaboration. That seems critical if we are going to continue to survive and thrive.
Here is a link to an introduction to the enterprise.
Here is a link to an index of all the “Patterns” in the “Pattern Language.”
Starting July 7th, I began recounting some experiences that occurred early in my career as an “expert in human-computer interaction.” These experiences are meant to be springboards to discussions about more general issues. While everyone’s life experiences are very different — they are also very similar! Despite working in different decades in different industries and in different companies within those industries and working in different countries, it is surprising how the same themes seem to come up; e.g., speaking truth to power; the power of allies. Here’s a link to one of the first stories.
At the end of July, I began publishing the myths of the Veritas. I began with their “creation myth” which recounts how being able to mimic the sounds of animals may have helped language evolve. I also wrote “The Orange Man” – a myth meant to show that being untruthful and greedy may have large-scale and tragic consequences for a whole tribe. Eventually, these stories morphed into a life and death struggle between two tribes: The Veritas (who value truth, cooperation, and love) and The Cupiditas (who value power, greed, & cruelty). This longer narrative begins as the shaman/leader of the Veritas seeks an eventual successor. So, she devises a series of increasingly difficult trials that mainly test empathy. There are twelve candidates for the next leader to start with and each trial narrows down the field. Watch for anagrams in these stories.
In December, I took another direction. The wars between the Veritas and the Cupiditas were over, at least for now. Soon, there may be further translations of these myths available. Meanwhile, I began writing a series of essays on “tools of thought.” I suppose most readers will already be familiar with all of them. Nonetheless, I think it’s worthwhile to have a compilation of tools. After all — plumbers, carpenters, programmers, piano tuners, sales people — they all have tool kits. There are three advantages to having them together in some one place.
Without a toolkit you may be prone to try to use the tool that just so happens to be nearest to hand at the time you encounter the problem. You need to tighten a screw and you happen to have a penny in your pocket. You don’t feel like walking all the way down into the garage to get your toolkit. A penny will do. I get it. But for more serious work, you are going to want to have the whole toolkit there.
First, the toolkit serves as a reminder of all the tools at your disposal. Second, you may only be familiar with one or two ways to use a tool. I may have thought of ways to use a tool that are different from the way you use it. And you have undoubtedly also know useful things about these tools of thought that I have never thought of. We can learn from each other. Third, having all the tools together may stimulate people to invent new ones or see a way to use two or more in sequence and begin to think about the handoff between two tools.
Here’s an index into the toolkit so far.
Many Paths (December 5, 2018). The temptation is great to jump to a conclusion, snap up the first shiny object that looks like bait and charge ahead! After all, “he who hesitates is lost!” But there is also, “look before you leap.” What works best for me in many circumstances is to think of many possible paths before deciding on one. This is a cousin to the Pattern: Iroquois Rule of Six. This heuristic is a little broader and is sometimes called “Alternatives Thinking.”
And then what? (Dec. 6, 2018). This is sometimes called “Consequential Thinking.” The idea is simple: think not just about how you’ll feel and how a decision will affect you this moment but what will happen next. How will others react? It’s pretty easy to break laws if you set your mind to it. But what are the likely consequences?
Positive Feedback Loops (December 7, 2018). Also known as a virtuous or vicious circle. If you drink too much of a depressant drug (e.g., alcohol or opioids), that can cause increased nervousness and anxiety which leads you to want more of the drug. Unfortunately, it also makes your body more tolerant of the drug so you need more to feel the same relief. So, you take more but this makes you even more irritable when it wears off.
Meta-Cognition. (December 8, 2018). This is basically thinking about thinking. For example, if you are especially good at math, then you tend to do well in math! Over time, if your meta-cognition is accurate, you will know that you are good in math and you can use that information about your own cognition to make decisions about the education you choose, your job, your methods of representing and solving problems and so on.
Theory of Mind (December 9, 2018). Theory of Mind tasks require us to imagine the state of another mind. It is slightly different from empathy, but a close cousin. Good mystery writers – and good generals – may be particularly skilled at knowing what someone else knows, infers, thinks, feels and therefore, how they are likely to act.
Regression to the Mean (December 10, 2018). This refers to a statistical artifact that you sometimes need to watch out for. If you choose to work with the “best” or “worst” or “strongest” or “weakest” and then measure them again later, their extreme scores will be less extreme. The tool is to make sure that you don’t make untoward inferences from that change in the results of the measurement.
Representation (December 11, 2018): The way we represent a problem can make a huge difference in how easy it is to solve it. Of course, we all know this, and yet, it is easy to fall into the potential trap of always using the same representations for the same types of problems. Sometimes, another representation can lead you to completely different – and better – solutions.
Metaphor I (December 12, 2018): Do we make a conscious choice about the metaphors we use? How can metaphors influence behavior?
Metaphor II (December 13, 2018): Two worked examples: Disease is an Enemy and Politics is War.
Imagination (December 14, 2018): All children show imagination. Many adults mainly see it as a tool for increasing their misery; viz., by only imagining the worst. Instead of a tool to help them explore, it becomes a “tool” to keep themselves from exploring by making everything outside the habitual path look scary.
Fraught Framing (December 16, 2018): Often, how we frame a problem is the most crucial step in solving it. In this essay, several cases are examined in which people presume a zero-sum game when it certainly need not be.
Fraught Framing II (December 17, 2018). A continuation of thinking about framing. This essay focuses on how easy it sometimes is to confuse the current state of something with its unalterable essence or nature.
Negative Space (December 17, 2018). Negative space is the space between. Often we separate a situation into foreground and background, or into objects and field, or into assumptions and solution space. What if we reverse these designations?
Problem Finding (December 18, 2018). Most often in our education, we are handed problems and told to solve them. In real life, success is as much about being able to find problems or see problems in order to realize that there is even something to fix.
Non-Linearity. (December 20, 2018). We often think that things are linear when they may not be. In some cases, they can be severely non-linear. Increasing the force on a joint may actually make it stronger. But if increased force is added too quickly, rather than strengthening the joint even further, it can destroy it. The same is true of a system like American democracy.
Resonance. (December 20, 2018). If you add your effort to something at the right time, you are able to multiply the impact of your effort. This is true in sports, in music, and in social change.
Symmetry (December 23, 2018). There are many kinds of symmetry and symmetry is found in many places; it is rampant in nature, but humans in all different cultures also use symmetry. It exists at macro scales and micro scales. It exists in physical reality and in social relationships.
2019: Happy New Year!
I plan to continue for a time with “Tools of Thought.” In the next few weeks, I will concentrate on stories and storytelling as tools of thought and tools that are useful in design as well as elsewhere in solving problems, making decisions, and change management.