The Great Remembering


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Trunk of Tree had been in a foul mood. Hunger made his belly growl. He had had terrible luck even trying to track a deer. But the sight of two of these two Veritas, well-known to him, and the smell of cooking venison lightened his mood considerably. He said none of that, but instead asked again how they found him.

Cat Eyes explained quickly to Trunk of Tree that they were near her village. She explained that a feast was being prepared right now in honor of the knowledge that had been gained from decoding a substantial part of the great library that had been recently discovered. The Veritas had split up decoding the numerous tomes in the library. It was far too much for any one person although, among all the Veritas, Cat Eyes knew the most of what had been garnered by the people. She had been sharing much of what she learned with Tu-Swift. Now, she explained, a great feast had been arranged and the afternoon was to be spent eating and listening to the lessons that had been gleaned. In the evening, the people planned to reflect on the totality of this information in a great dialogue. 

Cat Eyes explained all this to Trunk of Tree as they took the short hike back to the place where he had emerged from the hidden cleft in the rock wall. Tu-Swift and Cat Eyes marked the place with broken branches and a small rock cairn so they could be sure to find it later.

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Then, the trio strode back to the center place of the Veritas across the Mountain. Cat Eyes and Tu-Swift kept having to stop for Trunk of Tree to catch up. At last, Cat Eyes said, “Trunk of Tree. All you all right? You are limping. You are wounded? What happened? I see a bandage and blood. Were you attacked?” 

Trunk of Tree’s mood darkened again. He did not want to explain how he had wounded himself through his anger and carelessness. “I’m fine. Just a scratch.” He swallowed hard. The truth was that the wound was not healing all that well. He grimaced and tried to keep up with the youngsters so they wouldn’t ask any more about his gash. 

The reappearance of Cat Eyes caused more of a stir than usual when people noticed that Trunk of Tree was with them. When he explained briefly how he had come here, the Veritas from the other side of the mountain furrowed their brows. How could a passage out of their valley exist so near that no-one had discovered? Even Trunk of Tree could perceive the skepticism on their faces. He explained that he had only come across the path by sheer accident born of desperate hunger pangs. Tu-Swift explained to the small group how he had marked the trail and three of them jogged off to see for themselves. 

Soon, Tu-Swift, Cat Eyes, and Trunk of Tree were seated on overturned tree trunks. People kept coming to Cat Eyes with small questions about the upcoming feast. As she answered their questions, she simultaneously pulled up the pant leg of Trunk of Tree, ignoring his protestations that nothing was wrong with him. He was immensely powerful and could have easily kicked her away. Although a part of his mind pictured that, some more fundamental part seemed to know that his leg was more important than his pride so he let her unwrap the bandages. 

When she did so, her nose wrinkled up immediately. She glanced at Tu-Swift who noticed it as well. The wound stunk. Just then a young warrior came up to Cat Eyes meaning to ask her opinion about her role in the upcoming knowledge exchange. Cat Eyes answered curtly and then begged the young warrior to bring her the pouch of blue-green mold that sat in a dark corner of Cat Eye’s cabin. Soon, Cat Eyes was applying the mold to the oozing wound of Trunk of Tree despite his objections.

“I already put yellow dock and plantain on it,” he protested. 

“Yes,” replied Cat Eyes, “and that is good. This is even better. We learned about it from one of the many books in the library. There are many things we learned from those books and you will hear about many of those things tonight. I wish all of the Veritas were here to learn what we have decoded in the last few months.” 

Cat Eyes nodded as she noted that the sickness had not spread much from the original injury. She bound up the wound again. She glanced at Tu-Swift. She slowly shook her head. “It’s amazing how much of a great gift we have now from our library — and all the knowledge put there by our ancestors. And to think…it was there when my mother’s mother’s mother lived … and we had no idea what it was. Until now.”

Now, she turned to look at Trunk of Tree. She smiled. “You will see later today, Trunk of Tree, some of the things we have learned. She tilted her head. “There are things in there about fighting and strategy as well as medicine.” She paused, smiled and went on:  “And, to use your imagination to make yourself happier and solve problems — not simply as a tool for hurting yourself.” 

The eyes of Trunk of Tree widened thus confirming her hypothesis. 

Trunk of Tree reddened. Cat Eyes reached out her hand and gently touched his shoulder. “It’s a tendency all of us have, Trunk of Tree. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed. 

An awkward silence grew between them. She looked at Tu-Swift and back to Trunk of Tree. 

Tu-Swift took a deep breath. “For example, when Cat Eyes came to visit our Center Place, I ran off to see her because…well, because I … because I love her.” Now Tu-Swift reddened as well. “Of course, everyone does. I … especially do. But then, Suze died shortly after and I made myself crazy thinking I had somehow been responsible. I didn’t cause her death. That plague though was brought to us intentionally by the Z-Lotz. They’re the ones I should seek revenge on and not on myself. He looked at the face of Trunk of Tree very carefully, the way he imagined that Many Paths would do if she were here. 

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“I can tell you this, Trunk of Tree. I’ve known Shadow Walker all my life. As have you. And, we know Eagle Eyes as well. They are both good people. They will do … whatever they think is best for the Veritas … and for all the people.” Tu-Swift let this thought sink in through the thick skull of Trunk of Tree. He surprised himself by his next words. “Sometimes, we must be apart from those we love. It’s always difficult. But don’t make it worse by imagining things that you know are not true. I don’t know why, but Eagle Eyes likes you. Surely, you must know that.” 

Cat Eyes nodded solemnly. “That’s right. Shadow Walker & Eagle Eyes — these are people we can all trust. Trust is fundamental. You’ll hear more about that at our feast. The destruction of trust is what led to the destruction of … of civilization.” 

Trunk of Tree frowned. “Civilization? What are you talking about?” 

Cat Eyes sighed. “Just listen to our stories tonight. It’s … there were many people … and many wondrous things … but the people lost the one thing more important than all the others.” 

Tu-Swift saw the tears welling up in her cat-irised eyes. “They let their greed, fear, and hate grow … and their love for each other … and for all life … they let that decay … and when it did, it all fell apart. The words that people said came to mean nothing. All trust was lost. And, Trunk of Tree, when all trust was lost, all the energy of the people was put into weapons. Killing sticks were replaced by even less honorable weapons that killed hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands. The people thought that somehow, if they hurt others enough, they themselves would live forever, not as part of the great tree of life, but as something separate and apart, as hard as the mountains and as mighty and as immortal. So did the people come to think. 

“The times came of great killing. 

“The times came of great forgetting.” 

The voice of Cat Eyes became stronger and though she spoke to Trunk of Tree, all the people nearby heard her and drew near to her. 

“Now, we are beginning the time of great remembering;

“The great remembering of who we are; 

“The great remembering of what we are not

“The great remembering of what makes us a whole people; 

“The great remembering of the importance of truth and trust; 

“The great remembering of the horror and sorrow that comes of the many being misled by the few; 

“The great remembering of what we could become instead; 

“The great remembering that each of us is ourselves but one marvelous leaf on the great abiding tree of life; 

“The great remembering that we cannot make ourselves into something separate and forever by destroying the tree that sustains us.”

Cat Eyes stood and took the hands of Tu-Swift. 

Drums began to play and the people began to sing. 

Cat Eyes and Tu-Swift began to dance. 

All the people began to join in the dance. 


The Creation Myth of the Veritas

The Myths of the Veritas: The Orange Man

The Myths of the Veritas: The Forgotten Field

The Myths of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy

Index to a Pattern Language for Collaboration and Cooperation

Roar, Ocean, Roar

The Only Them that Matters is All of Us

Author Page on Amazon

How to Frame Your Own Hamster Wheel


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Graduate school at the University of Michigan (in Ann Arbor, Michigan) provided me with a rich, rewarding experience. I was in a program aimed at understanding more about how human beings perceive, decide, learn, and solve problems. I loved it! I still love thinking about those issues. Part of my joy sprang from interacting with my classmates and sharing experiences with them. I thought I would pass along one of the experiences that a classmate told me about. It might prove valuable to you as well. 

My classmate ran an experiment and one of his subjects ran out of the room screaming that they couldn’t take it any more. My classmate was horrified that he had caused such stress and completely mystified that he had done so. He felt terrible. He calmed the subject down and eventually discovered what had happened. 

In many psychology experiments, one of the things we look at is how long it takes for a person to make a decision. The longer it takes to make a decision, roughly speaking, the more difficult the task and the more thought that it takes to reach a decision. If you were a subject in a psych experiment circa 1970, you might well be part of an experiment to study the “Sternberg Search Task” named after Saul Sternberg (link below). The point is to understand more about people’s “working memory.” This is a facility that comes into play nearly constantly for us in daily life.

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For example, your dinner server knows that they are out of four of the items on the menu right now. Rather than tell you all that up-front, they take orders and many times, no-one asks for the items they’re out of. But every time people order she has to compare what people order to this list in her head and let them know. Either that or they will go back to the kitchen and put in an order that can’t be fulfilled. They would then have to go back and tell them. Time is money in the restaurant business and particularly so for the server, who often relies on tips.

Here’s how it would be for you to be a subject in one of these tasks. You’d be presented for a few seconds with a set of letters such as: {A J D H C Z}. The letters would disappear and then, a few seconds later, a single letter would appear; e.g., “Q” and you would press the left lever as quickly as you could if the letter was not in the list and press the right lever if it had been in the list. After a few seconds, you’d be presented with another set such as {X I U W B M} for a few seconds and then, a single letter would appear and you’d be once again asked to decide whether the letter “W” for instance, had been in the list. 

Ah, but how many variations on that general theme can you create? Does it matter how large the set is? (yes) How much? (a lot) Do people of different ages do differently on this? (they do) How much does it degrade your performance to be doing something else? (depends what it is). So, that was the game for us.

Usually, if you were a “subject” in such an experiment, you would do this task for 30-60 minutes. It would be tedious and a little mentally taxing, but not so mind-wrenching as trying to learn an insane foreign language such as English (for non-native speakers). (Actually, it’s pretty damned hard even for native speakers, but we don’t like to let on). Nor, would it be like trigonometry is to some; nor trying to “analyze” a poem is for others; nor like trying to sing a tune on key is for some of us. I have been a subject many times in such experiments and this one is not over-taxing. It’s perhaps the level of “stress” that solving a moderate crossword puzzle would generate. 

So, I could understand my classmate’s shock. Wouldn’t you be if you handed someone a cross-word puzzle and a few moments later, they ran screaming from the room?

Here’s what happened. Usually, these studies are experimenter-paced. That means, that whatever happens is controlled by a preset schedule. In this study, for instance, a new set of letters might appear every 20 seconds. You would look at the set of letters and it would disappear after 5 seconds. Perhaps you’d look at a blank screen for 5 seconds and then the single letter would appear. You’d have up to five seconds to make your decision and get ready for the next set of letters to appear. 

My classmate, however, decided to be “nicer” so he made the experiment self-paced. The subjects could take as long as they liked to start the next trial. When they were ready, they could press both levers at once and the next set would appear. That certainly doesn’t sound stressful.

How did the subject interpret this situation? They thought that they had to press both levers before the next set appeared. And, from their perspective, every time, they reacted just a little faster. But it didn’t help! They tried to go faster and faster, but no matter how fast they went, the next set appeared immediately after they pressed the levers. Although the “subject” was actually in complete control, they perceived it as though they had zero control. 

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The way you frame a situation may be quite different from the way others frame the situation. It’s no wonder that people may try to solve a problem differently based on their own experience and interests. It’s even more fundamental when people are not even trying to solve the same problem. A problem framed as differently as the Experimenter and the Subject framed the situation in the above scenario is really a completely different problem. In this case, the problem that the experimenter had set for the subject was an easy one: “Decide when you feel like doing another one of these little puzzles and I shall give you one.”

Meanwhile, the problem that the subject was trying to solve was this: “How do I keep speeding up so that I can always press the two levers before the next puzzle comes up?!?!” 

That second problem is a stressful one. 

But it only exists because of the way the Subject framed the problem.

Have you ever framed a problem “into existence?”

I think that it’s not uncommon for “Madison Avenue” (synecdoche for American Advertising Industry) to do just that. Unlike my classmate, Madison Avenue is intentionally framing a problem for their clients. 

“Do you suffer from straight elbow wrinkle? Millions of Americans suffer from straight elbow wrinkles without even knowing! Check right now. It may save you millions! Go to a mirror and straighten your arm. Is your elbow skin nice and tight? Or is it filled with unsightly wrinkles? Don’t be embarrassed! Millions of your fellow Americans also suffer. Now, you need suffer no longer! By use of this ointment, one shilling the box, your elbow skin will stay fit, taught, and youthful looking!” 

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Is this a real problem? It may become one for anyone who succumbs to the advertising pitch above. The company promoting “Elbow Cream” had a problem: “How do we make more money even though we have no decent products that solve real problems?” They transfigured their problem into one for their customers. Some would say this is just business as usual. And, if the Elbow Cream has horrendous side-effects, that’s no big deal so long as you sputter out those side-effects quickly & unintelligibly on your TV commercials against a background of music, dancing, and flowers. 

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Maybe it’s business as usual. 

There is an alternative though. The “Elbow Cream” company could have instead sought to understand some real problem, figured out how to solve it and then marketed that solution. To me, the difference between the two, in terms of ethics is huge. 

What do you think? 


There’s a Pill for That!There’s a Pill for That!

Author Page on Amazon

Wordless Perfection


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Sirius Black

I like to write. In fact, I like to write so much that I wrote before I could even read. When my early crayon “writings” in my grandfather’s books were discovered, instead of praise, I was spanked. I’m not even sure they really tried hard to read my learned annotations. Their missing the point didn’t deter me though. I like words! I like writing poetry, essays, stories, plays, and even novels. Words help human beings communicate and collaborate. However…

In this essay, I’d like to mention some instances of wordless success.

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In the neighborhood where I grew up, we spent most of the summer playing baseball, basketball, and football. I had never played golf nor paid much attention to it as a kid and when it came on TV I walked by with hardly a glance. At that point in my life, it was really only a sport if there was a good chance to smash into one of the other players. I had never touched a golf club or a golf ball until one summer day when I was about ten, one of the kids brought one of his uncle’s golf clubs to our baseball field along with a tee and a golf ball. He demonstrated how to hit the ball and showed us how to put our hands on the club. Kids took turns hitting the ball and retrieving it for another go. 

When it came to my turn, I mainly remember just loving the shiny wood of the club. I loved wooden baseball bats back then, but the driver!! Wow! That was in a whole different category of cool. You didn’t need to be an adult or a golfer to know that! It shone opalesquely. I teed up the golf ball, and swung the unfamiliar and impossibly long club.

The resulting sound – exquisite! An explosion! A rifle shot. A cousin of the crack of a home run shot into the upper deck. But more penetrating. More elegant. More poignant.

We all looked up in amazement. My golf shot started low and straight. Then it rose and rose and disappeared far beyond the dirt road that marked the outer limit of our makeshift baseball field. It rose over the hill beyond the road and disappeared into the field beyond. There was no hope of retrieving the golfball. None of us even suggested trying. My shot was wordless perfection. 

Fast forward to graduate school. In the summer afternoons, I got into the habit of playing frisbee with the neighbors. One day, I parked my car and ran into the back yard. My neighbor saw me and threw me the frisbee, I noticed that they had placed an empty beer can atop a utility box about a hundred feet away. I caught the frisbee on the run and threw it with the next step. The frisbee sailed with a nice arc and smacked the beer can right off. My neighbors said that they had been trying to knock that beer can off for about a half hour.  My throw was wordless perfection.

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Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, several of my friends and classmates like puzzles as much as I did. One such puzzle consisted of a set of triangular “board” with a regular pattern of holes. There were pegs in every hole save one. The goal was to “jump” pegs much as one does in checkers and then remove that peg from the board. Eventually, one was supposed to end up with one and only one peg. I worked on it for awhile and thought about various strategies and moves. I couldn’t seem to solve it. My phone rang. I picked it up and conversed with my friend. Meanwhile, I toyed with the puzzle while my “mind” was on the conversation. I toyed with the puzzle and solved it. Wordless perfection.

A few months or weeks later, we worked on another puzzle. This one consisted of four cubes (aka
“instant insanity”). Each cube had a different arrangement of colors. The goal was to arrange the cubes so that every “row” of faces had four different colors. I fiddled with the puzzle trying out various strategies and noting various symmetries and asymmetries. Once again, someone called and interrupted my musings. Again, I idly fiddled around with the cubes while talking on the phone. And solved it. Wordless perfection strikes again!

Fast forward four decades. For best results, borrow Hermione’s time-turner. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on your imagination. 

Betty Edwards (“Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”) gave a plenary address at one of the Association of Computing Machinery’s premier conferences: CHI. Among other things, she showed example after example of how much people improved in their drawing skills based on her methods. A few months later, it so happened that my wife and I had an opportunity to go to one of her five day classes. 

I would have to honestly say, that course was one of the best educational experiences of my life! It was an immensely pleasurable experience in and of itself. Beyond that, the results in terms of improved drawing skills were dramatic. And, as if that were not enough, I looked at the world differently. I noticed visual things about the environment that I had not seen before. 

The essence of the method Betty Edwards uses is to get you to observe and draw — while “shutting up” or “turning off” the part of your brain (or mind) that talks and plans and categorizes. In one exercise, for instance, we took a line drawing and turned it upside down. Then, we copied that image onto our pad of paper by carefully observing and drawing what we saw. She also instructed us not to try to “guess” what they were drawing, but just to copy the line. When every line had been copied, we turned the drawings right side up again. The result jolted me! I had created an excellent likeness of the original! The quality stunned me. Wordless Perfection.

There’s a larger lesson here, too. 

I had within me, the capacity to make a very decent copy of a drawing, but had never achieved that result for 60 years! All it took was five minutes of instruction to enable me to achieve that. 

What else is like that? Imagine that we have, not just one, but a dozen or even a dozen dozen “hidden talents.” Some of them, like drawing, may depend more on Not-Doing than on Doing; on Being rather than Achieving.

There was a longer lasting side-effect of the drawing course. My day to day life, as is typical of most achievement-driven people had been very much “goal-driven” and there was always an ongoing plan and dialogue. After having learned to turn that off in order to draw, I can also turn it off in order to see, whether or not I draw. Seeing (or otherwise sensing or feeling) in the moment also makes me much less judgmental. If you decide to think about the physical appearance of people in terms of how interesting they would be to draw, you end up with an entirely different way of thinking about people’s appearance. 

What are your hidden talents? 


The Invisibility Cloak of Habit 

Big Zig-Zag Canyon 

The Great Race to the Finish!

You Fool!

Horizons University

How the Nightingale Learned to Sing

Comes the Dawn

Author Page on Amazon

Problem Formulation: Who Knows What?


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This post focuses on the importance of discovering who knows what. It’s easy to think (without thinking!) that everyone knows what you know. 

At IBM Research, around the turn of the century, I was asked to look at improving customer satisfaction about the search function on IBM’s website. Rather than using someone else’s search engine, IBM used one developed at IBM’s Haifa Research lab. It was a very good search engine. Yet, customers were not happy. By way of background, it’s worth noting that compared with many companies who have websites, IBM’s website was meant for a wide variety of users and contained many kinds of information. It was meant to support people buying their first Personal Computer and IT experts at large banks. It had information about a wide variety of hardware, software, and services. The site was designed to serve as an attractor for investors, business partners, and potential employees. In other words, the site was vast and diverse. This made having a good search function particularly important.  

A little study of the existing data which had been collected showed that the mean number of search terms entered by customers was only 1.2. What?? How can that be? Here’s a website with thousands of products and services and designed for use by a huge diversity of users and they were only entering a mean of 1.2 search terms? What were they thinking?!

Of course, there were a handful of situations when one search term might work; e.g., if you wanted to find out everything about a specific product that had a unique one-word name (which was rare) or acronym. For most situations though, a more “reasonable” search might be something like: “Open positions IBM Research Austin” or “PC external hard drives” or “LOTUS NOTES training.” 

We had users of IBM products & services come into the lab and do some tasks that we designed to illuminate this issue. In the task, they would need to find specified information on the IBM website while I observed them. One issue became immediately apparent. The search bar on the landing page was far too small. In actuality, users could enter as many search terms as they liked. Their terms would keep scrolling and scrolling until they hit “ENTER.” The developers knew this, but most of our users did not. They assumed they had to “fit” their query into the very small footprint that presented itself visually. Recommendation one was simply to make that space much larger. Once the search bar was expanded to about three times its original size, the number of search terms increased dramatically, as did user satisfaction. 

In this case, the users framed their search problem in terms of: “How can I make the best query that fits into this tiny box.” (I’m not suggesting they said this to themselves consciously, but the visual affordance led them to that constraint). The developers thought the users would frame their search problem in terms of: “What’s the best sequence of terms I can put into this virtually infinite window to get the search results I want.” After all, the developers knew that any number of terms could be entered. 

Although increasing the size of the search bar made a big difference, the supposedly good search engine still returned many amazingly bad results. Why? The people at the Haifa lab who had developed the search engine were world class. At some point, I looked at the HTML of some of the web pages. Many web pages had masses of irrelevant metadata! I found some of the people who developed these web pages and discussed things with them. Can you guess what was going on?

Many of the developers of web pages were the same people who had been developing print media for those same products and services. They had no training and no idea about metadata. So, to put up the webpage about product XYZ, they would go to a nice-looking web page about something else, say, training opportunities for ABC. They would copy that entire page, including the metadata, and then set about changing the text about ABC to text about product XYZ. In many cases, they assumed that the strange stuff in angle brackets was some bizarre coding stuff that was necessary for the page to operate properly. They left it untouched. Furthermore, when they “tested” the pages they had created about XYZ, they looked okay. The information about XYZ was there. Problem solved.

Only of course, the problem wasn’t solved. The search engine considered the metadata that described the contents to be even more important than the contents themselves. So, the user would issue a query about XYZ and receive links about ABC because the ABC page still had the “invisible” metadata about ABC. In this case, many of the website developers thought their problem was to put in good data when what they really needed to do was put in good data and relevant metadata. 

A third issue also revealed itself from watching users. In attempting to do their tasks, many of them suggested that IBM should provide a way for more than one webpage to appear side by on the screen so that they could, for instance, compare features and functions of two different models rather than having to copy the information from the web page about a particular model and then compare their notes to the second page. 

Good suggestion. 

Of course, IBM & Microsoft had provided this function. All one had to do was “Right Click” in order to bring up a new window. Remember, these were not naive users. These were people who actually used IBM products. They “knew” how to use the PC and the main applications. Yet, they were still unfamiliar with the use of Right Click. Indeed, allowing on-screen comparisons is one of the handiest uses of Right-Click for many people. 

This issue is indicative of a very pervasive problem. Ironically, it is an outgrowth of good usability! When I began working with computers, almost nothing was intuitive. No-one would even attempt to start programming in FORTRAN or SNOBOL, let alone Assembly Language or Machine Code without look at the manual. But LOTUS NOTES? A browser? A modern text editor? You can use these without even looking at the manual. That’s a great thing. But — 

…there’s a downside. The downside is that you may have developed procedures that work, but they may be extremely inefficient. You “muddle through” without ever realizing that there’s a much more efficient way to do things. Generally speaking, many users formulate their problem, say, in terms like: “How do I create and edit a document in this editor?” They do not formulate it in terms of: “How do I efficiently create and edit a document in this editor?” The developers know all the splendid features and functions they’ve put into the hardware and software, but the user doesn’t. 

It’s also worth noting that results in HCI/UX are dependent on the context. I would tend to assume that in 2021, most PC users now know about right-clicking in a browser even though in 2000, none of the ones I studied seemed to realize it. But —

I could be wrong. 


The Invisibility Cloak of Habit

Essays on America: Wednesday

Index to a catalog of “best practices” in teamwork & collaboration

Author Page on Amazon

I Went in Seeking Clarity


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“I stopped by the bar at 3 A.M.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
And I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity” — Lyrics from The Indigo Girls: Closer to Fine

If you think programming is cognitively difficult, try parallel programming. It is generally harder to design, to code, and to debug than its sequential cousin. One of the fun projects I worked on at IBM Research was on the X10 language which was designed to enable parallel programmers to be more productive. Among other things, I fostered community among X10 programmers and used analytic techniques to show that X10 “should be” more productive. Although these analytic techniques are very useful, we also wanted to get some empirical data that the language was, in actuality, more productive. 

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One part of those empirical studies involved comparing people doing a few parallel programming tasks in X10 to those using a popular competitor. But, like many other “chicken and egg” problems, there were no X10 programmers (other than the inventors and their colleagues). I was part of a team who travelled to Rice University in Houston. The design called for one group to spend a chunk of time learning X10 (perhaps half a day) and another chunk of time coding some problems.

Besides the three behavioral scientists like me who were there to make observations, there were also three high-powered Ph.D. computer scientists present who would teach the language. Programmers tend to be very smart. Parallel programmers tend to be very very smart. People who can invent better languages to do parallel programming? You do the math.

Anyway, after the volunteers students had arrived, one of the main designers of the language began to “teach them” X10. 

But — there was a problem. 

The powerpoint presentation designed to teach the students X10 was far too blurry to read!

Immediately, the three computer scientists tried to issue commands to the projector to put the images in focus. Nothing worked. The three of them began a fascinating problem solving conversation about what communication protocol(s) among the PC, the projector, and the controller was the likely source of the problem. I suppose it might not have been fascinating to everyone, but it was to me. First, it fascinated me because I was learning something about computer science and communication protocols. Second, it fascinated me because I loved to watch these people think. I suppose many of the advanced computer science students who were in this classroom to learn X10 also found it interesting. But the study had completely stalled. 

After a few minutes of fascinating conversation that did nothing to focus the images, something possessed me to walk over to the projector and turn the lens by hand. The images were immediately clear and the rest of the experiment continued. 

The three computer scientists had “framed” the problem as a computer science problem and I found the discussion that sprang from that framing to be fascinating. But one of the part-time jobs I had had as an undergraduate was as a “projectionist” at Case-Western, and it was that experience that allowed me to try framing the problem differently. All of us have huge reservoirs of experience outside of our professional “training” and those experiences can sometimes be important sources of alternative ways to frame a problem, issue, or situation.


Essays on America: Wednesday 

Essays on America: The Update Problem 

Essays on America: The Stopping Rule

The Invisibility Cloak of Habit

Author Page on Amazon


I Say: Hello! You Say: “What City Please?”


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In the not so distant past, people would often call directory assistance operators. These operators would find a number for you. For an additional charge, they would dial it for you. In fact, this was a very commonly used system. Phone companies would have large rooms filled with such operators who worked very hard and very politely, communicating with a hostile and irrational public. 

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Customer: “I have to get the number of that bowling alley right near where the A&P used to be before they moved into that new shopping center.”

Operator: “Sir, you haven’t told me what town you’re in. Anyway…”

Customer: “What town?! Why I’m right here in Woburn where I’ve always been!” 

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There were so many operators that the phone companies wanted their processes to be efficient. Operators were trained to be friendly and genial but not chatty. The phone companies searched for better keyboards and better screen layouts to shave a second here or there off the average time it took to handle a call. 

There are some interesting stories in that attempt but that we will save for another article, but here I want to tell you what made the largest impact on the average time per call. Not a keyboard. Not a display. Not an AI system. 

It was simply changing the greeting. 

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Operators were saying something like: “New England Telephone. How can I help you?” 

After our intervention, operators instead said, “What city please?” It’s shorter and it’s takes less time to say. But the big change was not in how long the operator took to ask the question. The biggest savings was how this change in greeting impacted the customer’s behavior. 

When the operator begins with “How can I help you?” the customer, or at least some fraction of them, are put into a frame of mind of a conversation. They might respond thusly:

“Oh, well, you know my niece is getting married! Yeah! In just a month, and she still hasn’t shopped for a dress! Can you believe it? So, I need the number for that — if it were up to me, I would go traditional, but my niece? She’s — she’s going avant-garde so I need the number of that dress shop on Main Street here in Arlington.” 

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With the “What City Please?” greeting, the customer is put into a more businesslike frame of mind and answers more succinctly. They now understand their role as proving information in a joint problem solving task with the operator. A typical answer would now be:


“In Arlington, what listing?” 

“Dress shop on Main Street.”

The way in which a conversation begins signals what type of conversation it is to be. We know this intuitively. Suppose you walked up to an old friend and they begin with: “Name?” You would be taken aback. On the other hand, suppose you walk up to the line at the DMV and the clerk says, “Hey, have you seen that latest blog post by John Thomas on problem framing?” You would be equally perplexed! 

Conversation can be thought of partly as a kind of mutual problem solving exercise. And, before that problem solving even begins, one party or the other will tend to “frame” the conversation. That framing can be incredibly important. 

Even the very first words can cause someone to frame what kind of a conversation this is meant to be.

Words matter.

The Primacy Effect and The Destroyer’s Advantage

Essays on America: Wednesday

Author Page on Amazon 

Problem Framing: Good Point!


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You have probably heard variations on this old saw, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’ve also heard, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” There is also this popular anecdote:

One night, I took my dog out for a walk and I noticed one of my neighbors under a nearby street lamp crawling around on his hands and knees, apparently looking for something. I walked over and asked, “What are you looking for?”

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“My car keys!” He replied.

I have pretty good vision, so I helped him. I didn’t see any car keys so after a minute or so I asked, “Where exactly did you lose your keys?” 

He stood up, cracked his back, and pointed back to a nearby park. “Over there.”

“Over there?! Then, why are you looking under the street lamp? Why aren’t you looking over at the park entrance?”

“Oh, that’s obvious! The light is so much better here!” 

For a time, I had to very interesting and challenging job in the mid 1980’s at IBM Headquarters to try to get the company to pay more attention to the usability of their products and services. As a part of this, I visited IBM locations throughout the world. At one fabrication plant, our tour guide took us by an inspection station. This was not an inspection statement for chips. It consisted of one person whose job was to look through a microscope and make sure that two silver needles were perfectly aligned.

After we left the station, our tour guide confided that they were strongly considering replacing the person with a machine vision system. The anticipated cost would be substantial, but they hypothesized that the system would be more accurate and faster. It was, our host, insisted, just the nature of humans to be slow and inaccurate.


When I looked at the inspection station however, with my background in human factors, I had a completely different impression of the situation. The inspector sat on a fixed height stool and had to bend his neck at an absurd angle to look into the microscope. He was trying to align these silver needles against a background that had almost the same hue, brightness and saturation. 

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Other than blindfolding the man, I’m not sure what they could have done to make the task more unnecessarily difficult. I suggested, and eventually, they implemented, a few inexpensive ergonomic changes and time and accuracy improved.

Like other companies in the technology segment, IBM often saw problems as ones that could be solved by technology. At that time, technology systems was their main business. Since then, they have expanded more fully into software and services. In fact, those services now include experience design.

If you find yourself enamored of technology in general, or some specific class of technology such as machine vision, speech recognition, or machine learning, you might overlook much simpler and cheaper ways to solve problems or ameliorate situations. Of course, you might lose some revenue doing that, but you can also win long term customer loyalty. 

Even if you are a hammer, everything is not a nail. 

That applies as well to User Experience. You might design the most wonderful UX imaginable for a particular product or service. But if it is shoddily made so that it is error prone; if it lacks important functionality; if the sales force is inept; or if service is horrible, those failures can completely overwhelm all the good work you have done on the UX. Because of the nature of UX, you might learn important knowledge or suggestions for other functions as well. It often requires finesse to have such suggestions taken seriously, but with some thought you can do it. 

During my second stint at IBM, I worked for a time in a field known at that time as “Knowledge Management.” One of our potential clients was a major Pharma company who felt that their researchers should do a better job of sharing knowledge across products. They wanted us to design a “knowledge management system” (by which they meant hardware and software) to improve knowledge sharing. 

Simply building a “Knowledge Management System” would be looking under the streetlamp. They knew how to specify a technology solution from IBM and have it installed.

However — they were unwilling to provide any additional space, time, or incentives for their employees to share knowledge with their colleagues!  

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They were convinced that technology would be the silver bullet, the solution, the answer, the Holy Grail, the magic pill. They viewed technology as less disruptive than it would have been to change employee incentives, or space layout, or give them time to actually learn and use the technology system. 

This reaction to “knowledge management” was not unique. It was common.

To me, this seems very similar to the notion that health problems can all be solved with a magic pill. What do you think? 


There’s a pill for that. 

The Pandemic Anti-Academic.

What about the butter dish? 

The invisibility cloak of habit. 

Author Page on Amazon

Reframing the Problem: Paperwork & Working Paper


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Reframing the Problem: Paperwork & Working Paper

This is the second in a series about the importance of correctly framing a problem. Generally, at least in formal American education, the teacher gives you a problem. Not only that, if you are in Algebra class, you know the answer will be an answer based in Algebra. If you are in art class, you’re expected to paint a picture. If you painted a picture in Algebra class, or wrote down a formula in Art Class, they would send you to the principal for punishment. But in real life, how a problem is presented may actually be far from the most elegant solution to the real problem.

Doing a google search on “problem solving” just now yielded 208 million results. Entering “problem framing” only had 182 thousand. A thousand times as much emphasis on problem solving as there was on problem framing. Yet, let’s think about that for a moment. If you have wrongly framed the problem, you not only will not have solved the real problem; what’s worse, you will have convinced yourself that you have solved the problem. This will make it much more difficult to recognize and solve the real problem even for a solitary thinker. And to make a political change required to redirect hundreds or thousands will be incalculably more difficult. 

All of that brings us to today’s story. For about a decade, I worked as executive director of an AI lab for a company in the computers & communication industry. At one point, in the late 1980’s, all employees were all supposed to sign some new paperwork. An office manager called from a building several miles away asking me to have my admin work with his admin to sign up a schedule for all 45 people in my AI lab to go over to his office and sign this paperwork as soon as possible. That would be a mildly interesting logistics problem, and I might even be tempted to step in and help solve it. More likely, if I tried to solve it, some much brighter & more competent colleague would have done it much faster. 

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But why?

Why would I ask each of 45 people to interrupt their work; walk to their cars; drive in traffic; park in a new location; find this guy’s office; walk up there; sign some paper; walk out; find their car; drive back; park again; walk back to their office and try to remember where the heck they were? Instead, I told him that wasn’t happening but he’d be welcome to come over here and have people sign the paperwork. 

You could make an argument that that was 4500% improvement in productivity, but I think that understates the case. The administrator’s work, at least in this regard, was to get this paperwork signed. He didn’t need to do mental calculations to tie these signings together. On the other hand, a lot of the work that the AI folks did was hard mental work. That means that interrupting them would be much more destructive than it would to interrupt the administrator in his watching someone sign their name. Even that understates the case because many of the people in AI worked collaboratively and (perhaps you remember those days) people were working face to face. Software tools to coordinate work were not as sophisticated as they are now. Often, having one team member disappear for a half hour would not only impact their own work, it would impact the work of everyone on the team. 

Quantitatively comparing apples and oranges is always tricky. Of course, I am also biased because my colleagues were people I greatly admire. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the way the problem was presented was a non-optimal “framing.” It may or may not have been presented that way because of a purely selfish standpoint; that is, wanting to do what’s most convenient for oneself rather than what’s best for the company as a whole. I suspect that it was  more likely just the first idea that occurred to him. But in your own life, beware. Sometimes, you will mis-frame a problem because of “natural causes.” But sometimes, people may intentionally hand you a bad framing because they view it as being in their interest to lead you to solve the wrong problem. 

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Author Page on Amazon

Tools of Thought

A Pattern Language for Collaboration and Cooperation

The Myths of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy

Essays on America: Wednesday

Essays on America: The Stopping Rule

Essays on America: The Update Problem

The Doorbell’s Ringing! Can you get it?


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After a long day’s work, I arrived home to a distraught wife. Not, “Hi, sweetheart” but “This doorbell is driving me crazy!” 

Me: “What doorbell? What are you talking about?” 

People differ in how they perceive the world around them. In my case, for instance, I’m very easily distracted by movement in my visual field. Noise can be annoying, but it rarely rises to that level. For instance, when commercials come on, I simply “tune them out” and instead tune in to my own thoughts. My high frequency hearing isn’t too great either. So, at first, I didn’t understand what my wife was referring to. 


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“That! That doorbell beep!” 

Ah, now I understood. And, there it went again. Once I knew what to listen for, I had to agree it was annoying though much more annoying to my wife because she’s more tuned in to sound than I am and her ability to hear high frequencies is also better.

She then upped the ante. “I have to leave. I can’t stand it! You have to make it stop!” 

I looked at the wall between our entryway and the kitchen. That’s where the doorbell ringer was. I unscrewed a couple of screws and removed the housing. Inside was the actual doorbell and three wires. A quick snip should at least stop the noise until we figured out a more permanent fix. I sighed. I suspected we would have to buy a new doorbell. Then, I laughed a bit as the Hollywood scenes from a hundred movies flashed before my eyes:

The Hero finds the bomb, with its conveniently placed timer, but it’s counting down 30 seconds, 29, 28. He’s cut to cut a wire! But which one!?

The consequences of my error would not be so great. Still…So, I cut the black wire.

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OK. I cut the red wire.


OK. I cut the green wire, the last wire. I was having trouble understanding why it would be necessary to cut all three wires. But whatever. I had now cut all three wires.



Electrical circuits don’t work by magic. How can the doorbell be beeping when it has no power? 

It can’t. 

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It wasn’t the doorbell at all.

Months earlier, my wife & I had attended a Dave Pelz “Short School” for putting, chipping, and sand shots. At that course, we received a small electronic metronome — about the size of a credit card. The metronome was to be used to help make sure you had a consistent rhythm on your putting stroke. Since the course, the metronome had sat atop our upright piano. Apparently, one of the cats had turned it on and then slapped it onto the floor behind the piano. The sounding board amplified the sound and made it harder to localize. Eventually, we tracked it down, fished out the metronome from behind the piano and clicked it off. Problem solved. 

Except for the non-functional doorbell. 

I had initially “solved” the wrong problem. I had solved the problem of the mis-firing doorbell by cutting all the wires. That was not the problem. I had jumped on to my wife’s formulation and framing of the problem. There are plenty of times in my life when I had solved the wrong problem without any help from someone else. This isn’t a story about assigning blame. It’s a story about the importance of correctly solving the right problem. 

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It is very easy to get led into solving the “wrong” problem. 

In the days ahead, I will relate a few more examples. 


What about the Butter Dish? 

Index to “Thinking tools” 

Author Page on Amazon

Freedom of Speech is Not a License to Kill


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People have debated what, precisely, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution means. But no-one to my knowledge has argued that the “right to bear arms” means that you can therefore shoot dead whomever you want. That is not a “freedom” under any reasonable definition. 

What would be the consequence of simply saying that under our Constitution, you can kill whomever you want? Anarchy. Chaos. Such a state of affairs would certainly not be conducive to an economic recovery, controlling the pandemic, or “domestic tranquility.” The Second Amendment also doesn’t mean that you can go kill people provided you think you are justified. The fact that you believe you are right does not mean you are right. If you do own a gun, you have a responsibility to use it wisely. You can own a car. But that doesn’t give you the right to drive however you damned well feel like. It doesn’t give you the right to go as fast as you want and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to kill people with your car. Similarly, you can own a home. But owning your own home doesn’t mean you can set up an opium den or a crack house there. With rights come responsibilities.

So it is as well with the “Freedom of Speech.” You have the right to make arguments for your point of view, even if that view is not popular. But, as nearly everyone realizes, that does not mean you have the freedom to stand up in a crowded theater (should they ever exist again) and scream “FIRE!” at the top of your lungs. If you did, and people were trampled to death in the panicked rush to get out, you would rightly be held liable for their deaths. 

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That is not the only restriction on your “Freedom of Speech.” You cannot visit someone, sneak a bottle of vodka out of their liquor cabinet while they aren’t looking, pour the Absolute down the drain, and replace the contents with wood alcohol, and then sneak it back into the liquor cabinet. You cannot knowing sell horse meat as venison. You cannot lie about your age in order to register to vote or buy alcohol or firearms. 

You cannot convince your neighbor that wood alcohol will prevent COVID (it won’t and it’s poison) and then let them act accordingly. It is certainly not ethical, if someone has the symptoms of an appendicitis, to tell them not to worry because doctors just perform operations to make money and that instead, they should simply take a laxative (this can easily result in a burst appendix followed by sepsis and death). It is also probably illegal to do so, even if you sincerely, but wrongly believe that taking a laxative will cure an appendicitis.

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Suppose your friend has a two year old with a nasty looking wart on their hand. Suppose you convince your friend, that you can simply cut off the child’s hand with a meat cleaver and that the next day, a new hand will grow back and it will be perfect — no wart. Your friend is rather stupid to believe you, but that doesn’t mean you have no responsibility in the matter. You cannot successfully argue in court that you were “merely executing your right to free speech.” 

It is not okay to simply spread lies because there are other people spreading the same lies. With Freedom of Speech comes the responsibility to check up on the veracity of what you say, write, or tweet. If your intention is to mislead people into harming or killing someone, you will be held liable. 

Sometimes, deciding what is true is difficult. In the case of my convincing you that your child’s hand will grow back, you could use logic, or experience, or seek out the expertise of medical doctors. Some people have not been educated to take these steps. That is sad, but if someone is misled into committing a crime, a mentally competent adult doing the misleading and the mentally competent adult who has been misled are both liable, even if both of them have been misled by misinformation on the Internet. That is why it is so important not to spread misinformation. 

Sometimes such misinformation is spread with the best of intentions. People may actually believe that people with red hair are devils in disguise and that they are all hell-bent on destroying the earth. That still doesn’t make it all right for you to kill red-haired people nor to spread lies about them that results in someone else killing red-haired people. If you spread your belief and that action harms other people, you are not somehow exonerated because you believed the lie that you spread. 

There is, however, a category of misinformation still worse than spreading deadly lies without checking up on them. 

That happens when people who know better, such as Ted Cruz, spread lies that they know are lies in order to gain political power. He was valedictorian in his high school class and has degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School. He has both the knowledge and the intelligence to know that he was lying about election results. Unless someone was drugging him without his knowledge or he has a brain tumor, he knowingly and cravenly tried to overthrow the most recent Presidential election. And he did so in the most cravenly and cowardly way possible: by intentionally and cynically rousing others to violence. Everyone who died in DC as a result of the Sedition Riot has their blood on his hands. 

What he did, and others of his ilk, is not the exercise of free speech any more than screaming “FIRE!!” In a crowded theater is exercising free speech. Cruz’s rabble rousing is no more free speech than my robbing a bank at gunpoint is a “free speech” demonstration of my objection to wealth inequality. Cruz knows full well that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and by quite a bit. Cruz knows that there was no wide-spread election fraud. Cruz knew full well that the President’s lies on the subject had predisposed an angry mob to believe his lies and act on them.

This was not the first time that Ted Cruz had egregiously lied in public life. Before the Senate impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, he swore an oath for a fair trial. Then, he joined other GOP Senators to refuse to hold a fair trail; refusing to call witnesses and refusing to subpoena documents. Leaving Trump in office has led to hundreds of thousands of needlessly dead Americans. Those deaths are on the heads of Donald J. Trump, but also on the heads of Senators who swore to hold a fair trial and then made no attempt to do so.

There are many lies that have emanated from Ted Cruz — a man who is a United States Senator. His lies meant to incite a riotous attack on our democracy were not the first of his lies. But they should be the last. 

He should be ejected from the Senate and criminally prosecuted for inciting to riot and for treason.

Our founders knew that a would-be dictator, such as Donald J. Trump, would be a danger to our democracy. They provided for that eventuality. Sadly, they failed to anticipate the astounding level of cowardice that could be displayed by people such as Ted Cruz. I suppose it’s understandable. After all, these founders had just engaged in a war against the much more powerful and better trained British. And, they had won. They didn’t all agree with each other, but they were not a bunch of craven cowards who would sell their family for a moldy table scrap of a would-be dictator’s affection. 

Cowardly sycophants of that ilk belong in prison; not in the United States Senate. 

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