Deconstruction of “Criticism”

Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.

“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.

Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).

This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.

Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.

To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.

What makes the difference?

» read the rest of this entry »

Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering

I finally managed to put words to a thing that has been subtly bugging me for awhile: why certain reactions to me being in pain bother me. This post is short!

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, I

I was moving behind a car to get in the passenger side door. I hit my shin on the car’s tow-hitch and exclaimed some sort of sharp sound of pain.

My mom, who had also been getting in the car, started going “Ohh, buddy! That hurts, oh wow, that really hurts…” etc.

…but I wasn’t actually in that much pain, and was mostly wishing her reaction would go away. The pain is already fading. The sympathy is escalating.

This has happened with other people too; this is just the most salient example. I find these encounters pretty disconnecting, because the person is trying to empathize with me but then after the initial moment they’re paying more attention to their own imagination than they actually are to my experience.

In general, pain that doesn’t indicate something is ongoingly wrong will attenuate—it will gradually decrease. This is true for most stubbings of toes, small cuts and scrapes, and so on. But some responses to pain (eg tensing up a bunch) can make things more painful.

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, II

» read the rest of this entry »

Use Reference Incidents to Clarify Communication of Experience

A common source of confusion in conversation is when the participants aren’t talking about the same thing. If the thing in question is a concept, it can be helpful to taboo your words so that you have to unpack the concept. Does a tree falling in an empty forest make a sound? Well, depends on what you mean by “sound”.

In other situations, where the conversation is about communicating our experiences of each other (aka “feedback”) there’s another habit that I find useful, that I call using reference incidents. The idea is to find or create a shared example of a particular behaviour or experience in question, with features known to both parties, so that you can compare notes on the incident and reveal your perspective to the other person in a way that they’re able to integrate it. This is related to the virtue of narrowness: “What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.”

A short example from my life of how this sort of confusion shows up. I was talking with a housemate, and she said to me, “This experience right now reminds me of this time with Jean,” and went on to describe that incident. Then, some minutes later she mused, “…yeah, when I spoke I think I was feeling discomfort.” At this point it would be easy to assume that she meant that she was feeling discomfort in talking with me just then, but she also could be still thinking of the conversation with Jean. (Or I could have made the opposite assumption).

Of course, in this case it may simply be both. But I asked about it, because in making sense of her talking about her discomfort, I’m bringing a lot of background context based on my own understanding of the conversation in question, and so if she and I are thinking of different conversations, then it’s going to be hard for me to make accurate inferences about what she’s saying. This makes communication hard.

Here’s a more extensive, made-up example: » read the rest of this entry »

The Process Lens

A lot of things that we usually model as events or states can be thought of as processes. Depending on the context, this process lens can

  • boggle the mind
  • improve goal-orientation
  • bring clarity to communicating and relating

I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.

Some brief bogglement

When was the last time you looked at the stars at night?

I was hanging out with my friend a few weeks ago, staring at the stars while we talked about the nature of the universe.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s less accurate to say that the stars “are bright”, and more accurate to say that they’re continually emitting light. I mean, obviously, but really stop and think about it: say you’re looking at the “North Star” (Polaris). It’s about 400 light years away, which means that the fact that you’re seeing light from that direction right now is because of a bunch of nuclear reactions in the star, like 400 years ago. A few seconds later, you’re seeing new light, made from some more nuclear reactions. And on and on.

And that light is being continually sent out in all directions. There’s a giant sphere radiating out from Polaris of light-from-400-years-ago. There’s another sphere of light-from-500-years-ago, which is a thousand light-years across (Earth is inside this sphere) and still expanding. The sphere of light-from-300-years-ago is also gigantic, but won’t reach Earth until the 22nd century. (If you’re reading this in the 22nd century or later, then OMG HI. Please forgive this claim which is now false.)

So the light you’re seeing isn’t just the state of things. It’s a process that is continuously happening.

» read the rest of this entry »

5 Things I’ve Learned from Extensive Couchsurfing

Over the past few years, I’ve spent about 7 months staying with friends while traveling. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience.

1. Offers can come from surprising places

One of the main ways that I’ve found people is just by posting to Facebook that I’m going to be in town and I’m looking for a place to stay. (I suspect this works better for me than other people, since I have a fairly engaged feed.) This is a nice approach, because it lets me cast a wide net without anyone really feeling like I’m putting pressure on them.

At any rate, apparently I still feel a bit weird about posting this or something. I’ve known for quite awhile I’d be traveling to the Bay Area again this August, and yet I still didn’t manage to get around to making a simple post until yesterday. I think it’s that issue again where not getting what you want feels immensely worse if you can’t pretend you didn’t want it.

Anyway, offers to stay, both on facebook and from people I’ve talked to in person, have often come from people I didn’t actually know very well at the time, which I wouldn’t have expected. Although of course I got to know them better via staying over, so we’re closer now 🙂

» read the rest of this entry »

Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

» read the rest of this entry »

Boggling at being a computational creature made of stuff

We interrupt your regularly scheduled metaprogramming to bring you a stream-of-consciousness musing on the nature of being, and related topics. This is more me playing with ideas than trying to make any case in particular.

Being made of stuff

Sometimes I forget that I exist in the physical realm. That I’m made of stuff. Less so, perhaps, than many of my mathier friends, but still fairly often.

In one sense, this is true: what “I” am is an identity, a sense of self, a pattern. The pattern happens to currently be expressed in a very physical sense: my computations may be virtual in a sense, but they’re tightly coupled to input from the physical world, including parts of the physical world that are also considered to be “me”. The parts of my body.

But of course they’re “me” for convenience, because they’re an extension of my cognition. Immediately after my finger is cut off, it’s very immediately no longer “me”. I wonder if people who are paraplegic don’t feel like their legs are “them”. Does someone with phantom limb syndrome include their phantom limb in their notion of “me”, even if it doesn’t exist in the normal sense?

Relatedly, we often feel like the rogue agents in our brains aren’t us. Hell, sometimes I’ve even said/heard “my brain just generated a thought, which was…” So I guess a large fraction of my cognition also isn’t exactly “me”. Dis-identification from my thoughts, for better or for worse.

Wetware

Seriously though, we’re made out of stuff. » read the rest of this entry »

You flow downhill (and you can sculpt the hill)

“It was a pity thoughts always ran the easiest way, like water in old ditches.” ― Walter de la Mare, The Return

You’re probably more predictable than you think. This can be scary to realize, since the perspective of not having as much control as you might feel like you do, but it can also be a relief: feeling like you have control over something you don’t have control over can lead to self-blame, frustration and confusion.

One way to play with this idea is to assume that future-you’s behaviour is entirely predictable, in much the same way that if you have a tilted surface, you can predict with a high degree of accuracy which way water will flow across it: downhill. Dig a trench, and the water will stay in it. Put up a wall, and the water will be stopped by it. Steepen the hill, and the water will flow faster.

So what’s downhill for you? What sorts of predictable future motions will you make?

» read the rest of this entry »

Honing mode vs Jamming mode (in conversation)

…when to correct and when to riff…

Say you’re having a conversation with someone, and you’re trying to talk about a concept or make sense of an experience or something. And you say “so it’s sort of, you know, ABC…” and they nod and they say “ahh yeah, like XYZ”

…but XYZ isn’t quite what you had in mind.

There can be a tendency, in such a situation, to correct the person, and say “no, not XYZ”. Sometimes this makes sense, othertimes it’s better to have a different response. Let’s explore!

The short answer is that this sort of correction is important if it matters specifically what you meant. Otherwise (or if this is ambiguous) it can frustrate the conversation.

An example exchange

The most extreme example of where it feels like it matters is if you have a particular thing in mind that you’re trying to explain to the other person—like maybe someone is asking me to tell them about my app, Complice:

Me: “It’s a system where each day you put in what you’re doing towards your long-term goals, and track what you accomplish.”
Them: “Ohh, so like, you use it to plan out projects and keep track of all of the stuff you need to do… deadlines and so on…”
Me: “Ahh, no, it’s much more… agile than that. The idea is that long-term plans and long task lists end up becoming stale, so Complice is designed to not accrue stuff over time, and instead it’s just focused on making progress today and reflecting periodically.”

Where the shared goal is to hone in on exactly how Complice works, it makes sense for me to correct what they put out.

We might contrast that with a hypothetical continuation of that conversation, in which we’re trying to brainstorm, or flesh out an idea: » read the rest of this entry »

Expectations: Entitlements & Anticipations

Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.

Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…

A gif from Rocky Horror Picture Show: "I see you shiver with antici..."

1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.

Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.

2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)

There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!

…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.

» read the rest of this entry »

Stay focused on what matters
Check out Complice, a web-app that I built to help people achieve their personal & professional goals. Complice logo
Follow me on Twitter!