Don’t get distracted and crash

About half a million people are injured each year from motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. (This post isn’t actually about driving—we’re going to use driving as an analogy to understand something else.)

This article cites research to answer a bunch of FAQs about the dangers of talking on the phone while driving. One of these is:

Q: Is talking on the phone more distracting than talking to a passenger?

A: The cognitive workload for the driver is the same, according to Strayer. In his test, conversing with a passenger rated a 2.3 on the 1-to-5 scale; talking on a hand-held phone, a 2.4; and a hands-free phone, a 2.3. However, having another person in the car generally results in safer driving, because there’s often an extra set of eyes on the road. Also, passengers tend to stop talking when the demands of driving increase, Strayer says. “So passenger and cell conversations have different crash risks because the passenger helps out.”

There are a couple things going on here. One of them is that the passenger has more situational awareness: the phone-based conversational partner may not even know their counterpart is on the road, let alone any of the details. The passenger can observe not only the driver but also the state of the car and the surroundings. They may additionally be aware of the intended destination, and so on. The other main thing that’s going on is that the passenger is going the same place as the driver, in the same vehicle, so they have a natural built-in interest to help the drive go well. They have a shared intent, and aligned interests.

Now, if I’m on the phone with you while I’m driving, you (hopefully!) don’t want me to crash, but psychologically it’s very different from when you yourself are (a) at risk and (b) your hindbrain knows it.

So I think that there’s something important going on with both of these pieces: awareness and values.

Other hazards of distraction

If you get distracted while driving, you might get in an accident. If you get distracted while working, or otherwise pursuing some sort of goal, you might waste time and fail to achieve your aims. And as with driving, other people can totally be distracting.

Given that, what can we learn from the driving analogy, that might inform how and with whom we choose to relate?
» read the rest of this entry »

Use unique, non-obvious terms for nuanced concepts

Naming things! Naming things is hard. It’s been claimed that it’s one of the hardest parts of computer science. Now, this might sound surprising, but one of my favoritely named concepts is Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2.

I want you to pause for a few seconds and consider what comes to mind when you read just the bolded phrase above.

Got it?

If you’re familiar with the concepts of S1 and S2, then you probably have a pretty rich sense of what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you have a partial notion: “I think it was about…” or something. If you’ve never been exposed to the concept, then you probably have no idea.

Now, Kahneman could have reasonably named these systems lots of other things, like “emotional cognition” and “rational cognition”… or “fast, automatic thinking” and “slow, deliberate thinking”. But now imagine that it had been “emotional and rational cognition” that Kahneman had written about, and the effect on the earlier paragraph.

It would be about the same for those who had studied it in depth, but now those who had heard about it briefly (or maybe at one point knew about the concepts) would be reminded of that one particular contrast between S1 and S2 (emotion/reason) and be primed to think that was the main one, forgetting about all of the other parameters that that distinction seeks to describe. Those who had never heard of Kahneman’s research might assume that they basically knew what the terms were about, because they already have a sense of what emotion and reason are.

» read the rest of this entry »

Debating the implications (not the facts)

I spent last weekend mentoring at a CFAR workshop. One interesting pattern that I and another mentor identified was that sometimes less enthused participants would confront one of us about CFAR’s flaws. These conversations often seemed to have a thing in common:

Participant: “So it seems that CFAR has flaw X, and also flaw Y.”
Me: “Oh yeah, totally. Those are definitely issues that are keeping CFAR from really being as great as it could be.”
Participants: “So like, ugh, CFAR?”
Me: “But like… CFAR!”

Which is to say that the participant was taking flaws X and Y as implying that CFAR was doomed or something, whereas I was thinking that CFAR was pretty great, and would be even better once X and Y were fixed. And hey, great, now that we’ve identified that X and Y are the main flaws, that’s substantial progress towards fixing them.

Neither position is necessarily right. The implications are » read the rest of this entry »

CFAR 3 year retrospective

“Made it back from the CFAR retreat. Wow. What an amazing 5 days.”

— me in my journal, three years ago, on January 29th, 2013. Tomorrow I’m about to go be a mentor at another workshop, that’s both deeply similar to the one I attended 3 years ago, and very different.

As am I.

I’m not very sentimental, but the decision to go to that workshop had a bigger impact on my life than most other decisions I’ve made (especially ones that seemed about that size) so I wanted to take some time to do a little retrospective.

Ideally, it would be cool to look at my Jan’13 workbook and compare it with my current sense of things, but unfortunately it’s back in Canada. One thing I was able to do was to pull up my Remember The Milk. Back then, one of the things that CFAR guided its participants to do was to set up a modified Getting Things Done system, with the idea that this was practically necessary to making anything else happen consistently in the weeks following the workshop.

It seems that I actually stuck to this system for longer than I remembered doing so—about a year, including several months after creating Complice, my own productivity system. This isn’t too surprising though, given that Complice itself is geared towards “what am I doing towards my goals today?” rather than the inbox+organization aspects of GTD.

At any rate, one of the things I found when I dug up my old list of tasks was a bunch of ones from the CFAR workshop highlighting phrases I wanted to look up. Three notable examples: (all concepts from the Less Wrong Sequences)

» read the rest of this entry »

Delegating to future-you can be a suggestion, not a command

Imagine that you often forget to put the trash out on thursday night before the garbage truck comes on friday morning. Taking the trash out isn’t super fun, but you know, neither is never taking the trash out (eww) and it’s probably better to take it out thursday night than friday at noon.

So then imagine that it’s thursday night, and you’re on the phone with your friend from out of town, and they remind you that “hey, last time we talked, weren’t you lamenting that you always forget to take the trash out on Thursday?”

That would be a pretty helpful reminder, right? And you probably wouldn’t be mad at your friend. I deliberately made it be your out-of-town friend reminding you, not your housemate, because I wanted to have it be a person who obviously wasn’t responsible for doing it themselves.


Imagine that instead of your friend reminding you, the reminder comes from past-you. You had set up a little calendar event or something that goes “ping!” on thursday evenings. I think that the way a lot of people feel about these reminders from past-selves is that they’re commands: “HEY YOU. TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE, NOW.” » read the rest of this entry »

2015: A Year of Freedom

Another year, another yearly review blog post.

I was kind of nervous when I thought about writing this one: some of my numbers or more objective measures of life-quality or performance have gone down this year (e.g. pushups, books read). Did my life get worse? Or did I implicitly switch to measuring my life by different means?

I had a fantastic year, with several notable milestones, so I think it’s more-so the latter. But one must be careful of moving the goal-posts after the ball is in motion!

Let’s try the object-process-meta structure I used the last two years, roughly “what did I do?” “how did I do it?” and “why did I do it?”

(Edit: Great Scott, the Object-level section is looooong. I won’t blame you if you want to jump to the Process-level section, which contains more reflection and less “here’s what I did”)

Object-level: what did I do in 2015?

Okay, the first exciting thing to announce is I graduated from university. Bachelor of Applied Science, Systems Design Engineering. I went to school at UWaterloo, so like the rest of Engineering grads across Canada I got an iron ring with an interesting story in addition to my diploma.
» read the rest of this entry »

Needles you can’t move with your hand

What do you want? Great, go get it. Tomorrow, maybe.

This is better advice for some things than others. To use a trivial example, say you’re part of a business that involves selling directly to clients. And your goal is to grow sales by X% this year. Well, you can’t reach out and directly move the dial on how much product the company has sold. What you can do is make more sales calls. Just remember: what ultimately matters isn’t the number of calls but the annual sales.

Lead & Lag measures

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (great pdf summary here) calls this distinction “lead measures” vs “lag measures”. Lead measures are the ones that you can influence directly, in the short term. They tend to be relatively “instrumental“—not things you want intrinsically, so much as things you want because they help you get things you do want intrinstically. The lead measures that you choose for a given situation represent a belief you have about the best way to influence the lag measure. For the most part, you’d happily choose a different lead measure if you thought that’s what could get you closer to the goal.

Briefly, some examples that follow this pattern:

  • # of pushups done is a lead measure… max # of pushups you can do is a lag measure
  • caloric intake or other dietary numbers are lead measures… your weight / health is usually relatively laggy
  • hours studied is a lead measure… grades are a lag measure
  • number of people messaged on okcupid is a lead measure… actually getting dates or a relationship is a lag measure
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Interfacing at the Speed of Thought

There are a lot of interfaces that irk me, not because they’re poorly designed in general, but because they don’t interface well with my brain. In particular, they don’t interface well with the speed of brains. The best interfaces become extensions of your body. You gain the same direct control over them that you have over your fingertips, your eyes, your tongue in forming words.

This essay comes in two parts: (1) why this is an issue and (2) advice on how to make the best of what we’ve got.

Feedback and control systems in the body

One thing that characterizes your control over your body is that it (usually) has very, very good feedback. Probably a bunch of kinds you don’t even realize exists. Consider that your muscles don’t actually know anything about location, but simply exerting a pulling force. If all of the information you had were your senses of sight and touch-against-skin, and the ability to control those pulling forces, it would be really hard to control your body. But fortunately, you also have proprioception, the sense that lets you know where your body is, even if your eyes are shut and nothing is touching. For example, close your eyes and try to bring your finger to about 2cm (an inch) from your nose. It’s trivially easy.

One more example that I love and then I’ll move on. Compensatory eye movements. Focus your gaze at something at least two feet away, then bobble your head around. Tried it? Your brain has sophisticated systems (approximating calculus that most engineering students would struggle with) that move your eyes exactly opposite to your head, so that whatever you’re looking at remains in the center of your gaze and really quite incredibly stable even while you flail your head. This blew my mind when I first realized it.

The result of all of these control systems is that our bodies kind of just do what we tell them to. As I type this, I don’t have to be constantly monitoring whether my arms are exerting enough force to stay levitated above my keyboard. I just will them to be there. It’s beyond easy―it’s effortless.

Now, try willing your phone to call your friend. You’re allowed to communicate your will using your voice, your hands, whatever. Why does it take so many steps, or so much waiting?

» read the rest of this entry »

Then I Wake Up (a short story)

Then I wake up. I’m in a… a bar? a café? Hmm. Yeah, I seem to have fallen asleep curled up in the corner of this café. I’m thirsty. I go to the counter and order a drink.

“What do you want?” asks the woman at the counter.

I stare at her blankly for what seems like a long time. What do I..? …what do I want? This is a tough question. Even if I came up with an answer, how could I know that it was truly what I wanted? The human mind, I know, is good at answering the wrong question. Maybe whenever I think I’ve figured out the answer to “What do I want?” I’m actually answering “What feels good to think about right now?” Or something.

“Tea? Or coffee? We have a nice medium roast…”

Ah! Yes. What do I want to drink?

“Uhh, black tea, I guess?” Might help me stay alert.

I’m pretty sure that the question I’ve answered is more like “what feels like a good idea?” than “what do I want?” but that seems okay. This drink decision isn’t super important.

I see my friend walking by, and go over to say hi.


“Oh, hey!”

“It’s super cool that you’re here in my dream with me,” I blurt out.

He gives me a weird look.

Wait, what? “In my dream”? But then I realize that whatever part of me said that is right. I just woke up a few minutes ago, but I’m still dreaming.

Then I wake up.

This time I’m in a bed—that makes a bit more sense. Okay, bed. Wait, whose bed? The bed feels familiar and yet it’s clearly in some sense not my bed. I hear Sam’s voice in an adjacent room… oh yeah, I slept over here last night.

She hears me getting up, and calls from the kitchen, “Do you want tea?”

» read the rest of this entry »

Why I blog

This image from some goal factoring I did 2 years ago basically sums it up. It’s worth noting that this was originally part of a much larger graph, with hundreds of nodes and edges, and I just clicked on the action node “write blog posts” and exported all nodes that it had an arrow to. Also: despite the hundreds of nodes, this goal factoring chart wasn’t at all complete—for instance, it seems from the post that “have a successful blog” is a terminal goal of mine, i.e. something that I just want, no matter what. This is… not quite true :P. Also there are definitely reasons I want to become smarter beyond seeming smart. That’s not even the main reason.

Anyway, I figure (in part because I need to write more words for my blog post writing month (this post was written in November)) that it’s worth elaborating on various pieces of this.

blogging goal factoring

Why I write

I enjoy writing

This is a pretty simple one, but important to include because when I forget that I enjoy writing I often tend to feel more angst about trying to get myself to do it. » read the rest of this entry »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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