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 »

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 »

Honing mode and 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 »

“The sparkly pink purple ball thing”

Alternate title: “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” & “rational cognition”… or “fast, automatic thinking” & “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.

Update: I have revised my opinion on S1/S2 in particular. There may or may not be meaningful clusters being pointed at by Kahneman and others, but in this case the terms S1 & S2 were vague enough that a bunch of other things got projected onto them instead. See this LW post and my comment on it for more on this.

The more general point I’m trying to make in this point still stands though.

» 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 »

Just Do A Thing (that nobody’s expecting you to do)

This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.

Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented.  How do we make more people like you?”

It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:

“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”

Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once.  I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.

I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour.  Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch.  I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.

These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs.  My advice to pretty much everyone:

» read the rest of this entry »

“What’s it like to be you?”

At burning man this year, I spent a day exploring that question, from the inside and from the outside.

“What’s it like to be you?” I asked someone sitting at the Tea House at my camp. They said something like, “It’s awesome. My life is really great. I have all of these really good friends…” and I said “Sure, sure, but what’s it like?”

I was trying to understand, I guess, what the texture of his qualia was like. (Qualia = “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”(wikipedia)) I was having this feeling that other people were just figures in my dream, or just characters in my story, and I think this was in part an attempt to break out of that.

I spent a few hours at the Tea House, talking with friends and strangers, trying to get glimpses into what the plots of their stories looked like, and sampling my own experiences as well. I ran into Brayden, one of my campmates, around the start of this, who told me that he was heading out. I ran into him again, hours later, just before I was heading out, and he said he was going to go sleep.

I spent a moment being present to the reality that he had had his own story happen in the space between those two tiny interactions, and that our plots had just intersected momentarily.

After I left camp, I found myself reflecting that the “What is it like to be you?” question, while pointed and interesting, wasn’t the only way to get clues about the texture of others’ experience. “How are you doing?” when asked with the right kind of tone, could actually generate some windows into the other person as well. Also, of course, off-hand remarks that people make, if you’re paying attention.

Part of my mission for that day was » read the rest of this entry »

Ultimatums in the Territory

When you think of “ultimatums”, what comes to mind?

Manipulativeness, maybe? Ultimatums are typically considered a negotiation tactic, and not a very pleasant one.

But there’s a different thing that can happen, where an ultimatum is made, but where articulating it isn’t a speech act but rather an observation. As in, the ultimatum wasn’t created by the act of stating it, but rather, it already existed in some sense.

Some concrete examples: negotiating relationships

I had a tense relationship conversation a few years ago. We’d planned to spend the day together in the park, and I was clearly angsty, so my partner asked me what was going on. I didn’t have a good handle on it, but I tried to explain what was uncomfortable for me about the relationship, and how I was confused about what I wanted. After maybe 10 minutes of this, she said, “Look, we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t want to have it again. If we’re going to do this relationship, I need you to promise we won’t have this conversation again.”

I thought about it. I spent a few moments simulating the next months of our relationship. I realized that I totally expected this to come up again, and again. Earlier on, when we’d had the conversation the first time, I hadn’t been sure. But it was now pretty clear that I’d have to suppress important parts of myself if I was to keep from having this conversation.

“…yeah, I can’t promise that,” I said.

“I guess that’s it then.”

“I guess so.”

I think a more self-aware version of me could have recognized, without her prompting, that my discomfort represented an unreconcilable part of the relationship, and that I basically already wanted to break up.

The rest of the day was a bit weird, but it was at least nice that we had resolved this. We’d realized that it was a fact about the world that there wasn’t a serious relationship that we could have that we both wanted.

I sensed that when she posed the ultimatum, she wasn’t doing it to manipulate me. She was just » read the rest of this entry »

Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below. » read the rest of this entry »

Deciding to make things happen

Last Thursday—after my last day of classes ever—one of my classmates, Sung Cheul Hong and I found ourselves in an interesting conversation at a local craftbeer bar. At one point I asked him, “What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree? Not necessarily from school, though it could be.”

He thought for a moment, then answered: (this is from memory, a beer and 3 days later)

I think it was… that you can just kind of decide to make things happen. I wanted to make a positive impact on campus, and I had this idea for a Product Vision Club to educate students about product management, with companies giving talks and students building and executing on their visions.

I didn’t have anyone on board, I just wrote a one pager, like what this club is about and what we are going to do this term, and made a facebook group and a public announcement… and people rolled in! An exec team, guest speakers, and of course members.

I just had an idea and a high-level plan, then I publicly announced the plan as if it were happening regardless, and… Bam!

What Sung said probably wouldn’t’ve been my answer if someone had asked me the question, but this is a thing I’ve been learning. I wrote last year in my post about self-authorship, about how I realized I had no birthday plans, and just decided that I would have a cuddle party, announced it, and it happened. This year, I one-upped my past self and » 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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