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?
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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?

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The patterns that we’re made of

Lizard

A leaf with a shadow on it cast by a gecko on the other side of the leaf.

A photo of a different creature, by Laura Pashkevich

A few months ago, I was sitting in my friend’s backyard, eating breakfast. His family had made a glorious garden with all sorts of tiled mosiacs and flowers and trees and so on. Chewing on some omelette, I was enjoying the view when I saw… a lizard.

It was maybe 15cm long… initially moving and then suddenly motionless. I got up to have a better look.

I found myself wanting to attach various narratives to its motionlessness. “What’s the purpose of this lizard?” I wondered. “What is it trying to do right now?”

I had been recently reading The Simple Math of Evolution, a sequence of posts intended to convey how evolution works in a really straightforward, graspable way. One thing I took away from the post was that evolution is purposeless, and totally nonstrategic. It is simply an optimization process.

This lizard, I realized, had no purpose. » 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 »

Why giving humans bug reports is easier than giving feature suggestions

I spent this past weekend at a case study competition called UW Apprentice, which was unique among events I’ve attended in two ways. One is that the cases were fresh from real startups that came in and explained the challenge they were experiencing, and who were all set to act on the best advice. The other was that you gave and received feedback with each of your teammates after each cases, and so you could review it all immediately. In theory, this could let you update your behaviour for the next case to be a more valuable team member, although I think in practice the schedule was too rushed for much reflection to occur.

Anyway, I noticed something interesting while filling out the “needs improvement” section at one point. The team member I was giving feedback to didn’t have any obvious shortcomings, and I found myself at a bit of a loss for what to say. Obviously they weren’t perfect, but they were totally generally “good” across the board. I wrote something general that was related to my sense of why we hadn’t won that round.

Today, I thought of this again when I was doing the final edits on a peer letter of recommendation for a fellowship program my friend was applying to. I had written last week in the draft: “It’s hard for me to think of a really good suggestion for an area of improvement for Tessa—” …today I added “—I’ve noticed it’s much easier to recommend bugfixes than features, for people.”

In this blog post, I figured I’d reflect a bit more on…

  • what the difference is
  • why feature suggestions are harder
  • some strategies for feature suggestions

It might be kind of rough, and I might find future!me disagreeing with current!me about this pretty soon, in which case I may edit it.

Before that: what am I not talking about?

Is it just the difference between negative and positive feedback? Nope. Negative feedback has the structure of “that thing you did—don’t do that [as often]”, while positive feedback has the structure of “that thing you did—keep doing it [and maybe do it more]”. The bug report / feature suggestion thing is more subtle.
» 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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