Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

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A ritual to upgrade my Face

One of the easiest times to change your personality (to become less shy, for instance) is when you move somewhere new. Personalities are interfaces, so those who are familiar with you will have expectations of how to interface with you—some of which they may cherish; others may be frustrating.

But at any rate, the ways that they’ll interact with you will be designed to interface with the personality they know. Which means that it’ll tend to reinforce the older patterns in you, since those will be easiest and most comfortable. (There’s an additional element related to the logic of appropriateness, too)

I recently found myself wanting to upgrade my personality, without an obvious context change like moving.

And, since I had been talking with my friend Brent about chaos magick, ritual-work and my behaviour change desires, he suggested creating a ritual for myself.

I liked the idea: a ritual would…

  • help the less-verbal parts of my brain (hint: this is a large fraction) understand what I was trying to do,
  • give me space to practice the new mental motions
  • demonstrate to myself and others that I was serious about making this change.

As I said above, if you want to have dramatic change, there usually has to be a moment when it happens. Otherwise you’re going to tend to assume that » read the rest of this entry »

Building a model of Why I Don’t Like Teasing (Usually)

I’ve known for years that I’m not very fond of the thing commonly referred to as “teasing”, or more technically “casual interpersonal antagonism”. I made that term up. But there’s something helpful in thinking that there could be technical terms for stuff like this. Another technical term is “friendly countersignaling“. It seemed people were trying to justify saying mean things by saying “well I didn’t really mean it” but it seemed that often they did mean it.

I realized this way back when I had my first break-up at age 16. My partner at the time really liked a certain kind of teasing that I found very aversive (for example, saying “you’re weird” in a way that made it sound like this was a bad thing) and this was one part of what made things tense enough to prompt a breakup (although maybe it just exacerbated existing tension?). I don’t blame her: at the start of our relationship, a year or so prior, I’d actually been quite teasy myself, but I think that that teasing (which was fairly flirty I guess) itself came out of a lot of insecurity and fear that I had had at the time. Like I was trying hard to pretend I didn’t like her because I was afraid she mightn’t like me. Whereas once we’d been dating for awhile that didn’t really make sense, on my end.

Anyway, enough about Malcolm’s early love-life. The point is that I had an aversion to teasing, not just abstractly but from a specific instance of it being problematic. I even had a model of myself as someone who didn’t like teasing, and I warned some later romantic partners about it going into the relationship. But I didn’t really think much more about why I didn’t like teasing: it just seemed like the natural state of affairs.

Until this summer.

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Proactively learning to think *about* what I think with

John Shotter, in More than cool reason: ‘Withness-thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’ and ‘thinking about systems’, writes about the difference between “aboutness” and “withness” thinking. The former tries to look at the world objectively: to place oneself outside of what’s being looked at. The latter includes the self and its relationship to the whole in the sense-making.

The cover of John Shotter's book "Getting It: Withness-Thinking and the Dialogical... in Practice"

He describes how with complex situations, which includes many social ones, we need to use withness thinking, because we don’t just need to learn new things but we need to become something new. In these situations, we’re changing not just what we think about but “what we think with”… how we relate to our situation.

Hence these kinds of changes cannot be produced by following intellectually devised plans, procedures, or protocols; they cannot be done, intentionally, by people taking deliberate actions—this is because the coordinated execution of planned actions depends upon all concerned already sharing the set of existing concepts relevant to the formulation of the plan, thus all new plans depend on old concepts – the process results in the “continual rediscovery of sameness.”

This is something that makes a lot of sense to me, in many ways. I’ve written before about the idea that some things have to be learned by abstracting from experiences, rather than by being told something or otherwise following a series of steps.

It’s also something I find kind of scary. I found it scary two years ago—I know this because I wrote so in the margins of the article when I first read it then.

Tonight I realized why.
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“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 »

The Time I Caught Myself Whistling

I once caught myself whistling.

I had done something to someone, that I really regretted, and I felt sick about it. I kept replaying the scene, wishing I’d done something different. Over, and over.

Then I was working on math homework, and just kind of distracted myself from being a person interacting with other people altogether. It was just me, and the symbols, the logic.

After the math homework, I was on my way to meet up with people to go for a run, and I caught myself whistling some sort of cheery tune. I was shocked: “Malcolm, you can’t be whistling..! You’re supposed to be all upset about this thing you did!”

I came so close. To believing what I told myself. I very nearly threw myself back down into that pit of despair and angst and regret and nausea. But then I realized I didn’t have to. That me stewing over what I’d done wasn’t helping anyone at all.

So I kept whistling.

“You don’t choose what happens to you, but you choose how you respond”

My parents had told me, since I was quite young, that I could choose what emotions I felt in response to a situation.

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Unselfconsciousness training (MFT III)

Raise your hand if you’ve practised mindfulness before.

Mindfulness [meditation], as probably most of you know, is the practice of focusing your attention on (usually) your breath, and when your mind wanders, bringing it back. You’re training your ability to deliberately influence your subjective experience. You’re training your ability to not be distracted, and to recover from distraction.

But how are you doing this? You’re sitting on your cushion, in your quiet room… practising not being distracted by… well, nothing. I mean, your own thoughts, sure. But you’re not really trying to use your brain for anything, so this is pretty crude: all thoughts get set aside. This is maybe level one mindfulness: a good foundation, but not that directly applicable to everyday life.

What can you do with it? What would applied mindfulness look like?

How could you train these skills in contexts more like the ones in which you’ll actually use them?

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Unlearning shoddy thinking

A Crumpled Paper Ball by Turinboy

School taught me to write banal garbage because people would thumbs-up it anyway. That approach has been interfering with me trying to actually express my plans in writing because my mind keeps simulating some imaginary prof who will look it over and go “ehh, good enough”.

Looking good enough isn’t actually good enough! I’m trying to build an actual model of the world and a plan that will actually work.

Granted, school isn’t necessarily all like this. In mathematics, you need to actually solve the problem. In engineering, you need to actually build something that works. But even in engineering reports, you can get away with a surprising amount of shoddy reasoning. A real example:

Since NodeJS uses the V8 JavaScript engine, it has native support for the common JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) format for data transfer, which means that interoperability between SystemQ and other CompanyX systems can still be fairly straightforward (Jelvis, 2011).

This excerpt is technically totally true, but it’s also garbage, especially as a reason to use NodeJS. Sure, JSON is native to JS, but every major web programming language supports JSON. The pressure to provide citable justifications for decisions which were made for reasons more like “I enjoy JavaScript and am skilled with it,” produces some deliberately confirmation-biased writing. This is just one pattern—there are many others. » read the rest of this entry »

Pattern-botching: when you forget you understand

It’s all too easy to let a false understanding of something replace your actual understanding. Sometimes this is an oversimplification, but it can also take the form of an overcomplication. I have an illuminating story:

Years ago, when I was young and foolish, I found myself in a particular romantic relationship that would later end for epistemic reasons, when I was slightly less young and slightly less foolish. Anyway, this particular girlfriend of mine was very into healthy eating: raw, organic, home-cooked, etc. During her visits my diet would change substantially for a few days. At one point, we got in a tiny fight about something, and in a not-actually-desperate chance to placate her, I semi-jokingly offered: “I’ll go vegetarian!”

“I don’t care,” she said with a sneer.

…and she didn’t. She wasn’t a vegetarian. Duhhh… I knew that. We’d made some ground beef together the day before.

So what was I thinking? » 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 »

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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