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 »

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.
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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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A laptop employed as a nightlight

This post is kind of from two years ago. I got thinking about it again last night when I was reading Wait But Why’s The Cook and the Chef, an article describing how Elon Musk does what he does, which is a lot. The author, Tim Urban, is using an analogy of chefs as those who actually do something original and cooks who just follow recipes. He remarks that most people think that most people are chefs and then some chefs are just better than others… but that a better model is that most people are cooks (some better than others) and then the main difference between most people and Elon Musk isn’t quantitative (“he’s smarter”) but rather qualitative (“he does things differently”).

It’s like a bunch of typewriters looking at a computer and saying, “Man, that is one talented typewriter.”

Imagine a laptop.
What can you use it for?
That laptop can be used as a paperweight.
It is, in fact, better than some objects (such as a pen) at being a paperweight.
But that’s probably a waste of the laptop.
What else can you use it for?
It can also be used as a nightlight.
It has quite a lot of comparative advantage at being a nightlight—most objects don’t emit light, so a laptop works pretty well there.
However, it’s still a huge waste.
And, if you’re a human, not a computer, it feels terrible to be wasted: to not be used for your full range of capabilities.
» read the rest of this entry »

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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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 »

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 »

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 »

Nuanced Invitations in Tell Culture

It’s my birthday today. I’m throwing a party tomorrow! (A cuddle party (like last year) with also a dancefloor (an addition to last year)). Organizing the party has actually been fairly straightforward. What’s been more complex is figuring out who to invite. Or rather, who not to invite.

So first I invited a bunch of really obvious people: close friends and my partner, and a friend who I hoped would be down to DJ for a bit. A couple of friends who’d previously expressed interest in a cuddle party. Who else?

I’m part of a fairly close-knit community, living in an intentional house. One assumption might be that I’d invite everyone who lives in my house. I think, if it weren’t “my birthday party”, but just a general cuddle party like I’ve also thrown, then I probably would have. But it’s my birthday party, so I don’t need to assume anything in particular about the guest list.

I found myself reflecting: there were a bunch of people that I was totally open to having at my party, but whom I didn’t want to explicitly invite. Why was this?

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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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