sticky post: yes i can write :-)

As a wider audience starts to find this blog, I’m getting more comments about grammar and general intelligibility. Yes, I know! I can write! 🙂 Priorities and time constraints. Here’s a high-quality writing sample.

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another curated window into my blog: human systems, psychodynamics, metacognition, meditation

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Table of contents:

  1. Phenomenology and Coordination Mechanisms of Heterogeneous Human Systems
  2. Personality Types (e.g. Gender) and Developmental Psychology
  3. Beliefs, Psychodynamics, and Behavioral Dynamics
  4. Personal Metacognition, Tactics, Strategy
  5. Meditation

1. Phenomenology and Coordination Mechanisms of Heterogeneous Human Systems

It’s easy to say that human behavior is influenced by status, power, prestige, belonging, sexuality, meaning—monkeys monkeying for monkey purposes.

And, one can study all that (“status,” “power”) from the outside. But one can simultaneously study these phenomena from the inside, too, as subtle, sneaky, powerful impulses, urges, thoughts, and behaviors. Human consciousness and metacognition only tenuously, intermittently, and, usually obliquely, represent and apprehend these phenomena. We mostly infer their influence retrospectively (episodic memory) or in aggregate (research constructs), let alone consciously experiencing their phenomenological dynamics in the moment. But they influence, motivate, and bookend our experiences, subtly driving our behavior over minutes and decades while often pretending they don’t.

In any case, how do communities (let alone countries) effectively engage with all that? How do we maximize the chances for efficient and effective collaboration, among diverse sets of values, needs, aesthetics, and personalities? Tragedies of the commons, common pool resources—much is at stake, be it sublime friendship or romance or geopolitical energy reserves. I’m developing lightweight tools, which hopefully add something to the discourse:

2. Personality Types (e.g. Gender) and Developmental Psychology

Individual humans have propensities and tendencies, in their interests, thinking patterns, sexuality, etc. Across many humans, one can abstract useful psychodynamic patterns—maps—for navigation, for ethically coaxing, coordinating, collaborating.

(What is the best that psychometrics has to offer? And can we do better? The pop stuff, e.g. Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram have signal but also uneven factor loading and epistemological impoverishment—they don’t carve up reality at the joints, and neither do existing research constructs. How about prenatal endocrinology? Neurotransmitter profiles? Genetics? Nurture? We can do better.)

In addition to snapshot personality profiles, critically, there are also patterns in time: in the purview of developmental psychology, human beings tend to change in predictable ways over years (in values, ethics, concerns, aesthetics, goal pursuit, time horizons, epistemology, ontology…). How can we facilitate that change? What are all the dimensions of that change? What are the far limits of that change? What comes after normative, conventional adulthood? How do we flesh out all the dimensions of that?

3. Beliefs, Psychodynamics, and Behavioral Dynamics

Years ago, I tracked down and realized the commonalities between Focusing, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Coherence Therapy, and more. I’ve spent many hours working with these tools, and thinking about extracting the (neurophenomenological) invariants from these tools, in order to make them more efficient and more effective. Where do supposed hypocrisy, self-defeating behaviors, overreaction, defensiveness, shame, so-called alienated birthrights, learned helplessness, limiting or rigid beliefs, “the shadow,” “neuroses,” “defense mechanisms,” impulsiveness, emotional violence, loss of voice… where do these come from? How does one effectively engage with them? What does the positive, extreme opposite of this stuff look like?

4. Personal Metacognition, Tactics, Strategy

Sometimes explicit habits and tools can greatly improve the quality of one’s life, making the difference between anxious perseveration versus decisive, cumulative traction towards deeply valued, idiosyncratic, personally meaningful goals. How can we explicitly teach the invariants behind those habits and tools, in ethical, palatable ways to people who want them? Different personality types and belief systems will respond to very different language and superficially different tools. How do we find the right language and tools for different people, so they can adapt them to their own aesthetics and needs?

5. Meditation

I have been meditating for many years. Neuroplasticity, for the win. I have tried to guide my meditation practice by extracting invariants from all major traditions and examining everything under the lenses of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, western phenomenology, and much more. I suppose I meditate, as carefully and skeptically as I can, to facilitate ontological flexibility, equanimity, and intense, intelligent, reflective, heartfelt engagement with self, others, and world. I’ve tried to provide useful, nondogmatic framings for intermediate meditators:

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novel operations manuals

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UPDATED; UPDATED

I’m exploring the idea, right now, of an “emotional operations manual.” That is, a document that is as engaging as a fiction novel but that encodes the complexity of, say, a McDonald’s Franchise Operations Manual (ew, but impressive).

This is kind of like that “business fable” genre. Here are some examples:

The books above are intended to be pleasant read, to pack an emotional punch, and to demonstrate new thought patterns and behaviors. At best, they one-shot install new behaviors. At worst, they provide some feel-good inspiration and some really impoverished, leaky abstractions that don’t survive contact with reality. (Actually, the “at worst” is worse, but I’ll leave it at that.)

The books above are… not that great. But it’s not a terrible strategy.

I just want to do something kind of like that, but… better. And, I want to see if I can do it efficiently.

Like, a really good novel (or short story, whatever) and, simultaneously, conveyance of high Kolmogorov complexity information, like a really good textbook. (Actually most textbooks suck and aren’t practical. But that level of technical depth, if not length.)

So let’s say like an evidence-based, 99.999-percentile-quality self-help book that’s a genuinely gripping read that you want to share and talk about for fun.

Because: ethically inspiring and coordinating people.

“Whoa, I want that. Whoa, I think that could actually happen if we all worked together. Whoa, enough other people would actually read and finish this and feel the same way. Hey, read this. Hey, let’s actually do this. Hey, ok, yeah, for reals. [sic]”

Here’s a subset of the tools I’m working with, right now, to explore this idea (minus specific domain knowledge; in no particular order):

Also, at first this reads as wtf, but there’s actually some deep insight, here:

Write Nonfiction With Passion

UPDATE:

UPDATE:

UPDATE:

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stable, resource-rich intentional communities and the monkey brain

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[This post is being discussed on the google group.]

>> Are you trying to build a community of some sort?

The below is going to come off as sketchy, poorly-focused, cringy, and immature. I’ve sort of mixed in some boring personal stuff. I could spend hours getting the length and tone right…

There is a tl;dr at the bottom.

I’m interested in a few different kinds of communities. First, I’m interested in a Leverage-style community, where, one way or another, money is coming in, and everyone’s working together on a genuinely shared vision. Second, I’m interested in more of an “intentional community”-style community, where people live within in a mile, if not within feet, of each other, and there are shared values around what a community should look like.

 

Why

Generally, I don’t feel a sense of place at a deep monkey level. I think it involves both a sense of belonging as well as a sense of “security” or “non-tenuousness” around having some sort of stable community.

I hypothesize that this sense of lack, which is strong and distracting, may evaporate if my brain is presented with the right kind of inputs in the environment.

So, I am trying to deeply, fundamentally, genuinely provide those inputs to my brain, knowing that the final arbiter (“yes”/”no”) is beyond my deliberate control. (Of course, one can engage in constructive, palliative behaviors, but they aren’t a complete and permanent solution for releasing attention and cognitive resources for other things.)

The barriers to the above are people and resources–relationships and money.

Regarding people, I hypothesize that I feel the way I do, in the first place, because of the lack of deep resonance with most of the people around me: I don’t share the same ontologies, I don’t share the same values, and I have differently developed competencies.

1. Ontologies

My thinking usually grounds in neuroscience, biochemistry, evolutionary psychology, and dynamic equilibria. (And phenomenological dynamics and precision, but I’ll get to that in a subsequent section.)

It’s not hard to end up in conversations with intelligent, generally kind, low-drama professionals or graduate students/postdocs/faculty. But I still experience a massive inferential distance when I talk to such people. [Case in point, “inferential distance” is jargon.]

And I have spent a decent amount of time exploring creative, strategic ways to short-circuit inferential distances.

Even so, I still end up in conversations about the “Law of Attraction” or “Obama” or “sports,” or whatever.

Take the “Law of Attraction.” I generally give up on the neuroscience and actual goal pursuit research and instead talk about the “shadow” or “integrating multiple voices,” and how LoA is this sort of impoverished, inefficient, usually ineffective abstraction and that there are potentially much better models/tools available.

Or, take Obama. Why not talk about about oil or the military-industrial complex or least try to agree on the geopolitical levers that are not actually epiphenomenal to this discussion?

In any case, more often than not, in friendly, well-meaning groups–

And, maybe I’m just cranky, but–

My mental models naturally, effortlessly have more moving parts than yours, and I disagree, and I’m bored.

Been there, done that, have better things to do.

2. Values

The more money floating around, the less it matters, but I prefer IKEA (or found) furniture, cheapo folding tables, a mattress on the floor, but expensive cookware, quality food, and a non-bottleneck computer.

Personally, I want a handful of quality (but still-easily-replaceable) possessions, throwaway everything else, and that’s about it. I want to focus my attention in relating-space, freedom-to-move-about-the-world-space, and shape-reality-in-accordance-with-my-values-space.

Cars, car-maintenance, houses, house-maintenance–YAWN. I mean, sometimes owning such things is strategic, but I don’t treat them as a given, a given attention- and time-sink. Not interested.

(Again, much of the above matters less, the more money there is available to throw at problems, to make them go away, and money for people to shape their surroundings semi-uncoupled from each other.)

But, also values-wise, I want an eye to the far future. We’re probably all gonna die. Oblivion. I’m keeping an eye on cryogenics, but still. In light of that, how should one live? I don’t know, but I want to be around people who are asking that question instead of living each day the same as the last one.

3. Competencies

I’m relatively pretty damn calm, even in genuinely high-stakes, resource-constrained situations. I have an eye towards deep human values; I can phenomenologically grasp the turning and twisting, waxing and waning, of deep human concerns within myself. Cf. ontologies above, inner objects are available to me that are not available to most of the population. And I want to be around other people who are alive to those possibilities and values. It’s as if some people can only think, feel, and plan with construction paper and crayons, and I can plan with a fine-tipped pencil (or something).

When someone talks about, “some company is going to succeed in developing that technology,” just probably not your company. I know what they mean. When someone talks about actually intending to succeed, I know what they mean–

not to mention, being able to manage a large number of commitments without dropping balls or becoming overwhelmed, knowing how to work intelligently to keep the number of moving parts to the absolute minimum, not getting defensive after fucking up, being open to correction and criticism, being willing and able to be terribly embarrassed…

Some of these things come with age. Some of these things you can work at. I want to be around people who have been working at this things.

Barriers

1. Combinatorial search – finding people with all the above, all at once, is hard

2. Improper understanding of lead indicators – how do I know I’m getting closer or farther away? I may not understand that the people right in front of me are actually pretty close to who I want to be around, given a little time.

3. Self issues – I may have an improper understanding of what I actually want or what I actually need. What I want might be right in front of me, but barriers within myself prevent me from reaching out and taking it.

4. Money – lots of money would probably make everything easier, but it’s hard to focus on money if you’re being distracted by not having a community to make making money worth it.

 

Experiments Thus Far

1. Quirky free-for-alls: (Intellectualism-Activism-Idealism Hodgepodge) In one year, two-hundred hours, I ended up with a weekly meetup of 10-14 people, about 40% women. I eventually transitioned this off to a new organizer, and it lasted six more months without me. Two intimate relationships formed amongst attendees, and people eventually started hanging out in each other’s homes.

Outcome: People really appreciated it. I liked the people, but I never really felt like I connected. Whatever I needed, I wasn’t getting it. Also, it was a serious investment of time and energy.

2. This blog where I almost write about whatever I want, plus in-person meetups, plus web meetups. This is actually kind of working except that it’s so tiny it could evaporate at any time, leaving friends, which is excellent, but not a community which is absolutely necessary as an actual goal.

And it’s poorly optimized for an actual audience. The false-positives are low, but false-negatives are probably stratospheric.

Scaling issues: And there’s tons of important stuff that I resonate with that never makes it to the blog: There’s tons of stuff that I would want to read, but people don’t know I want to read it. So lots of opportunities to connect amongst people are still being wasted.

My blog has inspired a few other blogs, but it hasn’t turned into a blog network, a community.

3. I’m engaging more with the “kink” community. I’ve created a meetup/munch thing in that world, too. Too soon to see what happens, there. Already, though, “You are not going to get the level of discourse that you’re trying for, here.”

Lessons Learned from Experiments so Far

1. It’s too easy to be abrasive and off-putting to women (and anyone who doesn’t have a sort of vicious, analytical thinking style), who are necessary for anything to feel like an actual community. This may be my next focus, see, e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Clubhouse-Computing-Jane-Margolis/dp/0262632691/

2. Picking the rarest, hardest piece of the combinatorial search problem, and optimizing for that, kind of works.

3. I’m still not sure about the correct 80-20 choices with limited resources, re getting the deep content right, versus being grammatical, versus superficial visual styling, versus resource accumulation, etc.

4. Community-building is hard and highly cognitively consuming/draining, for me, with the beliefs and expectations that I currently have.

TL;DR and Conclusion

I want to be around people who:

1. Synergize competently around capital-generation, risk-mitigation, and social capital.

2. Strive to grasp and express deep, subtle, precise, comprehensive, humane values.

3. Are training their wetware–compassion, knee-jerk responses, autonomic arousal, phenomenological precision, attention management, working memory. (And everything else: nutrients, exercise, sleep… See also 5 below.)

4. Have an eye to the deep past and far future. People who grasp quarks, light-cones, evolutionary psychology, empiricism, and trillions of humans across the stars, who would reach out and grasp immortality, infinity if they could figure out the right actions to take to get there. 

5. Will work towards ever-improving, terrifying, vicious, strategic competence until they die. Highly forgiving. Highly humane. Endogenously, autonomously, idiosyncratic, personal-values-driven. High-performance (understatement) teams.

And the devil is in the details; and it’s hard. People rub each other the wrong way, find each other odious, for no particular reason. (“You’re just, ew”.) People make snap judgments.

People are “lumpy;” strongly developed in some ways, underdeveloped in others.

And complex mixtures of incentives, beliefs, and values don’t always synergize, even with a lot of mutual, consentful hammering. (“Nope. First, you’re wrong. Second, I don’t care.)

(Also, I ate your pizza, spent the community slush fund on hookers and blow, and I had sex with your girlfriend.”)

And as soon as the money dries up or something better comes along, people disappear to try again, somewhere else with a significant other. And I would, too.

***

Postscript: And, also, regarding all of this, why not? Things are possible with groups of people that aren’t possible alone. And that’s interesting and exciting, to reach for those bigger, harder things. I’m curious about groups where my voice is not lost but magnified, where the voice of each individual is legitimately felt to be the voice of the group…

 

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Expanding your working memory from 7 chunks to 700 chunks (or something) : An Alternative Getting Things Done (GTD) System

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Update: I’m already using this differently than I expected. I’m not using the Legend at all. Mini squares are getting two-letter mnemonics and sometimes I’m squeezing three- and four-letter glyphs into mini squares. I’ll have a more substantial update eventually. In any case, so far, I’m really liking this.

Update: Also, using a pencil allows for subtle shading and layering of information, even in tiny squares. Like, some background shading, a glyph, some tiny dark dots in a row, an arrow spanning multiple mini squares, a border–that’s a lot of information in less than one square centimeter!

***

(Downloadable pdfs and some sample code are at the end of this post.)

Metacognition being what it is, I daily bump up against the limits of my puny human brain. Besides just having better maps of the territory, I’m always looking for better tools and techniques to manage complexity. I want a better handle on fast-moving, ambiguous, high-value situations with lots of potential moving parts–my reach exceeds my grasp; reality is not serving me what I want on a platter, etc.

So here’s one thing I’m playing with. I intend for it to be a replacement for a GTD-type system, or a novel index into a GTD-type system. Right now, I’ll just blog about the bare bones. If I actually start using it in earnest, I may blog some concrete examples in the future.

First of all, this is all on paper, because that’s where I’m consistently happiest. You can of course do the below in spreadsheet software.

There are four parts to this system:

  1. The Grid
  2. The Index
  3. The Legend
  4. Pencil and Eraser

The Grid

grid

Alright, so the grid is your dashboard. There are nine “major” squares, twenty-seven “minor” squares, and 729 “mini” squares. The mini squares are intended to represent individual items. The major and minor squares ease visual navigation.

When I’m using a GTD-type system, the number of tracked items (of all types) typically doesn’t go above 300, and is often much less than that. In using this system, I’m curious to see if I start naturally tracking more and if I bump up against 729 or if the grid at least starts to feel cluttered for hundreds of items. (I’m well aware of the benefits of work-in-progress constraints.)

(In addition to the letter coordinates. There is also a three-coordinate system: major-minor-mini that goes from 111 to 999.)

Ok, so what do you do with this grid? You make entries on it, usually a single letter or symbol, though I can imagine some other types of bounding and marking. Let’s say you have a bunch of projects and actions. You might have a bunch of P’s and A’s scattered across the grid, or clustered intuitively around projects or contexts.

The ideas is that the grid allows you to grasp everything, all at once.

But where does the detail live? That’s where the index comes in.

The Index

index_page

What you’re looking at above is one page from nine pages in total. Each page corresponds an entire major square. Each shaded or unshaded 3×3 block corresponds the nine minor squares that make up a major square. Each individual cell, of course, corresponds to one of the 81 mini squares that comprise a major square.

You can use these cells to explicate projects or actions in their entirety, e.g. if all that’s needed is a few words or a sentence. What you can also do is use it for one layer of indirection; you can index into a longer description, project support material, a paper file, an electronic document, etc. The index is how you bridge from the grid to whatever you need to bridge to. The shading and the one-to-one correspondences are intended to make it very fast and easy to get from the grid to the right cell and back again.

The Legend

dotsSo, back to the grid, maybe you’ve got P’s and A’s, but maybe you’ve got all sorts of symbols. What do they all mean? How will you organize them and keep track of them, so they’re meaningful, useful, and so they visually pop? That is done with the Legend. You might have P=Projects, A=Actions, Contexts, Waiting-Fors, Eventuallys, Somedays, Stuff, Do-This-Today, Project-Support, Freeform-planning…

It’s very helpful to think about types and meaning, clear, crisp edges, GTD-style, whenever possible, and it isn’t always possible. And I think it can be helpful to invent symbols and meanings on-the-fly, as you need them. I would record them in the legend, and eventually you’ll start to develop your own operational language, that fits your brain and situation.

I imagine color could be very helpful, though it adds considerable additional fiddly-ness (at least on paper). You could of course use erasable colored pencils, removable colored dots, stuff like that.

Pencil and Eraser

So, yeah, if you’re going to do this on paper, you need to be able to erase stuff, to update the grid and the index. I’m using a Pentel Twist-Erase GT, because it has lots of extendable eraser and the pointy metal tip retracts when not in use.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, everything in your life, all at once, at a glance. Let me know if you try this out, and I’ll update eventually…

***

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