Category Archives: Cognitive Toolkit

A Taxonomy of Slowness

You’re on a car camping trip with some friends. After a long night of sitting around the fire and looking at the beautiful stars, the morning light filters into your tent and wakes you up slowly. You’re well-rested and your hair smells like a campfire, and it’s time to make breakfast. You and your friends eat and clean up together. Now it’s time for everyone to break camp and head home. You shove your sleeping bag back into its sack, pack up your tent, and look around in the grass to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

Then you see that none of your friends are even close to finished. You didn’t particularly hurry, so why were you the first one to finish? You load up your car and decide to walk around the campsites to see what’s happening.

Just not working

Sarah is playing chess on her phone. She wins her game, puts her phone in her pocket, and thinks for a minute. Is she going to start packing up? No, she decides to call her mom to catch up. Whether she’s procrastinating or just enjoying the slow pace of life, it’s going to be a while before she’s ready to leave.

I can’t start yet

Sarah’s boyfriend Dave wanders over to you and grins. “Sarah’s on the phone again… we’re never going to get out of here.”

You look at him, and then over at their tent, and then back at him. “Oh,” he says. “I’m waiting for her to get off the phone. I can’t take down the tent until she packs up her clothes. Might as well wait before I pack anything up myself.”

Does Dave really believe there’s nothing he can do? Has he considered getting started anyway, or asking Sarah to get off the phone, or just packing her things up himself?

Analysis paralysis/yak shaving/tool obsession

You continue on your tour, and see your friend Paul sitting in front of his tent with his laptop out. He’s got his headphones in and he’s typing furiously.

“Hey Paul, what are you up to?” He looks up and takes one headphone out.

“Oh, well, I started to pack up, and then I thought that it would be nice if I could pack up my tent even smaller. You know, I never really learned how to pack up a tent – I just figured it out for myself. There might be much better ways to do it that I never learned about!”

“So you were watching a video on how to pack a tent?”

“Oh, no. I opened a few tabs with those videos. But I realized that I didn’t want to watch one video and then forget how to do it, so I started taking notes. But then I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the notes again next time, so I started reading blog posts and watching videos on different note organization methods.”

You leave, quickly, before you have to hear him try to pronounce zettelkasten.

Energetically doing the wrong things

At the next campsite, Jamie is vigorously shaking out her car’s floor mats. You ask her why.

“I went to a productivity retreat once, and the success guru there told me that the first step to succeed in anything is to visualize yourself having already succeeded. When I pictured myself leaving the campsite, my car was clean. So I decided to clean my car before packing up.”

“But you could leave even if your car wasn’t clean, right?”

“Oh, I guess that’s true.”

It seems like Jamie is productive by some definition, but if all she cares about is driving home, she definitely doesn’t need to clean her car right now.

Playing hero

Ashley’s campsite is next, but she’s not there. You pull up a chair and wait for her. That cool morning air, you notice, is turning into a hot afternoon, and you think about traffic beginning to coagulate on the highways home.

Ashley walks up to you and passes right by without saying a word. She goes to the picnic table where you all had breakfast, picks up a trashbag, and turns around back in your direction.

You had completely forgotten, but she’s right. You need to take all your trash to the dumpster at the end of the road before you break camp. You feel bad for not helping out.

“Ashley, why didn’t you ask for help?”

“Oh, I just figured I’d do it myself. You know how slow our friends are, if they have to do anything besides pack up their own things we’ll never get out of here.”

She continues on her way, crunching gravel underfoot. You’re grateful that she’s cleaning up for everyone, but you can’t help wondering what if would take for her to actually rely on someone else to help.

Doing the right things, but slowly

The last campsite you visit is Matt. He’s facing away from you, and is in the middle of pulling the poles out of his tent, so you just watch him. He pulls the tent pole another foot out of the sleeve, and then pauses. He tilts his head to the side, thinking. Then he moves his hand, painstakingly, and pulls the tent pole even further out.

Why is he moving so slowly? Maybe he’s unsure whether he’s doing it right, so he needs to consciously reflect on every step. Maybe he feels at peace in that deliberative energy. Maybe he’s really just not in a hurry. What would make him go faster?

As you walk back to your car you start thinking. You finished first, but was it really a competition? Your sleeping bag is going to be really wrinkled next time, and actually you might have put your clean clothes and dirty laundry in the same section of your backpack… Oh, it would be good to take out some snacks for the drive home, did you put those somewhere organized or just jam them into some other bag?

What you did isn’t perfect, but you’re finished. It’s time to go home.

Two theories of driving

Two thoughts from wandering around Phnom Penh by foot, moto and tuktuk.

Being a good driver

What does it mean when you call someone a good driver? There are really three components to being “good”:

  1. Values: You are making an appropriate tradeoff between speed and safety.
  2. Ability: a package of skills that expand your speed-safety possibility frontier (more safety at the same speed, or more speed for the same safety).
  3. Adaptation: How well can you predict what other drivers will do? How well can they predict what you will do?

We talk about being a good driver as though it’s just #2, but usually in the US I suspect it’s about #1. Or, maybe one of the skills in #2 is “accurately assessing risks” and when someone is a bad driver they may not realize accurately what tradeoffs they’re actually making.

When travelling, people often say things like “the drivers here are terrible.” And there may be geographic variation in #2, but more of it is probably #3. Being a good driver is tied up in your deep knowledge of local driving behavior, and how well you match other drivers’ mental models so they can anticipate what you will do and act accordingly.

This framework applies to many things in life.


As a cyclist in the US I noticed that I was often frustrated with cars but never had a problem with buses. Buses were so big and slow-moving that they were easy to circumvent and avoid. Like in the natural world, things that are too removed from you in scale are just not direct competitors. They occupy different niches.

Here in Phnom Penh things are similar. There are three common vehicle classes: motorcycles/scooters, tuk-tuks, and cars/SUVs. Cars are so big and bulky that it’s easy to get around them on a moto, but tuk-tuks are just the right size to always be in your way whether you’re in a car or on two wheels.

This is similar to the social phenomenon of “the narcissism of small differences”: the closer someone is to you, the more they compete for the same resources, and the more threatening they become.

Civilizational Memory and Resilient Knowledge

[Update: this is a subconscious paraphrase, or at least extension, of Jonathan Blow’s excellent talk Preventing the Collapse of Civilization which I watched a few months ago. Thanks JP for the reminder.]

The US government used to make a substance called Fogbank, a critical component in fusion bombs. Then we stopped making it for a while, and “forgot” how to make it.

Actually, it turns out we never really understood how to make it at all. When we wanted to make more of it, we created a new facility based on the historical records of the first time around. That plan didn’t work. It turns out that what made Fogbank work were certain impurities in the final product, traceable to chemical impurities in the input. The modern inputs were purified better than the historical inputs, so the impurities disappeared, and Fogbank 2 didn’t work until this was all tracked down and figured out. No one knew this the first time around. (See page 20 here, via a comment on MR.)

This is story is both terrifying and comforting. It’s good that we were able to eventually figure out the problem. But fusion bombs are one of the most technically sophisticated artifacts of modern civilization, produced by the wealthiest country in world history. Massive resources have been put into their research, engineering, and the institutions responsible for them. What else could fail similarly? What would it cost to fix? What would the ramifications of temporary failure be?

Most of our modern technosphere relies on extreme specialization in complex engineering disciplines. However, much of this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit.1 A very short version might say: explicit knowledge is what you can write down, implicit knowledge is what you can’t. “Carbon has 6 protons” is explicit knowledge, “how to evaluate a novel” is implicit. Of course you could write a guide to evaluating a novel, but reading that guide would not lead people to perform the same evaluation that you do. Another example: most recipes are actually a blend of explicit and implicit knowledge. The amount of the ingredients and the order of adding them is usually explicit, but knowing when something is done, or when it has been suitably mixed, or small adjustments based on variable ingredients, are all implicit.

Worse, often these processes are highly context-dependent, and the people performing them don’t know what elements of the context really matter. This is the case for Fogbank – the nuclear physicists didn’t know that the impurity was relevant.

This implicit/explicit divide isn’t just on the level of individuals, but also institutions. Codifying process is virtually impossible, and any system with humans in it is organic and adaptive, so defined processes become obsolete immediately. If an institution (a research lab, a company, a division) dies, that knowledge doesn’t live on in any one individual: it dies as well. Even explicit knowledge is often under-documented in organizations. Most broadly, there is an intelligence in systems, and we often don’t know how to recreate it.

Markets can probably ameliorate some of these concerns. If components are truly critical, there should be strong incentives for firms to maintain these systems of knowledge. And one would hope that for critical components, the market incentives are such that things could be rediscovered quickly. But firms can go out of business for unrelated reasons, and much of our critical infrastructure is highly concentrated or actually quasi-governmental, so markets cannot be the only solution.

I’d like to read more about this – is there a good literature out there? What would the field be called – knowledge resilience?

Some related links and ideas:

  1. I don’t have a good citation for this – I really only know this dichotomy in an informal sense. Some googling suggests that it traces back to the work of Michael Polanyi but please chime in if you know more! []

A Pattern Language

I’ve been seeing people recommend A Pattern Language (amazon, very large pdf) here and there for a few years now and finally picked it up. I’ve only begun to read it, but it is a truly remarkable work. In particular it draws a thick and complex connection between design and ethics.

(Skimming the wikipedia page of the first listed author makes me want to read much more of his work.)

This book simultaneously defines what a pattern language is, makes a case for how they should be used in design, and provides an example.

Designers of any sort (industrial designers, graphic designers software, urban planners, etc) work explicitly or implicitly based on patterns that they have learned about, developed, or identified. If I own land and want to sleep indoors, I might think about the pattern “Single Family Home” and create a design based on that pattern. And we need patterns for the whole spectrum of human existence that emerges through design, from the way our highest political entities are arranged (“Independent Regions”) through cities (“Subculture Boundaries”, “Night Life”), and so on (“Looped Local Roads”, “Compost”)

How do different patterns, though, connect to each other? There’s the concept of a Pattern Library which I’ve often seen in the tech space (example). The Library metaphor asserts that patterns should be listed and categorized. But metaphor of a Pattern Language goes much farther in exploring the rich connections between patterns, the syntax by which they can be juxtaposed, and the layers of meaning that they bring to bear when they are used together in different ways. A library can only be constructed and maintained, usually by a single entity. A library, unlike a language, does not usually develop and evolve organically.

Every society which is alive and whole, will have its own unique and distinct pattern language; and further, that every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people — even though these languages are shared and similar…

The language described in this book, though, is more like Esperanto than like English. It is not the dictionary of any observed pattern language, it is a call for a new language that will lead to a new and better lived existence for humanity. Languages differ in the fluency with which they can express certain concepts, and so each language comes with a value system and creating a language is an ethical acts. What kind of patterns should feel natural to express? What is clunky?

The language that has emerged in our society is a stunted, depraved language without humanity. We have a pattern for billboards, for surveillance cameras, for strip malls, for old age homes.

[W]e have written this book as a first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them. We believe…that the languages which people have today are so brutal, and so fragmented, that most people no longer have any language to speak of at all — and what they do have is not based on human, or natural considerations. [emphasis added]

The language in this book contains, on the contrary, patterns like the following:

  • Magic of the City
  • Old People Everywhere
  • Children in the City
  • Holy Ground
  • Connected Play
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Garden Growing Wild
  • Communal Sleeping
  • Window Overlooking Life
  • Secret Place

These are only a few with particularly obvious ethical ramifications, but every pattern and every connection expresses an ethics, and creating such a language is a lasting way to codify your ethics.

Any such set of design principles contains within it an ethics and ethics are sometimes best expressed as design principles. In particular, I’m familiar with the conversation around dat a ethics. Usually when we talk about data ethics we are saying “here are the set of tools we’ve designed and built, and over there is our thinking about ethical ways to use them.” But those tools were also designed within a value system that is embedded not just in the design of the specific tool but the whole web of existence.

In the book’s domain (the built environment), we might think about the design of a single house. What ethics are embedded in the way a house is designed? How many people is built for, and what kinds of living arrangements? But the design of the house broadly speaking must also connect to the design of the broader society and its ethics: what materials are used, and what sorts of labor arrangements are assumed to be available? What is nearby, and what can we assume about the ways that neighborhood will change over time? What is the anticipated lifespan of this building and how might its uses change in the future?

Similarly, maybe talking sensibly about data ethics requires connecting it more deeply to the patterns we use as designers, and thinking more broadly about what those patterns are that we use and the timescales and means by which they change.

We have spent years trying to formulate this language, in the hope then when a person uses it, he will be so impressed by its power, and so joyful in its use, that he will understand again, what it means to have a living language of this kind. If we only succeed in that, it is possible that each person may once again embark on the construction and development of his own language — perhaps taking the language printed in this book, as a point of departure.

My Dictum and Your Blind Spots

In Thinking Fast and Slow (one of my 5 behavioral economics must-reads), Kahneman lays out the memorable idea that “What You See Is All There Is.” He explains it nicely in a brief interview:

WYSIATI means that we use the information we have as if it is the only information. We don’t spend much time saying, “Well, there is much we don’t know.”

These are the famous unknown unknowns that I’ve written about— the gaps or blind spots you wouldn’t think to look for. These are so important that I think it’s worth updating Asimov’s Dictum: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “eureka!” but “that’s interesting…” “Similarly, Potok’s Dictum is that whenever you’re planning, evaluating, or decision-making:

The most exciting phrase that heralds good decision-making is not “here’s the answer” but “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

Whenever a new idea, perspective, or fact appears, treat it carefully and feed your inner pigeon so that you learn to keep generating them! A useful addition to your cognitive toolkit would be a set of ways to find those blindspots you would otherwise totally ignore. Here are a few I’ve thought of or seen elsewhere:

  1. Explain it to a child
  2. Ask a third party with “middle-level” knowledge of the issue: not an expert, but not a child.
  3. Find a new taxonomy to organize everything you know about the issue — the “worse” it seems, the better. For example, if you’re planning a project chronologically, try to list all the aspects of the project by department or division instead.
  4. Perform a premortem: ask yourself “If this project fails spectacularly, what will have caused it?”
  5. Twiddle the knobs a la Daniel Dennett’s must-read advice about Intuition Pumps, or Polya’s guidelines for understanding mathematics. Change each part of what you know — sometimes the extreme cases — to see what happens. “What if we had 10 years to do this? What if we only had three days?” “What if only 5 people show up to our event? What about 50, or 500, or 5,000?” Most of these questions will be a waste of time but a few might completely change the way you’ve been thinking.

Readers: how do you find blind spots? What tools should I add to this list? Have you ever completely overlooked something that was obvious in retrospect?

Mathematical Decision-Making

Whenever you make a decision you have to consider a universe of facts. Suppose you’re trying to decide where to go on vacation.

First you might make a list of all the cities you would consider as a vacation spot and all the facts you know about them. These are the integers, and you can get pretty far with a few simple operations. You know that Paris has great museums and London has bad food and Berlin has great nightlife.

But there are also huge gaps in the facts you know. If I teach you division, you can turn the facts you know into a much larger set of facts you don’t know — the rational numbers. What are the museums like in London? How’s the food in Berlin and the nightlife in Paris? You can spend your whole life wandering around in the rational numbers, making pretty good decisions and really honing your long division skills.

But there’s a much larger infinity of things you’ve never thought of. Can you take a staycation, or take a cruise? Is that hand gesture you always make considered rude in any of these cities? These unknown unknowns are like irrational numbers. You need new, exotic operations to find them but once you learn how to look for them they’re everywhere you look — and there are so so many of them.

We spend so much time practicing our long division for 3, 4 and 5 digit numbers — staying in the known unknowns of the rational numbers — and not nearly enough time developing and using the new tools that will bring the unknown unknowns to our attention. This is one of the most important ideas you can have in your cognitive toolkit.