Jul 13

Everything ages

Recently we’ve been teaching our son that everything ages.

Here are two emotional videos that make the point:

0 -> 1

A Second a Day from Birth. from Sam Christopher Cornwell on Vimeo.

1 -> 100

Jan 12

Two selves: experiencing and remembering

Please watch this TED talk by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate.  In economics and other fields, people have been trying to measure happiness–how happy are various groups, how happy countries are compared to one another.  I’ve seen Economist articles about quantifying happiness, like The Joyless or the Jobless (Nov 2010).

Kahneman deconstructs this quantification by saying the issue’s more complicated: do you care about happiness in the moment or do you care about happiness remembered?

His presentation addresses people’s fundamental assumptions about who they are.  We have two sides: an experiencing self, who lives only in the moment; and a remembering self, who feasts on what we (remember we) have done in the past.  The remembering self, for almost everyone, is the dominant one–it makes the decisions about what we should do next.

Dec 11

What is your time horizon?

I have a hypothesis: different people think in different “time horizons.”  By that I mean, some people think way into the future and past when they make decisions or observations, and other people don’t.  Maybe this is just obvious?

For example, let’s say that Alice and Bob are in a meeting trying to make a decision about where to go to eat lunch.  Alice may tend not to think about the future, so she recommends bean burritos.  Bob is thinking about the future (specifically, the level of ventilation in their shared working area) and may recommend a lunch that’s less likely to produce side effects later.

Or, let’s say Alice and Bob are deciding whether to invest in company A or company B.  Alice may remember that five years ago company A made a really bad judgment call, and Bob may not remember (or care).

Or, let’s say Alice and Bob are deciding whether to build a lamp that’s powered by phone lines.  Alice may want to go ahead, but Bob may resist because he thinks phone lines may go away in a few years.

When we’re making decisions, or trying to communicate with other people, I think a big assumption each party makes is that we’re thinking over the same time horizons.  At work I may resist us going in a certain direction because I believe that five years from now a particular type of technology will no longer exist.  Someone else at the table may want to go forward, because they know the technology would be useful now.  The conversation is frustrating for both sides because we’re taking past one another–my point, although perhaps true, is not relevant for someone who’s more focused on today.  The other person wants to make people happy now, but four years from now we might be in a pickle.

I’d like to posit some factors that might lead to different time horizons:

  • how accurate you feel your mental models are for the situation–do you feel comfortable projecting what will happen in the future?
  • along those lines, how much experience do you have with this type of situation?  how much have your mental models been validated/adjusted by experience?
  • how detail-oriented are you? the more details you care about, the more difficult it may be to approximate the future
  • to what extent is past performance an indicator of future results?
  • related to that, is the thing you’re doing today/this week/this month seem cyclical?  can you project what might happen in the future because it’s a pattern?

This immediately leads me to a couple of tentative conclusions:

  • very, very few people are going to be good at retirement planning until retirement is really close, because you just don’t have the “time horizon”–few people have any idea what it looks like to be retired before they’re retired, and except in rare circumstances (like if you’re a retirement fund manager) you’re not going to get any practice by which to improve
  • someone who tends to “pattern-match,” or look for similarities between things, would probably have a longer time horizon.  For example, if you work in retail and see each customer as a different person with their own unique needs, that’s great, but your job is going to seem more like past performance (past customers) are no indicator of future results (future customers).  However, if you work in retail and you see customers as more or less the same with variations, it may be easier for you to extrapolate to what next week’s business might look like
  • experience could help with extending your time horizons IF you are good at building better and better mental models through that experience
Anyways, at the least I will try harder to discuss the facts, observations, and mental models I’m using when I’m talking with other people about what I think the future may be.

Nov 11

We think we know what’s happening, but really we don’t

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities.  In the expert’s mind, there are few.  –Shunryu Suzuki

Although we may think we know what’s going on around us, our brain is guessing.  We don’t get much input from our senses to tell us, for example, what’s physically behind us, but we have a pretty good guess that if there was a Christmas tree behind me 5 minutes ago the Christmas tree is probably still there.

I’d like to call our brain guessing about the world our “mental models.”  I have a mental model of the room that I’m in, that helps me pretend in my brain that I know what’s going on in this room, what will go on, and what has gone on.  If I can be computer-y about it, it’s like I have a function


where I can guess, based on a state (e.g. night-time, no one’s at home) that I know what’s going on in the downstairs living room, or at least the boundaries around what’s going on in that room.  (In my mental model for this room there could be cats clawing our couches, or a robber, or nothing, but there’s probably not a clown dancing.)  In a similar way of guessing what’s going on, I may have a mental model for our cat Fred:


where I can guess what our cat Fred might be doing based on what’s going on (e.g. how much food is left in the bowl, whether there’s a Christmas tree).

A few years ago, f_fredthecat(Christmas Tree) would have yielded in my brain “Fred is probably climbing the Christmas tree.”  He really liked climbing our Christmas trees and could climb two or three feet off the ground.  Now, though, he’s older, and f_fredthecat(Christmas Tree) tends to yield “I may find pine needles in the litterbox.”  My brain’s mental model for Fred f_fredthecat changed as a reflection of a change in Fred.

Minds tend to like guessing about what’s going on in the world, and I’d bet we each have hundreds of thousands of mental models.  For example right now I have mental models like…

  • f_myhomelaptopcomputer: this laptop’s plugged in and charging, its brightness is near maximum, its hard drive has plenty of space, it’s been backed up recently by Time Machine
  • f_jeans: my jeans are dry, they are comfortable
  • f_kitchensink: the kitchen sink is probably dripping right now although I can’t see it or hear it
  • f_weddingpotteryplate: the plate made by a family friend at our wedding is still balanced on our plate rail (I can see it), and even though it’s been there for several years I am still convinced it will fall soon
  • f_highchair: the high chair’s wheels are locked in place (untested)
  • f_workbuilding: Six months ago I would have thought our work building was empty.  Three months ago I went in at this time of night and saw a cadre of custodians cleaning and vacuuming, so now I’ll guess there are probably lots of people cleaning up.

All of these things are guesses–possibly very educated guesses, but they are guesses.  Although my laptop charging light is on, it is theoretically possible that power is not actually going into my computer.  (Aside: Can you tell I don’t understand how charging a battery works?)  As another example of a possibly false guess, although my jeans feel dry they could be getting wet and I haven’t noticed yet.

There are a couple of challenging things for me about mental models:

  • They are not real.  I think I know all these things, and that I know what’s going on around me, due to a small number of observations and a LOT of historical experience, reading, similar things, etc..  All of these mental models are reduced/simplified versions of reality.  The kitchen sink may have stopped dripping–it’s unlikely but possible.  The high chair’s wheels may be crawling with ants.
  • These models are unique to each person.  You may have a well developed mental model for how cakes bake in an oven.  Someone else, say a professional baker, may have another mental model.  These two expert models are probably very, very close to one another but they likely have small differences based in the different experiences of each person.  Yet we talk about “baking a cake” as if we all shared exactly the same mental model.
  • The models improve with interactions.  The more I’ve worked with something, the more experience I have, and the better understanding/guessing I can do in my mental model for the thing.  However (see next bullet)…
  • Past performance is no indicator of future results.  Just because the high chair has never exploded, does not mean it definitely will not explode.  My mental model does not account for the possibility that the high chair might explode.

The importance of first impressions

Mental models get really interesting for me when it comes to “new” things.  When I encounter something new, I search through my existing mental models to find an approximate match for the new thing.  For example, when I see a new chair, my brain searches through my mental models to find…

  • f_giantofficechair
  • f_uncomfortablechair
  • f_paddedchair
  • f_chairsthatcatssiton
  • ...

In other words, all of the different types of ways that I think chairs might work.  Then, when I sit down, I narrow down the range and eventually create a new mental model for this new chair that’s a mix of all my past experiences plus what I start to perceive.  Certainly, this is all done subconsciously, and is part of why I get surprised if the chair falls apart when I sit on it.  If that happened to me all the time, it would be part of my mental model.  Instead, if a chair fell apart when I sat on it my consciousness would wake up–“what the heck just happened?!”–and also my mental models for all chairs would change to include the possibility that the chair might fall apart.

Take all that and apply it to people.  I think that first impressions when meeting people are so important because you are sizing up the new person against all your other mental models of people.  You’re asking yourself who this new person is similar to.  This new person is “30% my eighth-grade teacher, 5% my best friend, and 65% that guy that punched me in the face.”  After more experience interacting with the person, that model would be refined, and maybe those foundational models are questioned–“oh, this person isn’t like my best friend at all”–but that mental model I’ve applied to the new person is, in my mind, actually that person, and it takes a good deal of work to realize my mental model was off.

On Guessing Effectively

So although mental models have lots of faults (such as being a poor caricature of reality although people think of them as reality), mental models are certainly useful.  They are the way our brain makes sense of the world.  I would guess that our brain has a core “function,” something like:

process_observation(observation, mental_models)

where when we observe something with one of our senses, that observation is filtered through our mental models, but then might update our mental models.  For example,

process_observation("I physically feel uncomfortable", {f_bed,...})

I feel uncomfortable laying on this bed, which reinforces my mental model about our bed, that it has an old mattress and needs to be replaced.  Or,

process_observation("I heard a squeaky noise", {f_bed,...})

if I heard a squeaky noise, I might guess it’s a bed spring popping, even if something totally different squeaked.

Basically I’m trying to say that as we hear, see, smell, taste, touch, or think things, these observations go through the filter of our mental models, but then have the chance to update or change our mental models.  We could perceive things “incorrectly” if our starting mental models are bad, or we could make poor conclusions based on how good we are at making better guesses.  All this to say, you have a big advantage if you are pretty good at updating your mental models from processing observations.  And you have a huge disadvantage if your mental models are so bad that you aren’t able to see they’re wrong and invalidate them based on observations incorrectly filtered through those bad mental models.

The better you are at guessing how things work and inferring how they work from your limited observations, questioning your mental models when they don’t make sense, the better you’ll do at approximating reality.  You will be able to make more lasting inferences and “predict the future.”  Mental models are not reality, but if you have skill at developing accurate mental models quickly then you will be “ahead” of reality getting your observations confirmed rather than running into input that contradicts what you think.