Saturday, September 27, 2003

Lost in Translation

a haiku in one hour and forty two minutes

the feeling looking out of a taxi, jet lagged, without bearings

a reminder of a memory that isn't yours

wondering if life will get any easier. No. Yes.

the neon jitter of a grimy city, seen through a window, muffled

trying to sleep in a rich hotel room, with crisp soft sheets

a mood savoured, wistfully

middle age, his exhaustion stronger than his libido

recognizing something that you haven't seen

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Causality Fallacy

We all love explanations. Why did she do that? How does that work? The trouble is, many systems don't lend themselves to simple explations. Our obsession with cause and effect leads to many dangerous behaviors, from seeking scapegoats, to over-simplifying complex problems that lack a single cause.

The NPR show On the Media got me thinking about this. Bob Garfield did a great piece on "single factor analysis" on September 12th. At the close of every trading day, reporters not only say, "The Dow closed down 50 points," they also give the reason: a Commerce Department report, poor earnings by a bellwether stock, profit taking. This is rubbish, of course: there is no single reason why three billion share trades on average moved one way or another. They do it, and we demand it, because There Has To Be A Reason.

One can multiply examples indefinitely: A post mortem has to show a cause of death. A crime has to have a limited number of perpetrators. A war was won or lost because of the actions of one man. Jack left Jill because she was unfaithful. The space shuttle Columbia crashed because of NASA culture.

This is not just because we live in a sound bite culture where everything has to be explained in two sentences. Stories since time immemorial have boiled reality down into a few characters and some pivotal events. This is because our learning brains have evolved to extract a few key factors from the environment, and associate them with events. This is evidently a supremely adaptive behavior, at least for the environment we faced in the course of evolution -- we're still around, aren't we?

However, Homo sapiens can now influence and build very complex systems that do not have simple explanations. Take chaotic systems; their exquisite dependence on input values means that one simply cannot explain why one outcome was reached rather than another. The global warming polemic is a perfect case where human nature forces the debate into a supposedly decidable fight over whether (a) global warming exists, and (b) whether industrial carbon dioxide is exacerbating it. The climate is a chaotic system; even the largest computers can't (and won't ever, it is said) predict the weather more than three days in advance.

If we are to think about the world in a way that mimics reality, then, we have to give up the habit of seeking cause and effect. Let's just ignore the argument that this means that science is irrelevant; it doesn't - cf. quantum mechanics and non-linear systems theory, to pick just two examples. What's really at stake is just as easy as obeying the command, "Add two plus two, but don't think about pink elephants."

Since it's in our nature to seek simple causes, we can't avoid seeking simple causes. We can, though, be aware that we have this weakness, and try to accomodate it. Tren Griffin taught me about psychological basis for investor misjudgement, as expounded by Charlie Munger in his on speech on "24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment". Munger calls it "patterened irrationality", and he gives examples of how one can gain wisdom by applying knowledge of our frailty. For example, he cites "the Warren Buffett rule for open-outcry auctions: don't go." If you know that a market has been set up to make you act irrationally, don't use it.

I'm not denying causality here. I'm claiming that the unaided human mind (unaided by cultural props like science and wisdom, that is) can only cope with a very simple form of causality: an effect has a single, simple, proximal cause. That's evidently false, and what one might call the Causality Fallacy.

So what? What should one do about the causality fallacy? Well, I don't know Warren Buffett, but even I know I'm no Warren Buffett. Still, here are some first thoughts:

  • Accept that many things simply cannot be explained in a satisfactory way. God moves in mysterious ways, it is said. They may be mysterious simply because our brains have evolved to see only simple motives, not ones that have the complexity of reality.

  • If you think something has a simple explanation, try to find another one.

  • If the answer is Either/Or, look for a third possibility.

Winning against a Big Ego (2)

More hints from the martial arts

Tai Chi (an "internal martial art", by its own definition) is based on the "Ten Essentials". One of them is "Use Intent rather than Force".
Yang Chengfu explains that one can release energy by using intent; if you force things, the energy is blocked. He refers to the saying in the taiji classics: "Only by being extremely soft are you able to achieve extreme hardness."

The lesson here is that the Little Person should focus their energy on where they want the organization, or the Big Ego, to go. Trying to force the issue against a Big Ego will simply lead to resistance, and pain. If you look to the outcome you seek -- more emphasis on a particular product function, say -- many routes will appear. Simply confronting the problem -- disinterest in a given group in some customer's problem -- will generate resistance. One also has to think hard about what outcome is desired before acting. In the example, perhaps the outcome isn't, in fact, a new product feature; it could be a deeper understanding in the design organization about a customer's problem.

Yang Chengfu's description of the antithesis of tai chi is applicable to some Big Ego's I've come across: "Someone who practices external martial arts, when he is using his force, seems very strong. But when not using force, he is very light and floating. By this we can see that his force is actually external, or superficial strength. The force used by external martial artists is especially easy to lead or deflect, hence it is not of much value."

Easy for Yang Chenfu, perhaps... And here's the second lesson: one can reach that level of skill, but it will require practice, practice, and more practice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Another "Blue Highways" quote

William Least Heat Moon

"When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great."

- Brother Patrick Duffy, Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Trappist), Conyers, Georgia (end of chapter 18)

When I hear the world outside me here at home, all I hear is I-405. OK, that's facetious. One needs a little joke to defuse the point Brother Patrick is making, and the worry that one might need to become a monk in order to learn how to stop hearing yourself.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

To Be or To Be, that is the question

One of the toughest parts of learning Spanish is using the two forms of the verb "to be" correctly: "ser" and "estar".

"Ser" is about the essence of being: I am male, it is possible, you are American. It's the kind of stuff you'd see in the description of someone on the Most Wanted List. "Estar" is for contingent characteristics: I am here, that apple is rotten, we are late.

This was beautifully described Sergi Pámies's column on Spanish for foreigners in El País on 8 August 2003, "Copula, que algo queda." (It's in the archives, but you have to subscribe the on-line paper to get access.) He sums up the differences by recalling a line from a Campoamor poem about the inhabitants of a lunatic asylum: "Ni están todos los que son, ni son todos los que están." My beginner's translation would be: "They don't show everything they are, nor are they everything they appear to be."

One can, of course, speculate endlessly about how this subtlety affects the worldview of Spanish speakers, and whether having to make do with just one verb "to be" makes English speakers less aware of the nature of being. I don't think it makes much difference, really - circumlocutions are the stuff of all languages. However, one might expect that similar distinctions will show up elswhere in the language, and that's indeed what I recently learnt.

In trying to translate "become" into Spanish, I learned that different verbs are used for different kinds of becoming. "Ponerse" (the verb poner, to put, plus the reflexive pronoun "se") is used for temporary but normal changes, like becoming ill, getting angry, or turning pale. "Volverse" (volver means to turn) is use more profound and involuntary changes, like going mad, becoming arrogant, or becoming impatient. One could say that ponerse is to volverse, as estar is to ser.

We see, again, a distinction between the temporary and the permanent, the superficial and the profound.

Still, having just two ways to describe being is as much an approximation as just one. In fact, Spanish uses hacerse and llegar a ser to describe changes in profession and social status (e.g., she became a lawyer), and convertirse and transformarse to talk about changes in essence (e.g., the wine became vinegar).

Depression - it's in the genes

This week's New Scientist (13 Sep 2003) features a story by Graham Lawton that investigates the emerging biological basis of personality. Researchers are finding gene expression patterns that influence behavioral traits.

There are many personality models, most of them with five traits. Psychologists now generally agree that all of them measure essentially the same characteristics. One leading version is the NEO Personality Inventory. Its five dimensions are neuroticism, extroversion, opennes to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. They're independent of each other - there's no correlation between the score you get for one vs. the score you get for another. Klaus-Peter Lesch at the University of Wurzburg has reported finding a gene variant that correlates with neuroticism, and and Israeli team has found a similar link to extroversion.

I found a version of the NEO-PI on the web prepared by John A. Johnson, the IPIP-NEO. I took the short version, and the results came as little surprise. (That's somewhat to be expected, since it's testing my self-perception. I haven't yet done the control where I ask someone else to evaluate me.) For the record:
Extroversion: Low. Introverted, reserved, quiet. Enjoys solitude and solitary activities. Socializing tends to be restricted to a few close friends.
Agreeableness: High. Strong interest in others' needs and well-being. Pleasant, sympathetic, cooperative.
Conscientiousness: High. Sets clear goals and pursues them with determination. Regarded as reliable and hard-working.
Neuroticism: Low. Calm, composed, unflappable. (I do, however, have a high Depression sub-score. This seems to be a family trait - here come those genes!)
Openness to Experience: High. Enjoys novelty, variety, change. Curious, imaginative, creative.

This was useful data for me. I've always been confused by the fact that I am perceived to be sociable, while in fact I prefer solitude. By this model, that's because I score high on agreeableness, but low on extroversion.

The other key insight is that I will not be happy in a leadership role where I have to spend a lot of time with people - even though my amiability and calmness might lead people to believe that I'd be a decent leader. In fact, I'd be lousy at the kind of leadership that requires forcing through tough decisions - one needs low agreeableness for that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

5-7-5 for autumn

every morning
the sun's back a bit later
from his southern love

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Winning against a Big Ego

I'm a Little Person. Not having a big ego is one reason why I've found a comfortable niche at work. Most of us are Little People, and we're often cowed by the Big Egos. They have a surfeit of stamina, confidence, competitiveness. All the status stuff just means more to them, and so they win more. They win more stuff, and they win more often.

That's OK, most of the time. Still, sometimes the Little People wish they could win a round or two. It's tough; the Big Egos just care more. One of my blog projects is to figure out how we can prevail at least sometimes.

Martial arts, particularly those developed by the weak to defend themselves, seem to be apposite. Think aikido; think guerilla warfare.

Here are some ideas:

1. Pick your ground. Make sure you know the terrain better than the Big Ego. They range far and wide

2. Take your losses. You will lose more often than you win. However, any win is a triumph.

3. Let them save face. Understand why you need to win, and what you need to win. If you can achieve your goal and leave the Big Ego thinking they lost nothing, you are much less likely to be harmed in a fit of revenge. If you need to humiliate then, understand that the deal is that they may then destroy you.

4. If you can't control yourself, you can't control them. The Seidokan Principles of Aikido says it more gently: "True Victory is Victory Over Oneself. One must first learn to control oneself before attempting to harmonize and control others."

5. Play from the edge - engage, but don't get too close. You can't win if you don't commit, but it helps if you can draw the Big Ego off balance into an area you control. Seidokan Aikido calls this the "range of effectiveness".

6. Yield before responding. This is used in tai chi, and I expect in many other arts. Yield to the initial attack, drawing the attacker forward, off balance. If you try to match your ego directly against the Big Ego, you will inevitably lose.

Meditations on Aurelius' Meditations (2)

Book 2, 5

From the Hays translation: "Concentrate every minute like a Roman - like a man - on doing what's in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. An on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can - if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what you mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable."

This directness is so close to what I'm taking from taosism right now. Look at the moment; try to see how everything is connected; I am one of those things. As my mother admonished me this morning, "Being, not doing!" It's an anti-dote to self-centeredness and self-pity - with the bonus that it makes me feel good. "The thousand things" (a common locution for "the world" in old Chinese, I gather) is so much more interesting than just the small subset inside my head. Everybody enjoys nature, sunsets, flowers.

I'm touched by the implication in Aurelius' exhortation: "Concentrate, yes you can!" Since he was writing this to and for himself, it means that he, himself, was unable to concentrate, and felt bound up in distractions. He felt himself to be hypocritical, self-centered, and irritable. The fact that his diary survived means that many thousands of people through the centuries were touched, too. It reassures me that there is no alternative to constantly repeating these platitudes. We will always fail - oh, what a boon to the self-appointed soul savers! - but we also all always dream to do better.

The autumn sun is slanting across the tree across the street, and a breeze moves the branches.
My new hard disk's whiny hum, the PC's fan, the roar from the freeway.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Notes to Self (2)

Look and see the ten thousand things. The world is much more interesting than the inside of your head.

Find links between things.

Relax into risk. You can't analyze fast enough to make fully determined decisions.

Note to Reader (2)

This history will be rewritten.

I will go back and edit old posts for both substance and style to the full extent that Blogger allows.

This was the first Note to Reader, before I'd figured out how to put in titles...)