The problems of our time act slowly

Climate change. Obesity. Stress. Misinformation. What do they have in common?

The classic metaphor of a frog sitting in slowly-heating water is unfortunate in that we can’t really relate. “What a dumb frog! He can’t even tell the water is getting hot! Fortunately, I would notice.”

We’ve made a lot of progress with faster-acting problems. Hunger. War. You notice those pretty quick.

The problems we really can’t seem to get a grip on are caused by factors that act so slowly, we don’t feel them. It’s very hard to prove that any of the thousands of chemicals widely used in consumer products are the root cause of anyone’s particular disease. Sure, many of these chemicals were shown to kill laboratory rabbits in high enough doses. But those are rabbits. And high doses. It doesn’t prove anything!

How long did it take to definitively prove that smoking causes cancer? Smoking literally involves filling the lungs with visible, foul smelling smoke! So how are we supposed to make any headway with rose-scented soap additives?

One sugary snack doesn’t give you diabetes. You can’t see the ocean rising as you drive your gasoline car or your coal-sourced electric car. You can’t feel yourself becoming radicalized as you read one more eye-catching social media post.

The best hope for progress on climate change seems to be the fires, floods, and hurricanes that we can see. Finally, some symptom that acts on a timescale we can process!

Even the Covid pandemic — which was very fast moving — can be seen as a win for science. Innovative vaccines developed and distributed in record time despite political morass. And notice — all those people with underlying medical conditions (caused by who knows what? a million bags of chips? a million applications of body lotion? a million hours sitting in traffic? just genetics?) — the cause of death is still: Covid-19. That’s the part we can see. It’s the part we can measure.

If all of this is true, then the challenge of our times is finding ways to see the slow. Juxtaposing the past and the present. Compressing big data into something comprehensible. Making statistics trustworthy. Connecting the low doses and the small moments to something larger. Seeing the big picture. Feeling the big picture.

Finding ways to make the gradual, visible.

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Choice is power

“If I don’t have a plan B, I am by definition powerless. By definition, I will not take big risks. I will play it safe. But if I have a plan B, suddenly I become powerful. Suddenly I’m free to do something that I’m really excited about.”

-Frederic Laloux (via Leadermorphosis)

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“I always say: when there are two sides to an argument, both are wrong. So there isn’t much of a value to debate in my opinion — no one’s going to get persuaded, and both sides are wrong anyway, so your premise is wrong that one side is wrong and one side is right.”

-Horace Dediu (podcast)

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Divisive algorithms

From the Wall Street Journal (via John Gruber), “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive”:

A 2016 presentation that names as author a Facebook researcher and sociologist, Monica Lee, found [that] “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools” and that most of the activity came from the platform’s “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” algorithms.

Gruber noted:

In the old days, on, say, Usenet, there were plenty of groups for extremists. There were private email lists for extremists. But there was no recommendation algorithm promoting those groups.

This crystalized in my mind the extent to which recommendation algorithms are central to both the successes and failures of social media. “Success” in terms of reach: the algorithms pick the most addictive posts to keep people hooked on the site, leading to massive engagement; “failure” in terms of the human cost: the most addictive posts are not only addictive but also often divisive, distressing, and untrue. The algorithms are widely and directly boosting extremely problematic content!

And this isn’t new to social media — human editors at tabloids and cable news have been using similar “recommendation algorithms” in their heads as they pick stories and headlines to keep people watching.

How do we make alternate recommendation algorithms available that optimize for other qualities, such as well-being, empathy, and trust?

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The opposite of racism is admitting when we’re being racist

“Historically, the heartbeat of racism has been denial — to deny that one’s ideas are racist, one’s policies are racist, and certainly that oneself, and one’s nation, is racist. By contrast, the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, admission, acknowledgement, the willingness to be vulnerable, the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, being willing to diagnose ourselves and our country and our ideas and our policies. …

“To grow up in America is to grow up with racist ideas constantly raining down on your head — and you have no umbrella, and you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas, because those racist ideas themselves cause you to imagine that you’re dry. And then someone comes along and says, you’re wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head — here’s an umbrella. You can be like, thank you! I didn’t even realize I was drenched!

“[So] essentially, to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist. [In my book] I had to basically admit and chronicle some of the most shameful moments of my life. … It took me almost a year to write the first few chapters.”

-Ibram X. Kendi, via Unlocking Us (Brené Brown)

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Racism as a scam

“If you’re a white American who has racist ideas, and you’ve perpetuated those ideas… you were simultaneously a victim and a victimizer.

“[Throughout history] you had so many powerful Americans trying to convince [everyone] that black people were inferior, [because this belief served] their own self-interest. … Poor whites whose poverty was directly the result of the riches of white slave-holders became [convinced that] it should be this way! And so then those people [in power] were able to get richer and richer.

“People have been tricked, they’ve been manipulated, they’ve been hoodwinked, and that’s what I want people to realize.”

-Ibram X. Kendi, via Unlocking Us (Brené Brown)

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DARPA theory of innovation

I recently read Loonshots by Safi Bahcall, a physicist turned biotech entrepreneur. The book included some interesting stories and ideas, but I didn’t find his terminology or physics analogies very useful. His word “loonshot” just means an innovative project with uncertain chances of success — trying to capture a notion I usually phrase as “you can’t get innovation without risk”.

The book’s thesis (as I see it) is that any organization that wants to be innovative should study and copy the DARPA model. Specifically, the US military is split into two branches that are organized very differently to optimize for very different levels of risk tolerance. The rigid hierarchy of the regular military is designed to carry out orders with no surprises. In contrast, the loose DARPA organization is composed of independent research labs working on innovative projects, most of which fail but some of which eventually transform the military’s capability (and beyond — we have DARPA to thank for the internet, GPS, voice recognition, and many other technologies). Other notable success stories have been organized in a similar way — from AT&T Bell Labs to the startups and tech giants of Silicon Valley — with separate yet interconnected groups focusing on predictable business vs. new research.

The part of the book I found interesting was the discussion of how critical it is to manage the interface between the two types of organization. If researchers don’t stay grounded in pragmatic operational needs, their research becomes less useful. And if operations teams don’t understand the research results or aren’t willing to try them out, then the innovations never make it out of the lab. The challenge is finding intermediaries who can talk to both sides — to convince academics that they need to pay attention to seemingly mundane details, and to convince bureaucrats that it’s ok to make measured changes and take risks on promising innovations.

I saw this challenge first-hand at Tableau. As a researcher, I didn’t fully understand the practical limitations of the business and I was frustrated when engineering teams showed little interest in adopting my prototypes. Meanwhile, engineers didn’t fully understand the promise of my research and were frustrated when I distracted them with ideas that seemed to put their operational goals at risk. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have liaisons whose sole job was to bridge this gap, providing the necessary context to both sides and keeping the lines of communication open. I agree with Bahcall that such work is a difficult and under-appreciated specialty.

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Courage as vulnerability

“There is no courage without vulnerability. But we’re all taught to be brave, and then we’re all warned, growing up, to not be vulnerable. And so that’s the rub. When you have bravery without vulnerability, that’s when you get what we’re looking at today: all bluster, all posturing, no real courage.”

-Brené Brown (via On Being)

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Interpreting forecasts

“Sometimes it’s not the forecast that matters — it’s whether that forecast helps you think harder or encourages you to stop thinking.”

-Tim Harford (Cautionary Tales ep. 9)

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“We don’t have to understand everything about each other in order to be present with one another. I think that we have mistaken empathy as walking in someone else’s shoes. Let us be clear, you can’t, because that person lived a lifetime in their shoes. But what we can do is witness and accompany.”

-Lennon Flowers (via On Being)

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Beyond intolerance

Two years after I wrote to the Williams College presidential search committee about the need for a more nuanced approach towards racism and intolerance, a new president was hired and a new “Inquiry, Expression and Inclusion” policy has been published. Here’s an excerpt:

“Williams College does not consider an invitation to campus an endorsement of the visitor’s views. Further, in our encouragement of vigorous dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, we acknowledge that discomforting encounters will occur. In that knowledge, we will continue expanding ways to offer support to all individuals and groups within our community, as part of our mission to equip every community member with the tools they need for effective discourse, debate and dissent. We also recognize that free expression has its limits: speech that threatens, incites violence, or constitutes harassment has no place in our community.”

I think this represents a very important shift away from “we don’t tolerate intolerance” towards “we don’t tolerate violence.” The focus is on actions rather than thoughts. People can think or believe whatever they want, but saying or doing something violent is not ok to the community. The core question becomes “what is violence?” rather than the much less useful “what is intolerance?” After all, intolerance doesn’t hurt — harassment and discrimination does.

I also like the acknowledgement that difficult conversations are difficult! Education and support are needed to help everyone in the community learn to navigate situations involving diversity and disagreement. Our society on the whole is not well prepared for this. It seems logical to me that colleges and universities be on the forefront of this educational mission.

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Healthy aggression

“The pickle that we’ve gotten into is that, in order to function as a society, we really can’t go around bashing everything that annoys us over the head. Yet holding it in, taking a deep breath, “sending love and light” to the frustration – all of this will simply repress that energy and make us sick in some way.

“It is possible for you to start practicing a couple things on your own that can start to change and redirect the habitual pathways of unhealthy externalization (lashing out, temper tantrums, road rage) and internalization (suppression, depression, sickness) that have become the norm.”

-Seth Lyon [link]

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Walk away

“It’s ok and healthy to walk away from people who cause destruction in your life. … Do yourself a favor and don’t try to change them. Doing so will only frustrate you and enrage them — not to mention cost you time, money, energy, and your sanity.”

-Dana Morningstar, Out of the Fog (ch. 7)

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“My belief is that, whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return. It may simply be an empathic connection—a verbal or nonverbal acknowledgment [that] our words have been understood. Or we may be requesting honesty: we wish to know the listener’s honest reaction to our words. Or we may be requesting an action that we hope would fulfill our needs. The clearer we are on what we want back from the other person, the more likely it is that our needs will be met.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 74)

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Megan Caroll:

I have been undergoing some kind of a massive, healing transformation for many months now. It’s been quite uncomfortable, and it’s also unclear as to what exactly is going on or where exactly I’m headed.

I have been trying hard to fix it and to create comfort and clarity where there is none. It hasn’t been working. When it doesn’t work, I get stressed out, and even more uncomfortable and more unclear. [My] teacher said that at least 50% of my suffering is happening just because I think things should be different.

Right. Just let yourself be in your process, Megan.

When I remember that, it feels like relief.

Until I forget again.

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No one would fall for a scam if they understood clearly what was going on, so creating confusion is fundamental for any scam to work.

One of the most effective types of confusion is when the scammer pretends to be the victim. It’s the ultimate redirection, creating confusion about who is getting scammed.

This is common in abusive relationships, where the abuser pretends to be the abused. The abuser loudly denounces any slight offense against themself as abuse, while claiming that their own actual abusive actions are merely appropriate responses to the abuse they are receiving. This creates the necessary confusion — the victim starts to wonder if they are actually a perpetrator, and onlookers either believe the fake story or at best stay neutral because the claims look too similar to distinguish.

Unfortunately, this technique is also becoming common in politics. The politician simply turns any accusation back on the accuser to muddy the waters. This is perhaps best captured in the recent rallying cry “investigate the investigators!” This creates the necessary confusion by making both sides appear to be similarly wronged. We also see legitimate journalism accused of being “fake news” (creating confusion about which is fake), legitimate whistleblowers accused of being political operatives (creating confusion about who is politically motivated), and the list goes on and on. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that multiple current world leaders rose to power by scamming their electorates.

Note I’m not here to fault anyone who voted for such politicians or stayed in abusive relationships. Confusion works, and these scammers are very good at what they do. One of the hardest parts about confronting confusion in my own life has been coming to terms with how thoroughly I had been fooled.

Rather, I hope to remind myself and others that the feeling of confusion can be a signal that a scam is at hand — or even an echo of a scam or abuse perpetrated long ago. More often than I’d like to believe, the situation is actually quite clear — someone is lying to you. Most likely, it’s the person who seems the most confident.

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Pay what feels right

Frederic Laloux, on paying for his e-book:

There are books I bought that ended up not meaning much to me, while others have been deeply meaningful, even transformative.

Paying the same price [for both] has often felt a bit odd. Somehow, it would have felt right to pay less than the list price in some cases, and more in others. That’s why with the e-version of this book, I came up with the idea of offering the possibility of paying what feels right.

This concept is very much in line with a trend called the Gift Economy. It makes for more meaningful relationships, even with people we don’t meet, like an author. Paying a fixed price is rather transactional. It doesn’t honor the personal exchange that somehow happens between an author and a reader.

“Pay-What-Feels-Right” invites us to pause and reflect on the value we bring to one another, even at a distance through a book. I feel it brings some soul back into what is otherwise simply a business transaction.

For some of us, the freedom to give comes with just a bit of anxiety: what if I give too little, or too much? 

If this is the case for you, I’ve put down two tips you might find helpful. I share this in a playful spirit. There is no “right” or “wrong” amount, so take this lightly, relax, and have fun. 🙂

Frederic Laloux, “Tips for paying what feels right”

I’ve been thinking lately about how to implement this in other domains, such as software-as-a-service. It’s somewhat common today for prices to be negotiated, but rare for prices to be set by customers. Institutional buyers are specifically prohibited from “donating” money. Then again, donations are not tax-deductible if “gifts or services were provided in return”. And when is it considered discriminatory if different customers pay different prices?

I like the idea of “pay what feels right” as a type of negotiation, where the price is chosen using a framework of mutual benefit rather than mutual scarcity.

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Hidden abuse

“Psychological abusers love to [accuse their targets] of overreacting or being too sensitive, so it is hard not to fall into the trap of internalizing their words as truth. … They will try to shift [blame] onto your lap and you must resist the temptation to receive it.

“Psychological abusers like to reconstruct history. They will take situations from the past, and in the retelling of the story, completely change what actually happened. It can be infuriating for survivors. It will often send them spiraling down emotionally. The key is to not follow the toxic person into their vortex of lies. … When a survivor remains steady, and is not spun by the actions of the toxic person, it shows the abuser’s own crazy behaviors much more clearly. … Some psychological abusers will rage at a survivor who firmly, but not in anger, talks back to them. If that is your situation, then [it may not be safe to stay in contact].

“[After you have established boundaries, psychological abusers often] come back around, making promises they will not, cannot, and have no intention of keeping. [Or they might] stir up an argument or some drama, [pushing] just the right buttons to try and get the survivor to reengage in argumentative contact. [Finally, expect] the toxic person to show off publicly in some manner. … They will attempt to make their life look as perfect and gloriously happy as possible.

“It is vitally important to remember that psychological abusers never change. [Survivors get] the most hurt when they think the toxic person is different, but the exact same level of disfunction returns. … Psychological abusers do not want to be any different, because the way they live their lives works for them. … Your hope of the person being better someday must come to an abrupt end.”

-Shannon Thomas, Healing from Hidden Abuse (ch. 10)

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Variable scope

An appetite is completely different from an estimate. Estimates start with a design and end with a number. Appetites start with a number and end with a design. We use the appetite as a creative constraint on the design process.

This principle, called “fixed time, variable scope,” is key to successfully defining and shipping projects. […]

We apply this principle at each stage of the process, from shaping potential projects to building and shipping them. First, the appetite constrains what kind of a solution we design during the shaping process. Later, when we hand the work to a team, the fixed time box pushes them to make decisions about what is core to the project and what is peripheral or unnecessary.

-Ryan Singer, Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters (chapter 3)

In other words, the most effective way to achieve the desired level of quality is to narrow the scope rather than increasing the amount of time dedicated to the project. You can always follow up later with another project that extends the scope, if doing so is still important enough.

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A new kind of balanced journalism

“If the news was as invested in talking about how this person was great to that person as it was in talking about how that person was terrible to that person, it would be a radically different experience. It would be like, ‘Oh, OK — we live amongst people. People do many things.'”

-Ross Gay (via On Being)

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“Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along…. Ender’s Game asserts the personhood of children, and those who are used to thinking of children in another way are going to find Ender’s Game a very unpleasant place to live. Children are a perpetual, self-renewing underclass, helpless to escape from the decisions of adults until they become adults themselves.”

-Orson Scott Card (1991 introduction to Ender’s Game, 1977)

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“The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering.”

-Carl Jung (via Jackson MacKenzie)

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Machine learning as an innovation accelerator

The speed of innovation increases when new knowledge or new technologies are themselves used to discover the next round of new technologies. A canonical example is in computer processors — where engineers use the latest processors to help them design and optimize the next generation of processors. This is essentially what enables “Moore’s law” — the observation that computer capability increases exponentially over time. (This is how today’s smartphones became a hundred times more powerful than desktop computers from 20 years ago.)

By contrast, if we were still using paper and pencil to design the latest processors (as was necessary before computers existed), we would expect computer capability to increase only linearly, as we worked out improvements at the same rate that was achievable by engineers back then.

Most of the recent press and hype about “AI” — which really means machine learning with deep neural networks — focuses on direct applications such as self-driving cars and workplace automation. But I think a much more profound possibility lies in the ability of deep learning to increase the speed of innovation itself.

This is not a vague notion about “intelligence” or even a discussion about the extent to which computers can replace humans. Rather, it’s a specific capability that’s well suited to at least some types of scientific research. As David Rotman describes one such application in Technology Review:

Human researchers can explore only a tiny slice of what is possible. It’s estimated that there are as many as 1060 potentially drug-like molecules—more than the number of atoms in the solar system. But traversing seemingly unlimited possibilities is what machine learning is good at. Trained on large databases of existing molecules and their properties, the programs can explore all possible related molecules.

This by itself is not a revolution in chemistry; it’s a tool like any other. But increases in the speed of innovation build on each other. An advance aided by machine learning could very well lead to faster computer processors which themselves support even more complex machine learning — and the cycle continues.

Rotman also makes a compelling point about the compounding effects of faster research in the context of business and academia:

It takes an average of 15 to 20 years to come up with a new material, says Tonio Buonassisi, a mechanical engineer at MIT who is working with a team of scientists in Singapore to speed up the process. That’s far too long for most businesses. It’s impractical even for many academic groups. Who wants to spend years on a material that may or may not work? This is why venture-backed startups, which have generated much of the innovation in software and even biotech, have long given up on clean tech: venture capitalists generally need a return within seven years or sooner.

“A 10x acceleration [in the speed of materials discovery] is not only possible, it is necessary,” says Buonassisi, who runs a photovoltaic research lab at MIT. His goal, and that of a loosely connected network of fellow scientists, is to use AI and machine learning to get that 15-to-20-year time frame down to around two to five years by attacking the various bottlenecks in the lab, automating as much of the process as possible.

In other words, if the time needed for materials discovery can be decreased below the roughly 5-year threshold, it would kick off an explosion in investment because the payoffs finally align with human time scales.

Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have been writing about this type of acceleration for many decades. But Rotman’s article resonated with me as an antidote to the more common narratives about “AI” as a vague long-term utopia/dystopia or a narrow short-term technological advance. Far more interesting to me is how it fits into the broader story of accelerating scientific advancement.

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Frying pan of shame

“We carry [our] shame with us in hopes of preventing it from happening again, but that is not [necessary]. If someone clocks me in the head with a frying pan, that’s going to hurt like hell. In order to remember that it hurts, do I need to hit myself with a frying pan every day? I sure hope not. So let’s all put down the frying pan of shame and find a better path forward.” (Self-forgiveness.)

-Jackson MacKenzie, Whole Again (p. 190)

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Forgiveness is internal

“You should not need to feel compelled to do anything as you work on forgiveness. This is an internal process, not one involving reconciliation or contact.

“Your love or understanding of [another] person will not prevent them from continuing to harm you, unless they are also doing the hard work to heal themselves. Wounded people may pretend to be healed so that you’ll let them back into your life, only to continue to harm you.

“If at any point your forgiveness process convinces you to invite an abuser back into your life (or even talk to them), this is not the kind of forgiveness we’re looking for. It will actually impede your own progress.”

-Jackson MacKenzie, Whole Again (p. 207-212)

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