Archive for Uncategorized

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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Illusions of healing

“The way in which we approach healing (or healing exercises, like therapy or forgiveness or meditation) is [clouded by] our own protective self. [For example], perfectionists use [spiritual and healing practices] to become what they think an ideal spiritual person should look like, eternally seeking to be “good enough” for spiritual love. Codependents use it to dismiss their own needs and emotions, deciding they must rescue and help even more people in order to achieve selfless sainthood. Narcissists use it to start cults and show others how worldly and wise they are. Borderlines use it to seek sympathy and validation from a higher power for their poor decisions, and then feel betrayed when their decisions inevitably backfire. Avoidants use it to stay lost in their imagination, viewing their own healing through the lens of invented characters.

“The protective self convinces you that if you “do” this thing or if someone else “does” something, you will feel good. … Healing exercises like therapy or forgiveness or meditation [become yet another] external measure of worth. … In this book, I’m encouraging you to stop “doing” and instead sit with the deeply uncomfortable, frustrating sensations that arise when you don’t take action.”

Jackson MacKenzie, Whole Again (p. 23-24)

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The paradox of acceptance

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

-Carl Rogers (as quoted in Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)

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Nesting dolls

“We’re all kind of like Russian nesting dolls. As we get older, we keep putting on all of these costumes. For me, growing up, that’s what I thought I had to do — to mature, to age, to get wisdom — is to put on all these different costumes and see which one fit…. I realize [now] that the more you can actually take those costumes off and get down to that little, small, immobile Russian nesting doll — that is who you are, your true, true self. That is the humanity of all of us. We all are in there.”

-Abby Wambach (via On Being)

This reminded me of something I used to say: “everyone has an inner nut.”

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Find Peace In One Difficult Step

  1. Stop.

As one of my favorite quotes goes: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

If you can simply stop what you are doing and thinking, you can find peace.

It doesn’t seem to be widely acknowledged that stopping is excruciatingly difficult.

Stopping sounds so easy. It requires so little physical effort. But of course, anyone with an addiction knows how difficult stopping can be.

The real surprise is the sheer scope of what we’re addicted to. It’s not just caffeine, sugar, and smartphones. We’re addicted to thinking! We’re addicted to doing!

As is the case with every addiction, we don’t like to stop thinking and doing because it distracts us from our inner terror that we’re not enough, we don’t belong, and we can’t be loved.

But no matter how much we think, how much we do, how many 7-step self-help guides we follow, we can’t find peace while that inner terror lurks. We lounge on a beach while worrying about sunscreen and seagulls and promotions and lovers. We rush from smoothie to salad to yoga to therapy and fall into bed exhausted.

To find peace, you need to confront the inner terror directly. This usually involves feeling a lot of very unpleasant feelings. I recommend getting guidance from therapists, who have many useful tricks up their sleeves.

Is it even possible to stop thinking and doing? This is kind of what meditation is all about. You sit still and you do nothing. When a thought arises, you let it float away like a leaf or a cloud.

Meditation is easy. What’s excruciatingly difficult is stopping what you are doing to actually meditate!

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

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Learning is non-linear

“Not long ago, in the 1960s, mathematicians and scientists began to notice a property of natural systems that had been overlooked since the dawn of science: that tiny changes of condition, even in stable systems, can have dramatic and often unpredictable effects. … For example, if one adds a reagent, one drop at a time, to a chemical solution, nothing may happen at all until, with the addition of a single drop, the whole mixture changes color.

“I have witnessed the same progression in dozens of students: a surprising leap forward, followed by a period where the student appears to have reached the limits of their abilities; then another tiny advance that precipitates another leap. … Lisa, who couldn’t count by twos in Grade 6, now teaches herself new material from a difficult Grade 9 text.

“The fact that mathematical ability appears spontaneously in a gifted child is cited as evidence that ability is determined by genetics. But if the mind, like other complex systems, is subject to chaotic and non-linear effects, even siblings with the same genetic features, and who are offered the same opportunities, might develop entirely different abilities. Some small event in early childhood or at school might start an avalanche of learning in one child but not another. The fact that an avalanche occurs on one mountain and not another… does not prove that one mountain is more prone to avalanches or that an avalanche could never be started.”

-John Mighton, The Myth of Ability (p.18-20)

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Transparent Journalism

It’s common practice for journalists to disclose conflicts of interest such as “the author owns shares in Amazon” or “the newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos”.

It’s also standard for opinion writers to explain their personal background or area of expertise, so that readers can assess the credibility of their proposals.

But there is another type of transparency I would like to see applied to regular news stories: transparency about the amount of effort that was put into research and seeking other points of view. Put another way, I want to know to what extent the story is based on a press release that only reflects one organization’s narrative.

For example, when a new computer chip for smart watches was recently announced, most news stories simply included a selection of talking points from the press release, focusing on improvements in battery life. However, one journalist did more of an investigation and discovered a relevant twist: the new chip uses 5-year-old fabrication technology and its speed has not improved in several years. The new chip merely has the ability to slow down even more to save energy. Meanwhile, a competitor’s chip has gotten 3x faster in the past two years alone without impacting battery life.

After reading the investigative article, I felt misled by earlier coverage. The takeaway from the press-release-based articles was: “New chip has better battery life.” The takeaway from the investigation was quite different: “New chip falls even further behind the competition despite battery life improvements.”

My goal here is not to scold journalists for failing to uncover all relevant details. After all, investigative journalism is expensive and time consuming and there is pressure to produce content as quickly and cheaply as possible. Instead, what I’m requesting is more transparency about the extent to which a given story has been researched — and thus, the likelihood that it may be missing relevant details and alternate points of view.

Providing a list of sources would be a helpful step. A list such as the following would provide an indication that the story is essentially a press release and thus likely to be one-sided:

  • Qualcomm press release (Sep 10, 2018)
  • Jim Berger, Qualcomm Public Relations

Additional sources and research would indicate deeper investigation:

  • Sharon Rutledge, chip design lecturer, Columbia University
  • Anonymous industry insider (based in Shenzhen)
  • 4 hours, independent lab testing
  • 2 hours, independent research on competing products

Investigative pieces often emphasize the substantial effort that has been undertaken to uncover and validate relevant information. I can imagine why news organizations may be hesitant to emphasize a lack of research in some stories. But ultimately, providing this information would make a news outlet more trustworthy to me — while still allowing journalists flexibility to balance the relative priorities of speed, cost, and depth.

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Contextual Journalism

If journalists want to help us understand the world, they need to provide some context.

For example, an article about Brexit politics includes the sentence: “Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, [criticized] the announcements and their timing.”

Since many readers don’t know who Vince Cable is, the information about his position and views are necessary to help make sense of the quote. Without it, for most readers the sentence would translate to: “Someone criticized the announcements and their timing.” Which of course is not particularly useful or interesting.

However, news reports rarely provide this type of context for numbers. For example, many recent stories cover the news that “the president is demanding $5 billion in funding for a border wall” but very few of them include the context needed to understand that number. Is $5 billion a lot or a little in this scenario? For most readers, the sentence may as well be: “The president is demanding a number of dollars.”

For the same reason audiences need context for people and places, we need context for numbers. Here’s an attempt at the version I would like to see: “The president demanded $5 billion in funding for a border wall — triple the amount spent in 2018 on border walls and a 16% increase in overall federal spending on immigration and border security.”

I’m not asking for full-on data journalism here — just a small bit of additional information to put things in context. One or two points of comparison with basic arithmetic would be a major step forward.

I created a few more examples:

“The terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed 2996 people — comprising about one third of US deaths on that day and 2% of all mortal injuries that year. (By comparison, 42,443 US residents died in 2001 in car accidents.)” [Data from CDC]

“Researchers estimate that US involvement in the war in Iraq cost $750 billion from 2003-2010, or 3% of the federal budget during those years. (This was 200 times the amount spent on traffic safety.)”

In these examples, I tried to provide some balance by including both a larger and smaller point of reference. I also did my best to choose comparisons that most people would agree are relevant (perhaps slightly less so in the parentheticals). Of course, judgement and subjectivity is involved in choosing which comparisons to include — just like any other aspect of journalism, which always involves choices about which stories to report and which facts to highlight.

I had to spend significant time searching through documents to find the data I wanted for my comparisons — enough work to reinforce the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect casual news audiences to do this spontaneously, but not so difficult that it seems to present a major barrier to a professional newsroom. Much of what’s needed is basic government data on population statistics, economics, health, spending, etc., which can be reused across many stories. And experts already being interviewed for a story may know which metrics would provide useful context in their field.

Perhaps there’s resistance because context can make a story less sensational. “$5 billion” sounds more impressive than “a fraction of a percent of the federal budget”. But of course that’s part of why I want contextual journalism in the first place — I’m tired of hype. I’m looking for an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world.

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