Online Techno-Polymath Guy

“I was discussing with Sam the “genre,” so to speak, of the Online Techno-Polymath Guy. You know this guy. He (and it’s usually a he) has his own website, probably hand-crafted in Kirby, Github, or WordPress, as well as a well-regarded, personable Twitter presence. 

He keeps track of everything he reads, writes pithy blog posts on esoteric subjects. His personal philosophy is progressive with a futurist bent.  He has worked in a variety of fields, though you are unsure what he actually currently does for a living. He is knowledgeable, authoritative, but eccentric, which you can tell by the fun colors he’s used to design his fun little homepage. 

You can have fun clicking around his carefully maintained archive, witnessing the dynamic interplay of his disparate areas of interest. You can ooh and ahh at his reading lists, his quirky, inventive stances on issues like quantum computing and social media moderation. 

It’s all very inspirational.”

-Allegra Rosenberg, “Fear of the Archive.” tchotchke.substack.com. July 29, 2020.

When I read this, I thought I’d probably met the definition of this archetype for this person. Then, he goes on to say this.

“Better to be inconstant in one’s archiving (or forgo it completely) than to constantly be faced with the dirty dishes, the nauseating, living ‘matter’ of one’s past interests, pasts opinions, past genius lying guilelessly buried under strata of increasing idiocy.”

The weird thing about keeping a daily blog like this one is it is a process and a bit of a discipline. Here it is on Saturday morning, and I’ve nothing on my blog for the day. What do I do?

I have a Wallabag list that I put everything interesting I came across – in newsletters, RSS feeds or from wherever. I just look for something especially interesting or that I’d like to make a short statement about or would like to remember. Curation, and sharing of the things you think are interesting in this moment is a kind of love, a sharing of oneself.

The audience for these blog posts is the future me. It’s capturing a moment, and in some future moment, stumbling across it while looking for something else, I don’t think past me is some brilliant standard I’m no longer living up to. More often than not, I’m looking at the flaws, mostly spelling and formatting mistakes, and correcting them.

You see, future me remembers some of what it was like to be past me. There are wisps of memory of that particular moment, where I wrote something or did something, but much of it gets lost. But, being able to read these bits helps me to remember. Helps me to see how I’ve grown and changed. Whereas without taking the moment to write the post, it would be forever lost, like salt in the ocean.

Memory flavors everything, but it is its own kind of experience. It is always flawed and incomplete, like trying to see ocean salt when you can only taste it.

When I look at this blog, I see a few really good things. But, most of it is very mediocre. But, Sturgeon’s Law reigns everywhere. It doesn’t have to be good. I’m allowed to say dumb things – past, present and future – because I’m a flawed human being. And, every once in awhile, there’s gold in this swill bucket. But, you never get a chance to find it if you don’t stir it on a regular basis.

Lower your standards. No effort is lost of wasted. It’s this kind of dialogue, mostly with ourselves, that makes blogging worthwhile. I recommend it to everyone.

The Understructure of Thought

Language imposes limitations. When we reason, we use language, whether symbolic or natural. But, our understanding, or, perhaps it is better to talk about it as an intuition, runs deeper than our reason.

A common example can be found in a terms like “creepy”, “janky”, etc. We use these terms when there is uncertainty, when something is unreliable or unpredictable. The “creepy” guy on the bus is one that could possibly do something unexpected and unwanted. The “janky” piece of equipment will fail when it is needed. But, if we were certain, if we were able to reason that this person or piece of equipment were bad in some way, we would move toward judgment. This person is a bad person and must be avoided. This equipment is faulty; it must be replaced. The creepy and janky imply that we aren’t certain, but we know more than our reason can tell.

Of course, some of what makes up our intuition is a worldview, which is faulty. For example, people will look for information that confirms their bias, such as using the “precautionary principle” with respect to vaccines due to some rationale, such as an untested vaccine platform or antibody enhanced infection. However, the precautionary principle has a bias, against the new.

There are other principles. You could also use a decision-making model that looks at a decision in terms of risk/benefit. But, this also has a bias. Being able to assess risk and benefits means you have relevant experience that allows for making a risk/benefit assessment. But, it is useless where we have no experience.

Another would be focusing on signal-noise ratio for processing information. High signal means you have a lot of precision in what you hear, but it also implies that you may be missing signal. When you’ve attenuated what you are listening to down to a level that screens out most noise, you are also likely screening out signal. Perhaps that lost signal makes a difference in judgment? High signal implies a value judgment based on prior experience. It implies a level on confirmation bias.

You could probably think of many different ways of thinking about information and making decisions, and most of them would favor the status quo. So, perhaps, one way to break the tendency is to look for ways of making decisions that favor options with more unknowns, where it is difficult to make an assessment based on our prior experience. Experience forms the understructure of our thought. Broadening our experience helps us change our thinking from the ground up. More experience inables more variability in our intuitions, which in turn change our more formal, “rational” thoughts.

Meditation Without Meditating

“Over the past several decades, studies examining the potential for meditation to curb mental anguish and increase wellbeing have yielded promising, if complicated, results. For patients, complications can arise when meditation is marketed as a ‘happy pill, with no side effects’. This commodification and oversimplification is at the root of a conundrum for Jay Sanguinetti and Shinzen Young, the co-directors of SEMA Lab (Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness) at the University of Arizona. In the early stages of developing a technology that they believe could lead to meditative states without the need to meditate – a Silicon Valley-ready concept if there ever was one – the duo now must navigate the intricate ethics of introducing such a powerful product to the world. This short film from The Guardian follows Sanguinetti and Shinzen in their quest to ‘democratise enlightenment’ via ultrasound technology, while also attempting to ensure that, when the time comes, it will be properly implemented as a therapeutic tool.”

Lina Lyte Plioplyte, “‘Meditation without meditating’ might be possible. Can it also be made ethical?Aeon.com via TheGuardian.com. August 16, 2021.

Metaphor as Mental Model

“In 2011, Stanford researchers Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky published research that showed how the way we talk about crime changes our ideas about what to do about it. They asked two groups of students to read reports about crime in their area – one using a metaphor of crime as a ‘beast’ that was rampaging through the neighbourhood, and one describing crime as a ‘virus’ that had to be stopped. Their research showed that students shown the ‘virus’ metaphor were more likely to favour policy that looked at the root causes of crime, such as social deprivation, whilst students who read the ‘beast’ metaphor story favoured enforcement policies.”

-Matt Locke, “Data isn’t oil, so what is it?” howtomeasureghosts.substack.com. May 15, 2021

Be careful with choosing analogies and metaphors. It guides thought.

Preferring Pain to High Cognitive Effort

“Cognitive effort is described as aversive, and people will generally avoid it when possible. This aversion to effort is believed to arise from a cost–benefit analysis of the actions available. The comparison of cognitive effort against other primary aversive experiences, however, remains relatively unexplored. Here, we offered participants choices between performing a cognitively demanding task or experiencing thermal pain. We found that cognitive effort can be traded off for physical pain and that people generally avoid exerting high levels of cognitive effort. We also used computational modelling to examine the aversive subjective value of effort and its effects on response behaviours. Applying this model to decision times revealed asymmetric effects of effort and pain, suggesting that cognitive effort may not share the same basic influences on avoidance behaviour as more primary aversive stimuli such as physical pain.”

Todd A Vogel, et al. “Forced choices reveal a trade-off between cognitive effort and physical pain.” eLife: Neurosciences. November 17, 2020. doi: 10.7554/eLife.59410

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than outlined in this abstract.

Destruction & Creation

“There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: we can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.[28,24] Saying it another way, but in a related sense, we can go from the general-to-specific or from the specific-to-general. A little reflection here reveals that deduction is related to proceeding from the general-to-specific while induction is related to proceeding from the specific-to-general. In following this line of thought, can we think of other activities that are related to these two opposing ideas? Is not analysis related to proceeding from the general-to-specific? Is not synthesis, the opposite of analysis, related to proceeding from the specific-to-general? Putting all this together: Can we not say that general-to-specific is related to both deduction and analysis, while specific-to-general is related to induction and synthesis?

John Richard Boyd, “Destruction and Creation.” US Army Command and General Staff College. September 3, 1976.
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See also: OODA Loop.

The Rule of Awkward Silence

“[T]he rule of awkward silence is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer. This is no short pause; rather, it involves taking several seconds (10, 20, or longer) to think things through before responding.

If you’re on the receiving end–and not used to this type of communication style–it can seem very awkward.”

—Justin Bariso, “Intelligent Minds Like Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos Embrace the Rule of Awkward Silence. You Should Too.” Inc. September 9, 2020.

We Are All Confident Idiots

“An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq). As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.)

-David Dunning, “We are all confident idiots.” Pacific Standard. October 27, 2014.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

Four problems that biases help us address:

Problem 1: Too much information.

Problem 2: Not enough meaning.

Problem 3: Need to act fast.

Problem 4: What should we remember?

-Buster Benson, “Cognitive bias cheat sheet.” Medium.com. September 1, 2016.

Recommend reading this in its entirety, but at minimum, it is worth a click through and scroll to the bottom to see the graphic. You can also purchase a poster of the cheat sheet.

Pity the Feeling

On top of Everest, in my mind,
a dark cloud, lightning blasts, 
a hurricane of controversies, unwind
below, nonsense sea, fish net casts.

The Sherpa is fishing about
prefers an understanding cartel.
Procrustean commodities—easier without 
a heart, a totalitarian Tinkerbell.

Feelings, the repugnant social Other,
are the dream within the dream.
Before we think, we must feel, brother,
a mind | heart alone, cannot reign supreme.