The Unconscious: A machine for operating an animal

There is a wonderful article on language and the unconscious in Nautilus magazine written by author Cormack McCarthy.

It answers the mystery of why the unconscious “speaks” to us in symbols and images instead of just using words.

He calls it the Kekulé problem:

“Among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.””

The article attempts to unpick the mystery. It comes down to the fact that the unconscious was operating humans long before they acquired language, and its picture-story mode, honed by evolution is extremely good storing the vast amounts of information we need to maintain survival heuristics.

Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot….The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

…The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesnt care what toothpaste you use.

...The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break

This video from Simon Sinek has some good illustrations of the power of the unconscious and belief:

* He is a bit irritating in this video. Too performative.

Arendtian Action

Great essay from Venkatesh Rao in his Breaking Smart newsletter. Here are the first few paragraphs, the rest is at the link:

2) There is an enormous itch we all seem to share, to act in the world some way. To do things that are consequential on a stage that is larger than that of our private lives.

3/ To do what philosopher Hannah Arendt called appear in public. This does not mean narcissistically inserting cough Trump cough your life story into the narrative of the world via long trolls.

4/ Instead, it means seeking to live fully in a way voluntarily recognized as fully human by others. Whether they agree or disagree with you, they acknowledge how you have enriched the human condition for all.

5/ The side-effect of Arendtian action is entering history books, but that is not its intent. The intent is to live a fully human life, in the company of a plurality of other humans, who welcome your presence.

6/ A mode of being human that transcends a life lived in private, with family, or within the closed cognitive context of a particular tribe. A mode that history has traditionally reserved for royalty.

7/ A mode of being that requires the presence of other fully human individuals around us, who also act. and act differently from you, your family, and your various tribes, in ways you cannot control.

8/ Arendtian action is a way of creating a full life for yourself that goes beyond contemplation and integrates behaviors all the way from intimate and private contexts to the worldly public stage.

9/ Arendtian action is action that allows you to feel fully human. It is not the off-by-yourself fuck-you-money action of self-isolation. It demands cultivation and use of voice. Arendtian action subsumes both mute action and empty speech.”

Read the rest at the newsletter archive (backup here)

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Jeff Bezos recent shareholder newsletter has received much praise in the tech press. Inc drew special attention to his principle of “Disagree and commit.”

When I read the article, this principle felt familiar to me, then I remembered where I had seen it before. It is the 13th Amazon Leadership Principle:

“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

The rest of the principles are also well worth remembering.

See also:

Communication is Failure

 

 

Mental Model: Inversion

One of the best mental models I know: Inversion.

From Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger to star Quarterback Tom Brady, the secret to success is to simply avoid stupidity.

In the Brady case, here is an example I read in the Farnam Street newsletter. A quote from his coach Bill Belichick:

Skills for the 21st Century

From 2011, but good. The four drivers of change:

  1. Longevity, in terms of the age of the workforce and customers – Retiring Later
  2. Smart machines, to augment and extend human abilities – Workplace Automation
  3. A computational world, as computer networks connect – Internet of Everything
  4. New media, that pervade every aspect of life – Online Privacy
  5. Superstructed organizations, that scale below or beyond what was previously possible – AirBNB
  6. A globally connected world, with a multitude of local cultures and competition from all directions- Geek NationFrom http://jarche.com/2014/07/four-basic-skills-for-2020/

Matched by the 10 core skills:

  1. Sense making –  Ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  2. Social intelligence –  Ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  3. Novel and adaptive thinking –  Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
  4. Cross cultural competency –  Ability to operate in different cultural settings
  5. Computational thinking–  Ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data based reasoning
  6. New Media Literacy – Ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  7. Transdisciplinary –  Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  8. Design Mindset –  Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  9. Cognitive load management –  Ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functions
  10. Virtual collaboration – Ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual teamFrom http://www.top10onlinecolleges.org/work-skills-2020/

All started with the Institute for the Future document.

Checking the the idea of “Privilege”

I noticed three articles this week on the theme of privilege and leftist ideology as religion.

One of my favorite public intellectuals, Jonathan Haidt, has a video in the Wall Street Journal (paywall)

Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage – “ An unorthodox professor explains the ‘new religion’ that drives the intolerance and violence at places like Middlebury and Berkeley.”

On Twitter, Peter Boghossian points out that he called this first, back in 2016:

Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin:

The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.

For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.

Finally, “The last thing on ‘privilege’ you’ll ever need to read” is a book review of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”.

Criticality

I love discovering the correct name for a mental model. For years I was using the metaphor of supersaturated solution to describe a state I now know is called being “critical”:

“In physics we say a system is in a critical state when it is ripe for a phase transition. Consider water turning into ice, or a cloud that is pregnant with rain. Both of these are examples of physical systems in a critical state.

The dynamics of criticality, however, are not very intuitive. Consider the abruptness of freezing water. For an outside observer, there is no difference between cold water and water that is just about to freeze. This is because water that is just about to freeze is still liquid. Yet, microscopically, cold water and water that is about to freeze are not the same.

When close to freezing, water is populated by gazillions of tiny ice crystals, crystals that are so small that water remains liquid. But this is water in a critical state, a state in which any additional freezing will result in these crystals touching each other, generating the solid mesh we know as ice. Yet, the ice crystals that formed during the transition are infinitesimal. They are just the last straw. So, freezing cannot be considered the result of these last crystals. They only represent the instability needed to trigger the transition; the real cause of the transition is the criticality of the state.

But why should anyone outside statistical physics care about criticality?

The reason is that history is full of individual narratives that maybe should be interpreted in terms of critical phenomena.

Did Rosa Parks start the civil rights movement? Or was the movement already running in the minds of those who had been promised equality and were instead handed discrimination? Was the collapse of Lehman Brothers an essential trigger for the Great Recession? Or was the financial system so critical that any disturbance could have made the trick?”

From the 2017 Edge question “WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?