Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio – Revisited

 

Additional thoughts about signals and noise that have been rattling around in my brain since first posting on this topic.

At the risk of becoming too ethereal about all this, before there is signal and before there is noise, there is data. Cold, harsh, cruelly indifferent data. It is after raw data encounters some sort of filter or boundary, something that triggers a calculation to evaluate what that data means or whether it is relevant to whomever is on the other side of the filter, that it begins to be characterized as “signal” or “noise.”

Since we’re talking about humans in this series of posts, that filter is an amazingly complex system built from both physiological and psychological elements. The small amount of physical data that hits our senses and actually makes it to our brains is then filtered by beliefs, values, biases, attitudes, emotions, and those pesky unicorns that can’t seem to stop talking while I’m trying to think! It’s after all this processing that data has now been sorted according to “signal” (what’s relevant) and “noise” (what’s irrelevant) for any particular individual. Our individual systems of filters impart value judgments on the data such that each of us, essentially, creates “signal” and “noise” from the raw data.

That’s a long winded way to say:

data -> [filter] -> signal, noise

Now apply this to everyone on the planet.

data -> [filter 1] -> signal 1, noise 1

data -> [filter 2] -> signal 2, noise 2

data -> [filter n] -> signal n, noise n

As an example, Google (itself a filter) is a useful one. Let’s assume for a moment that Google is some naturally occurring phenomenon and not a filter created by humans with their own set of filters driving what it means to create a let’s be evil good search engine. To retrieve 1,000,000 pieces of information, my friend, Bob, entered search criteria of interest to him, i.e. “filter 1.” Maybe he searched for “healthy keto diet recipes”. Scanning those search results, I determine (using my “filter 2”) 100% of the search results are useless because my filter is “how do i force the noisy unicorns in my head to shut the hell up”. The Venn diagram of those two search results is likely to show a vanishingly small set of relationships between the two. (Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the carbohydrate content of unicorns nor how tasty they may be when served with capers and a lemon dill sauce.)

Google may return 1,000,000 search results. But only a small subset is viewable at a time. What of the rest of the result set that I know nothing about? Is it signal? Is it noise? Is it just data that has yet to be subjected to anyone’s system of filters? Because Google found stuff, does that make it signal? Accepting all 1,000,000 search results as signal seems to require a willingness to believe that Google knows best when it comes to determining what’s important to me. This would apply to any filter not our own.

All systems for distinguishing signal from noise are imperfect and some of us on the Intertubes are seeking ways to better tune our particular systems. The system I use lets non-relevant data fall through the sieve so that the gold nuggets are easier to find. Perhaps at some future date I’ll unwittingly re-pan the same chunk of data through an experienced-refined sieve and a newly relevant gem will emerge from the dirt. But until that time, I’ll trust my filters, let the dirt go as noise, and lurch forward.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

What’s in YOUR manual?

 

You go to see a movie with a friend. You sit side-by-side and watch the same movie projected on the screen. Afterward, in discussing the movie, you both disagree on the motives of the lead character and even quibble over the sequence of events in the movie you just watched together.

How is it that two people having just watched the same movie could come to different conclusions and even disagree over the sequence of events that – objectively speaking – could have only happened in one way?

It’s what brains do. Memory is imperfect and every one of us has a unique set of filters and lenses through which we view the world. At best, we have a mostly useful but distorted model of the world around us. Not everyone understands this. Perhaps most people don’t understand this. It’s far more common for people – especially smart people – to believe and behave as if their model of the world is 1) accurate and 2) shared with everybody else on the planet.

Which gets me to the notion of the user manuals we all carry around in our heads about OTHER people.

Imagine a tall stack of books, some thin others very thick. On the spine of each book is the name of someone you know. The book with your partner’s name on it is particularly thick. The book with the name of your favorite barista on the spine is quite a bit thinner. Each of these books represents a manual that you have written on how the other person is supposed to behave. Your partner, for example, should know what they’re supposed to be doing to seamlessly match your model of the world. And when they don’t follow the manual, there can be hell to pay.

Same for your coworkers, other family members, even acquaintances. The manual is right there in plain sight in your head. How could they not know that they’re supposed to return your phone call within 30 minutes? It’s right there in the manual!

It seems cartoonish. But play with this point of view for a few days. Notice how many things – both positive and negative – you project onto others that are based on your version of how they should be behaving. What expectations do you have, based on the manual you wrote, for how they’re supposed to behave?

Now ask yourself, in that big stack of manuals you’ve authored for how others’ brains should work, where is your manual? If you want to improve all your relationships, toss out all of those manuals and keep only one. The one with your name on the spine. Now focus on improving that one manual.


Photo by Ying Ge on Unsplash

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

Ellen Fishbein asks, “Why NOT be an information sponge?” In the Age of Information, I think her answer is a good one: “I currently believe that each of us must move away from the ‘information sponge’ mindset and try to develop a more nuanced relationship with information.”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Friends, Guides, Coaches, and Mentors

The “conscious competence” model for learning is fairly well known. If not explicitly, than at least implicitly. Most people can recognize when someone is operating at a level of unconscious incompetence even if they can’t quite put their finger on why it is such a person makes the decisions they do. Recognizing when we ourselves are at the level of unconscious incompetence is a bit more problematic.

A robust suite of cognitive biases that normally help us navigate an increasingly complex world seem to conspire against us and keep us in the dark about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Confirmation bias, selective perception, the observer bias, the availability heuristic, the Ostrich effect, the spotlight effect and many others all help us zero in on the shiny objects that confirm and support our existing memories and beliefs. Each of these tissue-thin cognitive biases layer up to form a dense curtain, perhaps even an impenetrable wall, between the feedback the world is sending and our ability to receive the information.

There is a direct relationship between the density of the barrier and the amount of energy needed to drive the feedback through the barrier. People who are introspective as well as receptive to external feedback generally do quite well when seeking to improve their competencies. For those with a dense barrier it may require an intense experience to deliver the message that there are things about themselves that need to change. For some a poorly received business presentation may be enough to send them on their way to finding out how to do better next time. For others it may take being passed over for a promotion. Still others may not get the message until they’ve been fired from their job.

However it happens, if you’ve received the message that there are some changes you’d like to make in your life and it’s time to do the work, an important question to ask yourself is “Am I searching for something or am I lost?”

If you are searching for something, the answer may be found in a conversation over coffee with a friend or peer who has demonstrated they know what you want to know. It may be that what you’re looking for – improve your presentation skills, for example – requires a deeper dive into a set of skills and it makes sense to find a guide to help you. Perhaps this involves taking a class or hiring a tutor.

If you are lost you’ll want to find someone with a much deeper set of skills, experience, and wisdom. A first time promotion into a management position is a frequent event that either exposes someone’s unconscious incompetence (i.e. the Peter Principle) or challenges someone to double their efforts at acquiring the skills to successfully manage people. Finding a coach or a mentor is the better approach to developing the necessary competencies for success when the stakes are higher and the consequences when failing are greater.

A couple of examples may help.

When I was first learning to program PCs I read many programming books cover to cover. It was a new world for me and I had very little sense of the terrain or what I was really interested in doing. So I studied everything. Over time I became more selective of the books I bought or read. Eventually, I stopped buying books altogether because there was often just a single chapter of interest. By the time I concluded my software development career, it had been many years since I last picked up a software development book. This was a progression from being lost at the start – when I needed coaches and mentors in the form of books and experienced software developers – to needing simple guidance from articles and peers and eventually to needing little more than a hint or two for the majority of my software development career.

A more recent example is an emergent need to learn photography – something I don’t particular enjoy. Yet for pragmatic reasons, it’s become worth my time to learn how to take a particular kind of photograph. I needed a coach or a mentor because this was entirely new territory for me. So I hired a professional photographer with an established reputation for taking the type of photograph I’m interesting in. My photography coach is teaching me what I need to know. (He is teaching me how to fish, in other words, rather then me paying him for a fish every time I need one.)

Unlike the experience of learning how to program – where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do – my goal with photography is very specific. The difference had a significant influence on who I choose as guides and mentors. For software development, I sought out everyone and anyone who knew more than I. For photography, I sought a very specific set of skills. I didn’t want to sit through hours of classes learning how to take pictures of barn owls 1,000 meters away in the dark. I didn’t want to suffer through a droning lecture on the history of camera shutters. Except in a very roundabout way, none of this serves my goal for learning how to use a camera for a very specific purpose.

Depending on what type of learner you are, working with a mentor who really, really knows their craft about a specific subject you want to learn can be immensely more satisfying and enjoyable. Also, less expensive and time consuming. If it expands into something more, than great. With this approach you will have the opportunity to discover a greater interest without a lot of upfront investment in time and money.

Layoffs

I’ve never been fired, but have been laid off three times over the course of four distinct careers. I’m also three-for-three for having landed in a much better place after having been laid off. So with three data points, maybe there is some truth to the street wisdom that a little adversity is a good thing.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent- no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca, On Providence, 4.3

I have also survived 17 layoffs. And I remember them all.

Paradoxically, many of the layoffs I survived were more painful than the layoffs in which I was included. I have clear memories of people I enjoyed working with that one day were simply gone from the place I was spending more than one third of my life. The resulting crash of morale at the workplace simply added to the sense of dread and “why bother” attitude. Their absence became a reminder that we were all living under someone else’s Sword of Damocles, that we would pay the price of poor decisions made by someone else. In some instances, the nauseatingly smug expression of schadenfreude by a few well-connected corporate parasites and toxic individuals cruising the corridors just added to the sting. It doesn’t seem this is easier to deal with by those that remain after a layoff in a distributed work environment.

To say I’ve “survived” all the layoffs that occurred throughout my multiple careers, whether I was culled or not, is more than a little melodramatic. I have truly survived much, much greater losses. Layoffs are not lethal events and living according to several key Stoic principles has helped me to persevere and gain strength from the brief storms of finding work.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, 231232

Reflecting on work transition experiences, I wondered what is it about having been laid off that made the next place so much better.

I have always worked hard to add value to my employer’s business. If that value was either not appreciated or the business shifted away from needing the value I was capable and willing to provide, it was a clear sign that it’s time to move on. By making this a choice, I could leave with no hard feelings and no burned bridges. Psychologically, this is more intimidating but much healthier.

Seeing the positive side of being laid off can be a little more difficult, particularly if one has been blind to the signs that every company and manager broadcasts when a layoff is eminent and is surprised when they happen. For starters, layoffs erased all the baggage I was carrying that belonged to the employer and made it much easier to strike out in a direction that suited my interests, skills, talents, and goals. Each of the three layoffs launched new, more lucrative and rewarding careers.

“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

Switching employers, even careers, more frequently than previous generations is a good career development strategy. In the dot com era, it was the only effective way to find meaningful raises and career advancement. Why toil away for a decade under Management-by-Taylorism to scratch out incremental pay increases when a salary could be increased by 10%-20% just by switching employers? Twenty-five years on, staying with the same employer for more than five years actually looks odd to many recruiters I’ve been talking to.

A friend of mine has a personal policy to commit to an employer for 1,000 days. At that point, she decides if the workplace it meeting her goals and expectations. Doesn’t matter if it’s a shortcoming of her employer or if her goals and interests have changed – a mismatch is a mismatch so it’s time to leave. I think it’s a good policy, particularly in the Age of Information and Knowledge and distributed workforces.

A policy like this builds resilience in several ways.

1. It’s important to know what it takes to persevere with the crap work that goes with just about any job. Flitting from job to job doesn’t develop this. A 1,000 day commitment is enough to show that you made it past the “honeymoon” period every job has, have worked more than a few significant problems into solutions, and generally paid your dues and demonstrated – if only to yourself – you have the chops to do the work.
2. Deciding to leave a job and doing so multiple times throughout your life builds confidence in your abilities to create your future.
3. It adds a valuable layer to your talent stack, as Scott Adams has described it.

If it was generally known that employees had this policy, employers might expand their efforts to foster cultures that allow employees who are creative and collaborative to thrive and grow. Instead of what’s more common: Cube farms propped up by career leaches that brag about having worked at the company for 25 years when in fact all they’ve done is worked one mediocre year and repeated it 24 times.

I’m done with that. Forever.

“There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they have begun.” – Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind


Photo by Benmar Schmidhuber on Unsplash

Show Your Work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programmed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

(Click to enlarge)

What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold a program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language or retelling a fish-that-got-away story. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of what burned me out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve since found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and touch. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Momemto Mori – Preparing for Loss

“But when at last some illness has reminded them of their mortality, how terrified do they die, as if they were not just passing out of life but being dragged out of it.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life (Translated by C. D. N. Costa)

Not sure anyone actually prepares to lose a loved one. Not like one might prepare for a speech or a party or a vacation. It’s never that methodical, predictable, or organized. We might brace ourselves for such a loss, if we know it’s imminent. Even then, the sanctuary of denial is much more common. We know the irreversible and inevitable pivot is close, but we busy ourselves with making sure the deck chairs are in order. Great effort is expended at distracting ourselves from the reminder of our own inevitable demise.

If Fortune is such that the death of a loved one is not a sudden loss to be dealt with all at once, we have an opportunity to come to terms with the loss and better understand ourselves. A transition unfolds – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – until a final dissolution. There are good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments that lead the way to THE moment. Throughout this process, there is an improvised preparation. I don’t think such a preparation makes the actual moment of death any easier to bear. But I do believe, when engaged with presence and clarity, it lightens the burden somewhat and eases the work of picking up the pieces before carrying on.

Perhaps it’s the shared finality of it, but the loss of the dogs I’ve been charged with taking care of over the years has a lot in common with the loss of family and friends. The steadfast loyalty of a dog, their unconditional loving and instant forgiveness of a transgression has been a model for me emulate. Their principle goal in life seems to be collaboration and honesty. The clarity with which dogs approach life, and the end of it, serves as a counterpoint to how we humans muddy the water in unnecessary and unhelpful ways. From this forms a singularly clear bond of trust, compassion, and mutual loyalty. Without exception, this has been my experience.

My A#1 dog is Rosebud Thorn Engel. Ears as pink as rose petals and a disposition just as sweet, she can be a thorny terrier on occasion. She lost her hearing last year, has signs of cataracts developing, and struggles with a bit of arthritis in her elbows and knees. More recently, tumors have been found on her liver and spleen and her liver enzymes off the scale. A sporadic appetite means she’s losing weight and has days to weeks. So each day is a treasure

(Rose at 7 weeks old.)

I wonder does she know what is happening? At 14 1/2 years old she’s still a spry little monster at times even with her failing biomachinery. In the back of my mind I’m constantly asking the questions, “Is her quality of life good? Is she comfortable? Is she happy? Is her tail wagging? Is there a light in her eyes?”

(Even thought she’s deaf, Rose still knows when I’m talking to her and, like everyone else it seems, struggles to make sense of what I’m trying to say.)

I believe there is an unacknowledged moment we are waiting for where the pain and grief of watching someone suffer is greater than the grief of loosing them. Whether this is so for the person dying, I cannot say. And we certainly can’t know this from an animal’s perspective. It’s a moment where grief is at its greatest and a small sense of relief has begun to grow. Relief from the suffering, relief from the uncertainty, relief from the anticipation of The Big Sting. I do know if we are fully engaged with this process and simply BE with the moment, The Big Sting passes quickly – the anticipation is the worst part of it – and we can begin, however slightly, to move on.

Time does not heal all wounds. But if we are open to the lessons life sends our way, we can grow stronger and by virtue of our strength, the burden becomes easier to bear.

 

Mindfulness? There’s an app for that! (Revisited)

Three years ago, I published the following article:

It appears mindfulness is…well…on a lot of people’s minds lately. I’ve seen this wave come and go twice before. This go around, however, will be propelled and amplified by the Internet. Will it come and go faster? Will there be a lasting and deeper revelation around mindfulness? I predict the former.

Mindfulness is simple and it’s hard. As the saying goes, mindfulness is not what you think.  It was difficult when I first began practicing Rinzai Zen meditation and Aikido many years ago. It’s even more difficult in today’s instant information, instant gratification, and short attention span culture. The uninitiated are ill equipped for the journey.

With this latest mindfulness resurgence expect an amplified parasite wave of meditation teachers and mindfulness coaches. A Japanese Zen Master (Roshi, or “teacher”) I studied with years ago called them “popcorn roshis” – they pop up everywhere and have little substance. No surprise that this wave includes a plethora of mindfulness “popcorn apps.”

Spoiler alert: There are no apps for mindfulness. Attempting to develop mindfulness by using an app on a device that is arguably the single greatest disruptor of mindfulness is much like taking a pill to counteract the side effects of another pill in your quest for health. At a certain point, the pills are the problem. They’ve become the barrier to health.

The “mindfulness” apps that can be found look to be no different than thousands of other non-mindfulness apps offering timers, journaling, topical text, and progress tracking. What they all have in common is that they place your mindfulness practice in the same space as all the other mindfulness killing apps competing for your attention – email, phone, texts, social media, meeting reminders, battery low alarms, and all the other widgets that beep, ring, and buzz.

The way to practicing mindfulness is by the deliberate subtraction of distractions, not the addition of another collection of e-pills. The “killer app” for mindfulness is to kill the app. The act of powering off your smart phone for 30 minutes a day is in itself a powerful practice toward mindfulness. No timer needed. No reminder required. Let it be a random act. Be free! At least for 30 minutes or so.

Mental states like mindfulness, focus, and awareness are choices and don’t arise out of some serendipitous environmental convergence of whatever. They are uniquely human states. Relying on a device or machine to develop mindfulness is decidedly antithetical to the very state of mindfulness. Choosing to develop such mental states requires high quality mentors (I’ve had many) and deliberate practice – a practice that involves subtracting the things from your daily life that work against them.

“For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.12

Looking at the past three Internet years I’d have to say the prospects for the latest mindfulness wave amounting to anything substantial are bleak. There probably aren’t enough words to describe how far off the rails this fad has gone. But there is a number! 2020.

Bonus: There’s a study! “Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals.” (Preprint) There was a concept in this study that was new to me: “self-construal.” According to the APA dictionary:

self-construal
n. any specific belief about the self. The term is used particularly in connection with the distinction between independent self-construals and interdependent self-construals.

Well, that definition sorta has itself as the definition. So…

independent self-construal
a view of the self (self-construal) that emphasizes one’s separateness and unique traits and accomplishments and that downplays one’s embeddedness in a network of social relationships. Compare interdependent self-construal.

And

interdependent self-construal
a view of the self (self-construal) that emphasizes one’s embeddedness in a network of social relationships and that downplays one’s separateness and unique traits or accomplishments. Compare independent self-construal.

Clear on terms, on to the abstract:

Mindfulness appears to promote individual well-being, but its interpersonal effects are less clear. Two studies in adult populations tested whether the effects of mindfulness on prosocial behavior differ by self-construals. In Study 1 (N = 366), a brief mindfulness induction, compared to a meditation control, led to decreased prosocial behavior among people with relatively independent self-construals, but had the opposite effect among those with relatively interdependent self-construals. In Study 2 (N = 325), a mindfulness induction led to decreased prosocial behavior among those primed with independence, but had the opposite effect among those primed with interdependence. The effects of mindfulness on prosocial behavior appear to depend on individuals’ broader social goals. This may have implications for the increasing popularity of mindfulness training around the world.

TL;DR: Mindfulness “training” makes selfish people more selfish and narcissistic people more narcissistic. On the other hand, it makes altruistic people more altruistic and compassionate people more compassionate. So there’s that.

I think it’s fair to say the last several years in particular have revealed an awe inspiring explosion in selfishness and narcissism. Evidenced by the extreme polarization manifest in identity politics and all it’s dubious offspring. The thought of all these people pulling on a mindfulness mask like some fashion accessory is less than comforting.

Three years on, it looks to be certain that “mindfulness” has been co-opted and applied as a temporary bandage in a world lacking resilience, flexibility, and genuine tolerance. Another mindfulness wave that has failed to crash onto the shores of civilization with a cleansing thunder, instead mindlessly trickled up to the edge and done little more than rearrange the garbage floating at the shoreline.

I really wanted it to succeed. Maybe next time.

References

Poulin, M., Ministero, L., Gabriel, S., Morrison, C., & Naidu, E. (2021, April 9). Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/xhyua

 

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Deliberate Practice and Coding

Deliberate practice applied to coding offers some unique opportunities. Unlike other skills, like learning to play the cello (to pick one that I have some experience with), you can go very far without a personal mentor. The feedback from the computer is about as objective as it gets. It will let you know exactly how good your code is.

This also helps remove the emotional component – positive and negative – that can sometimes impede progress with an in-person mentor. This doesn’t remove all emotion, however. Just about everyone who’s worked in a professional coding shop has witnessed the rare occurrence of a coder cursing at or even physically attacking their computer because their code isn’t working as expected. Those are surreal moments when an avalanche of cognitive biases and unconscious behavior become visible to all but the coder. That’s a topic for for a different post. Suffice it to say, learning how to control your emotions, channel frustration, and ignite curiosity is part of what distinguishes good coders from great coders.

Which gets met to finding quality feedback. While I’ve made a good living writing mountains of proprietary code for various business and corporations, I earned my coding chops by working on or authoring open source projects. This was the best source I found for getting feedback on my code. It also taught me another important lesson: Do not attach your identity to the code you write. Like any noob, I had a lot of pride in my early code that was pretty much untested outside my little work environment. In the open source world, the feedback was often swift and harsh. Or, at least is was when my identity was attached to it. Learning to separate work product from identity revealed just how much emotional spin I was putting on what was in hindsight reasonable feedback. I have concerns that the current climate in the coding world is opting for soft feedback and good feelings over legitimate and reasonable feedback. This, too, is for another post.

It’s worth giving some thought about the the pros and cons of working with an actual person for mentorship. Along with good instruction, a single mentor will pass along their own limitations and biases. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of. So multiple mentors are better than just one, which starts to move down the path of actively participating in open source projects. By “actively” I mean not just contributing code, but studying the code (and it’s history) of existing successful projects. There are usually many ways to solve a problem with software. Work to understand why one approach is better than another. Insights like this are best gained, in my experience, by studying good code.

Somewhat related, if you are working from a book or a training program, actually type in the examples – character by character. Don’t cheat yourself by copy-pasting code examples. This is the muscle memory component to coding that you will find when learning other more physical skills (like playing the cello.) If you really want to experience the gnarly edge, ditch the IDE and code with at text editor. I still do all my coding in vim and this keyboard.

Another approach to deliberate practice is the idea of coding “katas.” This never clicked with me. I attribute this to having studied martial arts for 25 years, most of that time at the black belt level. Mapping the human psycho/physical world and the purpose of katas in the dojo to the machine world is too much of a mis-match. Much is lost in the translation, in my experience. The katas in the dojo, regardless the art form, translated easily to other styles and practices. The coding “katas” are more tightly coupled to the coding language in which they are written. In my view, it’s yet another example of swiping a cool sounding word and concept and force-fitting it to another domain. A software version of cargo cults – expecting form to create function. “Black belt” or “Ninja” coder are other force-fits. Yet again, something for another post.

But those are my limitations. Your experience will no doubt be different. As learning exercises and proficiency tracks, many of the coding “katas” look to be very good.

(For related thoughts on how building your own tools can deepen your understanding of a skill, see “Tools for Practice.” The examples in the article combine software development and cello practice.)

 

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

Frameworks vs Rules

Getting the job done is no excuse for not following the rules. Corollary: Following the rules will not get the job done,” said Somebody I Don’t Know.

When I was developing software under the draconian rules of CMMI there was a very clear message from the handlers (as we called them) to follow the rules or there will be consequences. So we did. Mostly. The problem was that among those of us in the trenches there wasn’t much of a feeling of actually getting work done. There was a lot of rework due to features being designed without our input. The design team would send us a design, we’d make noise that the design had problems but we’d have to build it anyway, we’d build the unworkable thing, demonstrate a flawed product to the design team, they’d redesign (without our input), re-document, and send us a new design.

And so we lurched forward. We followed the rules and weren’t getting the job done from the customer’s perspective. I’m sure the CMMI gods were happy, though.

This was before “Agile” was a thing. There were plenty of rapid application development ideas in the industry and in loose fashion we ended up implementing what we thought we could get away with. And that worked.

Our impromptu “water cooler” conversations in the mornings where we mostly complained but frequently suggested solutions for each other’s techno-pain would be easily recognized by any scrum master as a daily scrum. The way we cut up (literally) copies of the official documentation and re-arranged the work to better match how we thought the work needed to be done looked a lot like a sprint backlog.

We were getting the job done, but not following the rules. As far as I know, none of us ever suffered adverse consequences. It’s hard to argue with success no matter the path taken to get there.

Imposing elaborate sets of rules to a fundamentally creative process will pretty much guarantee a slow boat to success. In the late 80’s and early 90’s that seemed to work well enough. But those days are long gone. It’s why the framework approach to many of the Agile methodologies are more successful in software and similarly creativity dependent projects. Frameworks leave room to adjust, adapt, experiment, and act.

And…

Rules are important. Frameworks aren’t devoid of rules. Far from it. Tossing out bits and pieces of a framework shouldn’t be done just to get the job done. The rules that are part of a framework should be considered a minimal set essential to success. None of them should be discarded without careful deliberation. Unlike the rules to something like CMMI that are meant to control as many aspects of the project as possible and squeeze out any trace of uncertainty and risk, the rules in an Agile framework are meant to serve as important guides. Operating outside a framework for extended periods is likely to put a project at significant risk.

Well-established and proven frameworks, such as scrum, have extracted the essential rules from previous methodologies and experiences and organized them in useful ways. They don’t reject all the previous rules in a quest to re-invent the wheel. They build on what has been learned to improve the wheel. This is reflected in the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.Seneca, Moral Letters, 33.11

The Stoics recognize that our predecessors weren’t entirely wrong. But they are very likely incomplete. It is incumbent on us to improve upon and extend their work.

This illuminates the importance and value of a good scrum master. Like a good cowboy or cowgirl, part of their job is to ride the fences, looking for breaches to the framework. If found, either repair the fence with coaching or decide if the fence line needs to move to accommodate a need dictated by circumstances and conditions.

Image credit: Wikipedia