Eleven-plus years of thinking about thinking. I'm in Heaven. Notes and quotes from each blog entry, most-recent first.


How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, "The French Chef", did throughout her career.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative. ... People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. ... There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts. ... Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.


Learning Through Play

Play is an essential way of learning about the world. Doing things we enjoy without a goal in mind leads us to find new information, better understand our own capabilities, and find unexpected beauty around us. Arithmetic is one example of an area we can explore through play.

When the pressure mounts to be productive every minute of the day, we have much to gain from doing all we can to carve out time to play.

Playing with symbols: (Arithmetic, and using different representations for the numbers, etc.) When we start to play with the representations, we connect to the underlying reasoning behind what we are doing.

Stepping away from requirements: (Groupings of symbols, and groupings of groupings) "“You might think there is no question about it; we chose four as our grouping size, so that’s that. Of course we will group our groups into fours—as opposed to what? Grouping things into fours and then grouping our groups into sixes? That would be insane! But it happens all the time. Inches are grouped into twelves to make feet, and then three feet make a yard. And the old British monetary system had twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound.”" By reminding us of the options available in such a simple, everyday activity as counting, Lockhart opens a mental door. What other ways might we go about our tasks and solve our problems? It’s a reminder that most of our so-called requirements are ones that we impose on ourselves.

Have fun with the unfamiliar: Getting stuck on anything can be incredibly useful. If forces you to stop and consider what it is you are really trying to achieve. Getting stuck can help you identify the first principles in your situation. In getting unstuck, we learn lessons that resonate and help us to grow. ... Play is often the exploration of the unfamiliar.


Descriptions Aren't Prescriptions

(The Malagasy language: official rules described in 19th-century, taught faithfully, even as its practitioners spoke along different sets of rules. " We find it dull to speak according to the official rules of our language. We seek out novelty in our everyday lives and do whatever it takes to avoid boredom. Even if each person only plays a little bit once in a while, the results compound. Graeber explains that 'this playing around will have cumulative effects.'" Languages still need conventions so people can understand each other. The higher the similarity between the versions of a language different people speak, the more they can communicate. At the same time, they cannot remain rigid. Trying to follow an unyielding set of strict rules will inevitably curtail the usefulness of a language and prevent it from developing in interesting and necessary ways. Languages need a balance: enough guidance to help everyone understand each other and provide an entry point for learners, and enough flexibility to keep updating the rules as actual usage changes.)

“The map is not the territory” means that any representation of reality has to be a simplification that may contain errors, become outdated, or reflect biases. Maps remove details that aren’t necessary for their intended use. Representations of complex systems may show expected behavior or ideal behavior. ... Sometimes maps are descriptive, and sometimes they’re prescriptive; often they’re a bit of both. We run into problems when we confuse one type for another and try to navigate an idealized territory or make the real territory fit an idealized image.

When you encounter a representation of something, it’s useful to consider which parts are descriptive and which parts are prescriptive. Remember that both prescriptions and descriptions can and should change over time.


What Sharks Can Teach Us About Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias refers to the idea that we get a false representation of reality when we base our understanding only on the experiences of those who live to tell their story. Taking a look at how we misrepresent shark attacks highlights how survivorship bias distorts reality in other situations.

We must be careful to not let a volume of survivors in one area blind us to the stories of a small number of survivors elsewhere. Most importantly, we need to ask ourselves what stories are not being told because no one is around to tell them. The experiences of the dead are necessary if we want an accurate understanding of the world.

Survivorship bias crops up all over our lives and impedes us from accurately assessing danger. ... Understanding survivorship bias prompts us to look for the stories of those who weren’t successful. A lack of visible survivors with memorable stories might mean we view other fields as far safer and easier than they are. ... Survivorship bias prompts us to associate more risk with industries that exhibit more public failures. ... If we don’t factor survivorship bias into our thinking we end up in a classic map is not the territory problem. ... Not recognizing survivorship bias can lead to faulty decision making.


Why Life Can't Be Simpler

We’d all like life to be simpler. But we also don’t want to sacrifice our options and capabilities. Tesler’s law of the conservation of complexity, a rule from design, explains why we can’t have both. Here’s how the law can help us create better products and services by rethinking simplicity.

In Living with Complexity, Donald A. Norman explains that complexity is all in the mind. Our perception of a product or service as simple or complex has its basis in the conceptual model we have of it. Norman writes that "A conceptual model is the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works . . . Conceptual models are extremely important tools for organizing and understanding otherwise complex things." ... When we want something to be simpler, what we truly need is a better conceptual model of it.

Removing functionality doesn’t make something simpler, because it removes options. Simple tools have a limited ability to simplify processes. Trying to do something complex with a simple tool is more complex than doing the same thing with a more complex tool.

The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you make a user’s interaction with a system simpler, the complexity behind the scenes increases. ... Complexity is like energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only moved somewhere else. "What is simple on the surface can be incredibly complex inside: what is simple inside can result in an incredibly complex surface. So from whose point of view do we measure complexity?"

From a user’s standpoint, the simplest products and services are those that are fully automated and do not require any intervention (unless something goes wrong.) ... On the other end of the spectrum, we have products and services that require users to control every last step.

Lessons from the conservation of complexity:
* How simple something looks is not a reflection of how simple it is to use. Perceived simplicity is not the same as operational (actual) simplicity.

> A very basic example of complexity trade-offs can be found in the history of arithmetic. For centuries, many counting systems all over the world employed tools using stones or beads like a tabula (the Romans) or soroban (the Japanese) to facilitate adding and subtracting numbers. They were easy to use, but not easily portable. Then the Hindu-Arabic system came along (the one we use today) and by virtue of employing columns, and thus not requiring any moving parts, offered a much more portable counting system. However, the portability came with a cost.

> Paul Lockhart explains in Arithmetic, "With the Hindu-Arabic system the writing and calculating are inextricably linked. Instead of moving stones or sliding beads, our manipulations become transmutations of the symbols themselves. That means we need to know things. We need to know that one more than 2 is 3, for instance. In other words, the price we pay [for portability] is massive amounts of memorization." Thus, there is a trade-off. The simpler arithmetic system requires more complexity in terms of the memorization required of the users. We all went through the difficult process of learning mathematical symbols early in life. Although they might seem simple to us now, that’s just because we’re so accustomed to them.

Norman writes: "Perceived simplicity is not at all the same as simplicity of usage: operational simplicity. Perceived simplicity decreases with the number of visible controls and displays. Increase the number of visible alternatives and the perceived simplicity drops. The problem is that operational simplicity can be drastically improved by adding more controls and displays. The very things that make something easier to learn and to use can also make it be perceived as more difficult." Even if it receives a negative reaction before usage, operational simplicity is the more important goal.


Being Smart is not Enough

When hiring a team, we tend to favor the geniuses who hatch innovative ideas, but overlook the butterflies, the crucial ones who share and implement them. Here’s why it’s important to be both smart AND social.

In business, it’s never enough to have a great idea. For any innovation to be successful, it has to be shared, promoted, and bought into by everyone in the organization. Yet often we focus on the importance of those great ideas and seem to forget about the work that is required to spread them around. ... Joseph Henrich explores the role of culture in human evolution. One point he makes is that it’s not enough for a species to be smart. What counts far more is having the cultural infrastructure to share, teach, and learn:

Consider two very large prehuman populations, the Geniuses and the Butterflies. Suppose the Geniuses will devise an invention once in 10 lifetimes. The Butterflies are much dumber, only devising the same invention once in 1000 lifetimes. So, this means that the Geniuses are 100 times smarter than the Butterflies. However, the Geniuses are not very social and have only 1 friend they can learn from. The Butterflies have 10 friends, making them 10 times more social.

Now, everyone in both populations tries to obtain an invention, both by figuring it out for themselves and by learning from friends. Suppose learning from friends is difficult: if a friend has it, a learner only learns it half the time. After everyone has done their own individual learning and tried to learn from their friends, do you think the innovation will be more common among the Geniuses or the Butterflies?

? Well, among the Geniuses a bit fewer than 1 out of 5 individuals (18%) will end up with the invention. Half of those Geniuses will have figured it out all by themselves. Meanwhile, 99.9% of Butterflies will have the innovation, but only 0.1% will have figured it out by themselves.



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Last modified 14 January 2024