tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:/posts Ammar Mian 2017-05-06T00:01:52Z Ammar Mian tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1151956 2017-05-06T00:01:51Z 2017-05-06T00:01:52Z a short essay on plans, written on a delayed metro train

This is a short essay on plans, written on a delayed Metro train. I originally posted this on Facebook randomly, then cleaned it up and posted it at http://ammarmian.com/posts/on-plans.html. Will probably post most things over there from now on. Posting here for redundant archiving.

What is effective is not the same as what seems effective.

We often do things that make us feel effective, whether or not that action actually is effective.

Thus there is effective and "effective".

We make plans, and it is up for debate whether we are making them to be "effective" or effective.

I argue that we are rarely aware of this distinction and are often acting in "effective" ways.

Many plans we make, inherit, and adhere to may be "effective" or effective, we're not really sure, because our only measure of the value of a plan or action is if it feels effective.

Put in other words, we fixate on clever or noble plans, ignoring entire classes of plans that might actually be effective but don't necessarily make us feel great.

The Insecurity of Not Knowing

So what is this feeling? It seems like before we can even try thinking of how to be effective (without quotations), we need to know why we are drawn to being "effective" (with quotations).

Desiring feelings of effectiveness may derive from a root insecurity about our own abilities to handle uncertainty.

We want to show that we have something figured out, and we want to listen to those who show they have things figured out. Otherwise we just say we're not cut out for one thing or another.

It's a very simple way to deal with uncertainty -- either show that you're fully certain, find someone who does claim that, or don't involve yourself at all.

Due to this insecurity over our ability to deal with uncertain terms, we fixate on making (and listening to) "effective" plans -- plans that feel like certitudes in some way or another.

This is why we get so excited by clever exercise regimens or diet plans or learning modules or stump speeches. If we fail, it's because we just weren't cut out for it. Not because the plan sucked (which it did). Because just look at how clever and fancy the presenter was!

An Attempt at a Better Plan

Over the past four years I've tried and failed and succeeded and failed and failed and failed and failed at coding, teaching, writing, marketing, reading, thinking, taking standardized tests, snowboarding, running, meditating, etc.

I've noticed the most effective plans take one general shape:

  1. Diagnose
  2. Explore
  3. Diagnose again
  4. Make a short term schedule
  5. Follow it studiously
  6. Repeat 1-5

Steps 1-3 take the most time and constitute the most emotional work because each time you enter, you're not quite sure if you'll make it out to step 4.

But then you repeatedly do.

This is the act of learning over and over again what it means to not be sure of how things are. This is a crucial element of solving problems, it appears, to somewhat masochistically cherish the unknown unknowns.

During this process, you may figure out you hadn't ever really precisely defined what you were trying to do.

And then it turns out you were your own limit.

And then it turns out that the concept of you is flexible.

And then the real fun work begins.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1139858 2017-03-19T18:42:00Z 2017-03-19T18:42:00Z you are the product of the memes you keep

From psychologist Hoye Leigh's Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness:

"Primitive memory formed by trial and error died with the organism. With the evolution of complex brains, however, memory in the form of brain codes acquired the ability to skip from one brain to another, first by imitation as a shortcut to trial and error, and later, with language, as knowledge and information. When memory achieved portability, it became memes, bits of replicating information."
Meme: A Definition

Have you ever seen "meme" defined so precisely? In modern parlance, a meme is an image or short video with a snappy tagline. It's not the image or the tagline itself that makes it a meme. What makes a meme is that it can be directly inserted into various social contexts and make perfect sense. The perfect meme conveys information more portably and more accurately than having to explain something. In theory, we could carry on conversations with each other using just memes.

Bits of replicating information.

We've grown very accustomed to imagining memes as some new phenomenon. Usually, these memes are sassy, clever, and cynical -- Internet culture in nutshell. The following meme has gotten a lot of airplay in recent months:

The original clip (5:42) is hilarious. The meme's text makes you laugh because we've all been in that situation. But the frame itself makes the meme, and it transmits well because of what it communicates subliminally. We relate to it because everyone privately battles with their own darkness. So it doesn't matter what Kermit and Evil Kermit say specifically, we get it and we laugh (see the hundreds of renditions here).

Non-Digital Memes

Let's generalize the term meme and move it outside of the domain of the digital world. If a meme is a dense, repeatable, portable memory chunk, then much of our selves are determined by the memes we repeat like mantras.

A meme: a dog licking her pup repeatedly, or a cat snuggling behind another cat. According to psychologist Hoye Leigh, "the perception of licking by the pup results in memes, i.e., new neural connections and potentiation of existing ones that may represent, in homo sapiens terms, 'I am loved.'"

Here's a reference to that same meme appearing in cinema, in Barry Jenkins' incredible film Moonlight:
"I messed up baby. I fucked it all up, I know that.  But yo’ heart ain’t gotta be black like mine, you hear me?

I love you baby. I do, I love you Chiron. You ain’t gotta love me, lord knows I didn’t have love for you when you needed it, I know that.

So you ain’t gotta love me but you gon’ know that I love you, you hear?"
Paula, Chiron's heroin addict mother, communicates to her son something she never did when he needed to hear it. In Chiron's life, the meme of "I am loved" never fully formed, and Chiron's decisions throughout the movie reflect the lack of this important life meme.

Memes are patterns of neural connections, according to Leigh, and they "affect other neural connections to result in neurotransmitter release and affect genes. The affected genes, in turn, affect the individual’s perceptual bias and interpretation of life experiences in the future, and thus stress vulnerability or resilience."

The memes we receive and the memes we repeat to ourselves and to others determine how we see ourselves and others. They determine if and how we: show affection, study, work, think, engage, converse, navigate, and handle emotions. Some memes are extremely sticky -- if you don't have them, chances are your kids won't either.

Culture: A Collection of Memes

Through this lens, memes aren't trivial. A meme carries with it not just visceral memories, but also expectations, biases, and values. So then imagine a stream of memes occurring all around us. This collection is what we're subconsciously pulling from to construct our personalities.

In our early years, family provides us with memes on what constitutes "life". But in the absence of (or supplemental to) family, whether by choice or by circumstance, we seek out memes in media, sports, art, books, urban spaces, quaint coffeeshops, and niche tribes. One could give this conglomerate source of influence a name: "culture".

We are shaped by the culture surrounding us insofar as how we assimilate to it, or conversely, how sharply we react to it.

In New York City, the prevailing meme is money: the city's culture is broadly defined by the tension between Midtown glitz-and-glam and its defiant bohemian starving-artist peripheries. 

In San Francisco, the prevailing meme is glory: the city is a breeding ground for cultural spaces emanating conflicting "change the world" and "change your self" messages.

Some cities use intellectualism as a driving/reactionary force (Boston), while others use power (DC), masculinity, stoicism, religion, etc.

The community you occupy can play a huge role in how you perceive life and the subsequent decisions you make about it. That's because the community's capital-C Culture can often be a forcing function pushing you towards/away from certain values.

The people you run into, the media you consume, the food you eat, the transportation you take, the block you live on -- these all play significant roles in how your view of yourself morphs or stays the same. If you stay long enough, you then start contributing to this viscous stew of memes.

Reclaiming Your Meme-o-sphere in the Era of the Infinite Scroll

The more time I spend observing my own habits, the more I realize the importance of curating the types of memes I pay attention to.

If memes can dismantle old neural connections and replace them with new ones, then imagine their effect on our well-being. When a meme gets repeated, it decides to stick around. It grows to deepen its occupation of our inner value system. Which means that if we are sloppy about our consumption habits, our values are easily rattled and replaced without us even noticing it happening.

This is reminiscent of the first rule of getting in shape, which is to empty your apartment of bad snacks. It might sound funny, but in the realm of health, a pantry filled with unhealthy food is a meme telling you what it is okay to consume when you're hungry and don't have time to cook. Replace the candy with nuts and healthy fats, and you've solved your problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave snacks?"), but this solution prevents a bad meme from fully infiltrating your value system.

In the digital context, the bad snacks may be clickbait headlines -- CNN might buzz your phone with the latest provocative story. In the realm of knowledge, this digital pantry is a meme telling you that consuming headlines like this is healthy for your understanding of the world. Replace the CNN ticker with Farnam Street or The Skimm, and you've solved the problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave provocative information?"), but this solution, like the one above, prevents a bad meme from invading your value system.

Reclaim your meme-o-sphere. You are the product of the memes you keep and create. Whether they occur online or in your office or the company you keep or the apartment you live in, these memes deserve to be audited, reflected on, and reshaped. Then start producing memes for others to consume.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1126685 2017-03-05T17:31:57Z 2017-03-09T14:03:05Z zealous for the obscure: thoughts on learning and friction

From philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human:

"Twofold misjudgment:

The misfortune suffered by clear-minded and easily understood writers is that they are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them.

And the good fortune that attends the obscure is that the reader toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The Wise Man, The Wizard

Some wise man said something or another, I can't remember when or why, that went to the effect of: tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. 

The wise man was my optometrist, and he asked me whether I had changed my diet significantly since my last checkup (it had been a full year).

"Yes, I stopped eating meat."

"I knew it. Your macular pigment density drastically increased. Probably from all that kale and spinach."

"What else can you read about me based on my eye health?"

"You stare at a computer all day, and you exercise regularly. You also don't seem to like wearing glasses because you overwear your contacts."

"You're a wizard, Dr. Solomon."

"Well, that's why I'm in this line of work. Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. For most people, that's diabetic, malnourished, and sedentary."

Tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. I wonder if Dr. Solomon is aware of how often I reflect upon this memory. When a particular set of ideas invades my mind, it bleeds into the things I notice in the world around me.

This is not rare by any means; everyone does it, to varying degrees. The pattern of things we notice becomes the fabric of our reality. Learning something new is "simply" the creation of a new pattern of observation. Maybe that's why kids learn so readily and adults don't.

A Series of Observations

That child was trouble until the teacher learned he was a "sneakerhead." The teacher handed him some historical data on the resale price of Air Jordans, and he started figuring out for himself how slopes and linear equations work.

She doesn't read much, but her best friend contracted cancer, and so she engrossed herself in The Emperor of All Maladies. She buried herself in that book during her spare moments.

A prolonged period of disillusionment from Islam meant he refused to fast during Ramadan. But he read studies linking "intermittent fasting" to improvements in cardiac health, fat loss, and muscle growth. So he started fasting again. And then he started paying attention to religion again.

Motivated Reasoning & The Case for Friction

Dr. Solomon may have been discussing eye health specifically, but "tell me what you see and I'll tell you who you are" sounds suspiciously like motivated reasoning.

Generally speaking, motivated reasoning is "When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence." More broadly and colloquially, I view this phenomenon as the "people see what they want to see" effect. The things that "motivate" them to evaluate their environment in a particular way end up shaping how they see the world.

Modern times have reshaped how we "optimize" our media for consumption. There's been a steady march towards the more easily swallowed and immediately palatable. The theory is that, by reducing the friction behind consumption (by making everything a textual/visual/sensual snack), we get smarter and wiser.

This theory misses a crucial point that psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi touches on in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In the line of research, he found that: a) that we can only focus on a finite number of things at a time, and b) that our learning faculties are at their most intense when we are fully absorbed and focused on a single activity. Finding flow is more important than finding ease.

The sneakerhead pores over numbers and equations despite not liking math. The friend of a cancer patient tears through relatively dense passages of medical history despite not being much of a reader.

Koan Contemplation in an Attention-Starved World

There's an old Buddhist saying that goes like "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." There's also an old Sufi saying that goes "The soul covers its own truth with a thousand veils from its own eyes." Both convey more or less equivalent ideas.

The funny thing about these sayings is that they sound quite obvious. To each, we may naturally roll our eyes at their self-evident nature. And then we proceed to directly contradict in our own lives what we thought was so obvious.

Words can "make sense", but if we haven't done the very difficult work of integrating them into our patterns of observation of reality, then these beautiful turns of phrase become fodder for yearbooks and status updates.

Two Breeds of Culture: On the Obscure and the Inaccessible

Clarity might be overrated, and it's our fault. I'll try and illustrate what I mean with an example. (Ironically, by trying to make myself clear, I may be defeating the purpose).

There is a breed of writer that focuses on clarity. Economical in expression; wastes no time in indulgent narrative. Oftentimes, these writers are able to whittle down to the essential. A small subset of readers can take these simple phrases and impart their own dense imagery upon them. My brother is one of them. They can take a small phrase and chew and ponder over it for days, weeks, months, years even.

The problem with this koan breed is that their work gives a topic a veneer of easy digestion: finish the book (and listen to the accompanying TED Talk) in an afternoon, and change the world! But in this ease of digestion, perhaps the meanings are not drilled home effectively. To reiterate Nietzsche, these thinkers "are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them." Like a snack.

There is a second breed of writer that focuses on the details and minutiae of their study. Their works serve as frantic messages: "This is all that I have acquired, and I'm not sure I can quite distill them down to the size of my fist. So here's my entire universe." A small subset of readers find these dense, obscure texts and lose themselves in them. These consumers emerge with new patterns of observation. The fabric of their reality, after an epic struggle, transforms. As Nietzsche says, these obscure texts are attended to by "a reader [who] toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal."

The problem with the obscura breed is that their work is often dense, confusing, and tough to follow. Their works are the financial analyses, the primatologist's notebooks, the observations of the practitioner of some obscure art or craft.

Zealous for the Obscure

In an ideal world, the clearly and plainly written would win out - that we're all koan enthusiasts, taking small, clear nuggets of thought and chewing on them to understand them.

In an ideal world, clear communication is about ideas and conveying them in a way that seamlessly integrates them into people's daily lives.

But we know that's not how we work. Many studies have showed how audiences remember very little about the content of a "strong" communicator's speech. But they do remember how great and insightful the communicator apparently was. 

We aren't as ready to learn as we think we are, and we aren't as rational as we think we are. So all those easily-digested thought pieces might not actually be teaching us much. They might just be reinforcing our existing views because we'll just notice what we already want to notice. We seek out experiences rather than truth. Hence "shoot the messenger" and so on.

The trick to understanding something in a different way appears to be finding something so impenetrable and so obscure that if you are still drawn to it, you will actually learn something significant. The friction that you are willing to endure means that you care enough about the ideas held within to keep banging your head against the wall.

For many people, the path to "Zen clarity" goes through a twisting, winding, dense foliage of narratives we zealously chase despite their difficulty. That is because, as the Buddhist and the Sufi would say, the knowledge we seek is often already held within ourselves. We just need the right lights to reveal them.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1120611 2017-01-13T14:42:50Z 2017-01-13T15:56:18Z breaking the cycle of imitation, suffering, and judgment

For many people, 2016 was the year of hurt. Over the past few months, this has been the prevailing thread in many long conversations I've had with friends. Below I attempt to distill these conversations into a single essay.


Despite our efforts, we cannot help but to hurt each other, especially when the stakes are so high.

At first I wondered if it was just an inevitable part of being human. But that seems too lazy of a conclusion. That's the conclusion that leads to jaded sorority girls writing about relationships on Elite Daily, weary intellectuals ruminating about a godless existence, and radicals waging war in the name of Some Party You Aren't Invited To. That's no fun.

The way we hurt ourselves and each other stems from a poor understanding of how our thoughts, desires, and memories work. 

These three streams are what we absorb most willingly, and they converge to help us form a notion of who we are (our ego). The ego is a useful construct because it helps us have a semblance of continuity and consistency.

But the ego also has a dark side -- it often deludes us into believing that our thoughts, desires, and memories are valid and correct. We thus fail to be thoughtful, to listen carefully, and to avoid passing our pain on to others.

A lot of the violence we commit happens silently and without even noticing ourselves doing it. This habitual violence is so deeply ingrained, it's nearly impossible to eradicate it entirely. I keep catching myself sliding into these ego-fueled patterns. So the best thing we can do is to begin to understand what they are and what they look like.

1. Imitative Desires

From philosopher Rene Gerard's I See Satan Fall By Lightning:

"Rivalistic desires are all the more overwhelming since they reinforce one another. The principle of reciprocal escalation and one-upmanship governs this type of conflict. This phenomenon is so common, so well known to us, and so contrary to our concept of ourselves, thus so humiliating, that we prefer to remove it from consciousness and act as if it did not exist. But all the while we know it does exist."

Our desires arise from imitating the things other people want or find desirable. These "mimetic desires" push us into conflict with each other. We want the same things. Evolutionarily, our ability to imitate is what makes us such quick learners and adapters. But the complexity of modern society makes the imitation game a losing proposition.

Sometimes we want the same things but claim we want different things, which is what causes conflict! If only we could just recognize when we want the same thing (and we can both have it)!

Sometimes we want something just because someone else wants that thing! This drives us into a frenzy and we are no longer happy with what we already have.

The wants and haves of our peer group become the things we covet. Tragically, we don't realize that the things we have become the things others covet. In an era of abundance, our instinct is still to pine for the seemingly scarce.

2. Ego-Driven Speech

From psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication:

"Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values."

From spiritual teacher Adyashanti's Falling Into Grace:

"When we see the world through our thoughts, we stop experiencing life as it really is and others as they really are. When I have a thought about you, that’s something I’ve created. I’ve turned you into an idea. In a certain sense, if I have an idea about you that I believe, I’ve degraded you. I’ve made you into something very small. This is the way of human beings, this is what we do to each other."

When we talk to each other, we have a concept of ourselves and we have a concept of the person we are talking to. Our sense of self, our identity, often forms from the thoughts we cling onto, attach ourselves to, and perpetuate over and over again.

The words and phrases we use to communicate translate these patterns of thought very inefficiently to words. What comes out is a stream of ego-protective expressions that often escalates into some form of conflict. We protect our egos even when we claim to be "expressing ourselves."

"You're such a so-and-so when you ..." (very judgmental) vs. "You make me feel inadequate when you ..." (subtly judgmental) vs. "I feel disappointed in my ability to make you happy when you ..." (vulnerable).

You don't say what you mean to say in the very moments you need to say what you mean to say.

Because we attach much value to our thoughts (and the correctness of translating these thoughts to words), we aren't well-equipped to notice the harm our words can cause.

3. Suffering Through Memory Reliance

From Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds:

"The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. 'Confirmation bias is the most insidious because you don’t even realize it is happening,' [Kahneman] said. A scout would settle on an opinion about a player and then arrange the evidence to support that opinion."

From psychologist Carol Tavris's Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me):

"Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification."

Our memories play tricks on us. Our memories are extremely vulnerable to the recency effect (how we felt at the tail end of an experience can often skew our memory of the total experience).

Our memories are extremely vulnerable to "making sense" of things in a way that protects our ego. When something promotes the ego, we cherry pick the good; when something clashes with our ego, we cherry pick the bad. This is also why it's so hard for people in high-ego settings to admit fault.

Our subjective memories are not very reliable judges, though they do provide us with rich perspectives. However, we obtain much of our suffering and our emotional state from how we choose to remember something.

You think someone stood you up, so you grumble and despise them, until you learn that they got into a car accident on the way to meeting you. In a flash, your sense of suffering changes entirely - you move from anger to concern.

Reality doesn't change; our perspective on it does.


Our imitative desires cause us to seek a very relational happiness. We are "happy" if we are better off than those around us. However, with the advent of social media, this relational happiness is impossible to attain -- there is always someone or something "better" (or at least, more novel) than what we already have.

And so we must learn to identify these desires and master them.

Our ego-driven speech leads us to conflict. We communicate mostly to secure our own sense of self, rarely thinking, speaking, and listening empathically.

And so we must learn to identify patterns of violence in the way we talk to each other.

Our obsession with our (faulty and unreliable) memories causes us to latch on to our own experiences. We construct narrow narratives about our lives that we defend viciously. 

And so we must learn to never let our memories become an obsession.

It appears we are not careful enough about our relationship with our thoughts, desires, and memories. While it is certainly valuable to care about them, it's dangerous to assume an entitlement to them. They add some color to our life, but the shape of life exists somewhere beyond the pale of things that make us suffer. And so we must break the cycle.


Edit: Also will be trying something different and closing with a list of recommended books + essays. Here are a few related to the conversation above:

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1114175 2016-12-10T14:31:44Z 2016-12-10T15:06:23Z decisions need principles

From law professor and metaethicist Ruth Chang's On Hard Choices:

"As post-Enlightenment creatures we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world. But the world of value is different from the world of science. One world can be quantified by real numbers, but the other cannot.

We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of weights and lengths, has the same structure as the world of ought, of values."

The Red Pill, The Blue Pill

My siblings and I have watched The Matrix together more times than I can count. We spent most of our time seeking out hilarious out-of-context two-second snippets that we would play back over and over again. Yes, Vine a full fifteen years before Vine.

Anyways, the soul of the entire movie lives in one scene. Morpheus presents Mr. Anderson with a red pill and a blue pill:

"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Viewed in isolation, neither option is superior in any obvious way to the other. Both are, as Ruth Chang would say, "on a par" with each other, though leading to uncertain and diverging outcomes. The red pill would show Mr. Anderson a world outside The Matrix. Or it might not. The blue pill would allow Mr. Anderson to return to his life as usual. Or it might not. 

To different people, different decisions would be appropriate in this situation. But as viewers, we know Mr. Anderson will pick the red pill because we already know what his values are. We already know from earlier scenes that he is a rebellious, dissatisfied fringe member of the corporate world. With that emotional context laid out, we know exactly which decision he will make. We might even be rooting for him to choose one way.

"This type of response to hard choices is a rational response. But it is not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it is supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives."

Reasoning & Emotions

In his influential Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the peculiar circumstances of a patient named Elliot. A brain tumor caused damage to Elliot's frontal lobe; subsequently, his ability to experience emotion evaporated. In the ensuing years, Elliot's professional and personal lives unraveled, as he found it difficult to make decisions.

We sometimes tend to think that the best decision-making system is one that is purely rational and devoid of emotion. But in Damasio's estimation, reasoning is incomplete without emotional motivation. Many decisions cannot be reduced down to choosing between less, more, or equal quantities. We might even think we're being entirely rational, when really a suppressed emotional context might be invisibly creating this appearance of rationality.

Hard decisions are hard because there is no correct answer to them. If the decision was easy, there would be no dilemma. My eternal dilemma is: should we go get noodles or tacos for dinner? I don't know! Both options sound amazing!

What makes hard choices is the set of tradeoffs and uncertain futures that accompany them. One set cannot necessarily be proven "greater than" the other. We can use measurement to get as close as possible to an objective view of these tradeoffs, but at some point, the uncertainty of correctness still remains.

In this space of difficulty, the agent must observe this decision in terms of the system that is her life. By choosing one alternative over another, she has made a normative choice as to which types of tradeoffs, uncertain futures, and new realities she is willing to accept. Over time, these normative choices form our notions of principles and character. And when we feel like we've made a mistake, we can go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how we decide. As Chang says herself:

"[...] the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here in this space of hard choices that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are."

Hypothetical: Jobs (and Investing in Anything)

Here's a hypothetical about deciding between job offers (because that's something I'll be doing pretty soon). Choosing a job, like most choices dealing with a degree of uncertainty, involves an investment. Generally speaking, investing is the act of choosing one uncertain future over another, with the hope that a particular subset of futures comes to fruition.

You can minimize uncertainty through observation and data, but at the end of the day, all uncertainty can't be vanquished. In fact, an over-reliance on measurement might even blind you from some uncertain outcomes you hadn't anticipated.

The typical approach to the job question is to choose the most socially validating job in your community. Another approach is to enumerate pros and cons for each option and then pick the job that's the biggest net positive. Both methods on their own can quickly lead to unhappy outcomes when faced with hard choices. Prestige-bound choices occur through forces external to the decision-maker, while exhaustive pro-conning can act as a form of fake rigor.

A more robust approach would be to envision the person you are and the person you aspire to become. What are the values and principles that ought to be guiding your decision? Which job offers would prevent this person from actualizing? As a good friend recently pointed out, something as simple as a bad interview experience could point to such a misalignment. 

A valid thesis could be: I want to construct a life in which 1) I nurture strong relationships with family and friends, 2) I devote my energy to mastering a craft, and 3) I have the right time-money balance to dedicate to missions I care about. As thoughtful decision-makers, we can go through each of these levers to clarify exactly what they mean and what they look like. Why are they so important to us? Do we fear the things we value?

Introspecting like this can show us the types of biases and insecurities we are susceptible to. Maybe we lean to the safe and prestigious at the detriment of what we actually need. Conversely, maybe we ignore the option we need precisely because it is safe and prestigious.

Principles, Values, and Science

A principles-based analysis often creates a simplifying rigor to decision-making. It eliminates enticing offers that would jeopardize your values. It illuminates options that you may have been hesitating to take seriously.

Of course, this is not to say that striving for purely rational thought is stupid. In fact, many areas of our lives can be better understood through this form of reasoning. You can "science the shit out of" more things than not. In some cases, you can even science the shit out of analyzing your own values.

But in the realm of decision-making, scientific rigor should exist in the service of identifying and acting upon principles. We see this everywhere: sports (the Broncos and zone blocking schemes, the Spurs and ball movement), software (Amazon's maniacal focus on the customer and near-100% uptime), organizations (Google's super analytical approach to hiring and preventing bias); politics (Denmark's rehabilitation-focused counterterrorism efforts) ... the list goes on and on.

In the long run, a well-tuned set of principles can give an entity a pretty long-lasting advantage over its peers. Mostly because everyone else doesn't have the patience to act based on principles.

Perhaps the most concise expression of all the above comes from the philosopher king Kanye West:

Damn, here we go again.
Everybody's saying what's not for him,
But everything I'm not made me everything I am.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1111279 2016-11-28T06:24:12Z 2016-11-28T06:24:12Z make the people around you feel necessary

From Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

"Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."

"Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. [...] Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long."
(If you've talked to me at any point over the past two weeks, you're probably sick of how often I bring up this book. Read it. It is wonderful.)

Pakistani Pundits and Socialites

There's an 18-inch TV perched in the kitchen where I dutifully ate my morning Cocoa Puffs as a child. On any given weeknight, this TV featured a gaggle of Pakistani pundits "debating" about the state of the country. To an outsider, it probably sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other. To an insider ... well, it also sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis can be quite cruel and contemptuous towards those who don't think like them.

Some of the other programs that played on GeoTV (Pakistan's flagship station) featured much gentler and more respectful commentary. Of course, the guests on these shows tended to agree with each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis are quite kind and hospitable to those who think like them. 

After a brief foray into the world of DC-area Pakistani socialites, I made my quiet exit after repeatedly feeling like I didn't belong. I didn't feel necessary or particularly valued in that environment. So my image of "those people" came from a place of insecurity masked behind moral superiority. "Those people" and their glitzy, glamorous, superficial, horrible ways.

Years later, I realized that I wasn't a victim here. I was an aggressor. Those who held perspectives or preferred lifestyles that clashed with my own would then become the objects of my contempt. As they sensed that I cast them away in my mind, I became the object of their contempt. Each party defensively dismissed the worthiness of the other.

The Formation of Echo Chambers

It dawned on me that this strange quality of "contempt for those who don't openly accept you" extends everywhere there is an ego that cares a lot about its own success.

This is all something I've noticed only very recently (probably as my ego has chilled out enough to let me see more clearly). In my personal life, it took the form of clashes with friends, significant others, parents, siblings, acquaintances. Elsewhere, it looked like Fox News v. CNN showdowns of increasingly higher stakes. Overall, it looks like people talking over each other and not with each other.

As of late, I've been following ultra-right and ultra-left commentators on Twitter, and now my feed resembles a schizophrenic conspiracy theory that can't decide on who the villain is, but that there is a villain somewhere in the mix.

"Those people" voted for a tyrant. But "those other people" have always wanted to paint him as a tyrant. Both sides scream their own views ad infinitum into the depths of their respective echo chambers.

This "echo chamber" business doesn't appear to be an issue of politics. It is and has always been a problem of basic human decency. Those we don't agree with, we cast away with frustrating jargon. Those who cast us away with frustrating language, we view contemptuously. When we don't feel valued or necessary in a particular context, we demonize that context and avoid engaging with it.

Notes from the Classroom

Early on during my short stint as a teacher, I was having a difficult time with one of my students. My mentor swung by my classroom one morning as I was prepping for the day.

"Mr. Mian, you still having trouble with that boy T in your afternoon class?"
"If by trouble you mean I can't sleep well because of him, then yes."
"I've got an idea for you. Put him in charge of passing back homework."
"I don't know, Ms. G. That's dicey."

After a few more days of struggle with T, I gave in and tried my mentor's suggestion.

"T, I'm giving you a job that will help me teach you guys better. Think you can handle it?"
"Why can't you get F to do it? She always trying to help out anyways."
"Are you telling me you can't handle it?"

I'm not sure whether it was because of the challenge or because of the job, but T gradually stopped (most of) his disruptions. His grades steadily climbed up. And he found a way to inject his own personality into the gig. It became fun.

I suspect that as soon as T realized he was a necessary component of the classroom, he stepped up. His contempt for me and for math class subsided when he became a valued, integral member of what we were trying to accomplish. Strangely, as I saw him become a valued member, my own contempt for him also disappeared.

Feeling Necessary & Making Others Feel Necessary

In Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes about this notion of "feeling necessary" when he discusses his work with soldiers coming back from combat. In many tribal, communitarian societies, warriors returning from the front are seamlessly reintegrated into the fabric of daily life. However, in the US, many veterans suffering from PTSD get tossed a monthly disability check and regular appointments with a doctor. Until recently, there had been minimal resources directed towards helping them reintegrate and feel valued for more than just being Army grunts that we "thank for their service."

If the shape of society is the complex interactions occurring across a set of individuals, then the way we make each other feel necessary could be the lynchpin for a healthier society. Because when people don't feel heard or valued, they will seek out tribes that do value them. Then things begin to fracture. Then things fall apart.
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1109096 2016-11-19T14:34:01Z 2016-11-19T14:34:01Z on the topography of striving

From EF Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed:

"Map-making is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment.

Its motto, in a sense, is 'Accept everything; reject nothing.' If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.

Map-making is not the whole of philosophy, just as a map or guidebook is not the whole of geography. It is simply a beginning - the very beginning that is at present lacking, when people ask: 'What does it all mean?' or 'What am I supposed to do with my life?'"

I remember when I started loving maps. It was when I first learned that the map we see in schools is actually a projection (the Mercator projection) rather than an objective representation of the world. In reality, the United States neatly fits into the Sahara Desert; the Indian subcontinent is larger than all of Western Europe. Yet the Western rendition of history makes these "exotic locales" seem so insignificant.

Point being, maps are great. They show you where everything is, but they can't show you every thing, and so "everything" becomes an editorial decision. What makes the cut? What is worth looking at? The arrangement and centering of a map also tells you what the mapmaker thought was most important (notice how Mercator's projection placed Germany longitudinally in the center of the map).

Iterating on the Design of Mental Maps

As my personal grad school year winds to a close, I've been thinking a lot about mental maps. Previously, I wrote about the importance of collecting them; this time, I want to write a bit about how to draw them.

The first, and possibly most useful, map I ever collected came from my father. It was sparsely detailed -- obscure gravel paths leading into vaguely dangerous woodlands distract a young traveler from the golden road (the Ivy League Parkway). I won't lie, this map helped (and continues to help) me stay focused, even if the object of my focus back then was pretty contrived.

As I moved onto college, I realized I had the ability to edit this map by drawing directly on it. Thus, the map began to deepen in detail as my life experiences began to diversify. What was once dangerous and obscure now brimmed with happy elven creatures and mischievous tree critters (of course accompanied with sing-along subtitles). What was once golden and holy now looked stilted and weary, like a Bluth model home. I also started drawing new holy paths, though their initial renderings were overly romanticized.

During my tenure as a teacher in Florida, I learned that this map could change shape depending on who was looking at it! It wasn't purely functional; it was a piece of art, despite being sloppily inked. The map could create meaning for the beholder. Some of my students were attracted to the not-so-vaguely dangerous regions on their own maps, while I tried to steer them towards the golden paths on the map I grew up with. Even though these had ultimately lost their appeal to me years ago.

Topographical Maps

Mental maps can confer meaning, direction, and a sense of play to an eager explorer. As I've learned over the past year, they also help us understand what we can (or are willing to) endure. Topography.

For instance, some of the paths on my map are remarkably smooth, though they may lead to turbulent destinations. Others plod across jagged expanses, though their destinations may well prove worth the peril.

Topography is a vital consideration because it largely determines what parts of our map we are willing to risk exploring. 

We can't entirely escape the ups and downs of life, but we can choose the terrains we are willing to endure. These are often stated abstractly as our "principles," and they form probably the most important set of life-navigational tools for a thoughtful traveler.

How to Work on Your Mental Map

From Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Laws of Medicine:
"It's easy to make perfect decisions with perfect information. Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information." 
Unfortunately, we can only understand the topography of a region by either a) traveling to it ourselves, or b) letting other travelers tell us how it was.

There is an opportunity cost to each of these options. If we like to explore everything ourselves, we tend to better internalize our maps and have richer details at the edges. However, this occurs at the expense of deepening our understanding of the unexplored familiar. If we like to absorb wisdom from others, we can learn without too much experiential pain. However, this puts us in danger of vicariously living through the hard work of others.

So drawing, rendering, and re-imagining our map is a constant balancing act. If you tend towards abiding by simplistic, inherited maps, you should try drawing them yourself for a little while. Conversely, if you tend to reinvent the wheel all the time, you may want to stop overcomplicating things and just try to learn from what others have drawn.

Anyways, I wanted to share these thoughts as a way to wrap up a pretty revealing year of restlessly exploring the edges of my mental map. I had a longer, sappier, much less interesting essay drafted up, but that thankfully is going back into my chamber of secrets.

I'm back on the East Coast ready to slow down and deepen my understanding of the familiar. If you're around, let's get coffee and talk about weird things.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1099885 2016-10-19T22:17:40Z 2016-10-19T22:17:40Z asking for directions vs. asking for maps

From Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"[Alice]: 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

'I don't much care where--' said Alice.

'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

'--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.

'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'"

Making Sense of Things

Humans are sense-making machines. We're not necessarily good at it, though.

If the world around us is illegible, we often find ways to sort out that local chaos. This tendency can be quite nice. Making your bed or tidying up your room or organizing your thoughts -- each are useful in that they allow you to see your world more clearly.

But sometimes this "reshaping" of what is illegible can cause problems.

Imagine looking at yogurt under a microscope. If we aren't accustomed to such a granular inspection, things will not make sense. We may even experience ourselves trying to create a narrative for what we see. To the untrained eye, yogurt-under-the-microscope is a series of blobs that can't really be comprehended. But we know what yogurt looks like when not viewed through the microscope; it is legible to us at that level of zoom.

The same goes with our immediate, local environment. Any semblance of human-undecipherable local chaos gets reordered and reshaped into something legible. For things like making our bed or teasing out the logic in our arguments, this is useful. But when local chaos belongs to a larger system, reordering things can prevent us from more keenly observing what's really going on. This naive reordering might even harm the larger system (see: subprime mortgages, Salafism/Wahhabism, social justice warriordom, p-value hacking).

The Eternal Search for "Meaning"

Our tendency to want to make sense of things around us may also drive our need to find "Meaning", the Capital-W Why. This is where well-intentioned mental models (religion, science, philosophy, sports, startups) become dogmas. Their main utility was to give us a new way to navigate the world, but uncertainty makes us go batshit and so mental models quickly become comfortable, fixed, unchanging, universal directions. Like a Google Maps that only tells you how to get from point A to point B without showing the map itself (how annoying would that be?). The lazy directions-follower would be blind to any inconsistencies in the model that a map collector would quickly notice.

Professional gadfly Nassim Taleb recently gave a commencement speech at the American University of Beirut earlier this year. He began with the following provocative claim:

"For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."

"Success" maneuvers can be very closely linked to "meaning-making" in that many people derive life-juice out of their pursuit. Externally-defined meaning, just like externally-defined success, are fragile directions-following. The longer you remain on that one righteous path, the more likely you are to get blindsided by some truth or inconsistency that throws you into an existential funk. At which point you may start baring your fangs.

As famous investors Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger have often alluded to, the perceived world unites through a latticework of mental models. The same subset of models that works in a given context may be the completely wrong one to use in the subsequent context. These are maps, and our job is to collect them, observe their machinery, and wisely apply them accordingly to our ever-changing circumstances. In the process, we may discover broader mental models that coalesce many smaller ones. Or not.

A Crude Map for Meaning-Making

From Kevin Simler's A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning:

"In lieu of meaning, I mostly adopted the attitude of Alan Watts. Existence, he says, is fundamentally playful. It's less like a journey, and more like a piece of music or a dance. And the point of dancing isn't to arrive at a particular spot on the floor; the point of dancing is simply to dance. Vonnegut expresses a similar sentiment when he says, 'We are here on Earth to fart around.'

This may be nihilism, but at least it's good-humored."

Despite all the above hand-waving, I'm going to be a hypocrite and try to make sense of the whole meaning-making enterprise.

In short, trying to find Meaning is very difficult because we're constantly battling different external and internal battles. As military strategist John Boyd once put it, the various "theories, systems, processes, etc that we employ to make sense of (the) world contain features that generate mismatches that, in turn, keep such a world uncertain, ever-changing, and unpredictable."

The slightly longer, more visual, and possibly helpful (or possibly entirely wrong) version is that the search for meaning is a graph that emerges from answering the question "Is the world worth saving?" This question works because it is vague and content-less enough for the asker to ascribe whatever pre-meaning they want to it. Rorschach much?

Notice how, at some point, the way you answer the initial question really doesn't matter because it ultimately leads to the same calculations of How or Why. The leaf nodes can independently produce the same output as each other -- a mission-driven Joker and a mission-driven Reverend may possess the same mental models and make similar conclusions along their journey.

The question of Meaning, then, doesn't really matter much unless you need one to keep moving (or need to know you don't need one). The key seems to be to keep moving.

As for myself, I definitely need meaning -- at this moment, I'm more drawn to exploring "The world is worth saving, but why?" When it's time to start a family, I may naturally migrate to the How, or even to the Void-Staring side of life. It is unclear at this point; lucky for me I've got all these crinkly, yellowing maps that I don't fully understand yet.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1088452 2016-09-18T21:46:17Z 2016-09-18T21:46:17Z thoughts on how to travel well

From Slavoj Zizek's Plague of Fantasies:

"The original question of desire is not directly 'What do I want?', but 'What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?' A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him."

From Anthony Storr's Solitude: A Return to the Self:

"Many of the patients whom [a famous psychiatrist] treated had, for one reason or another, learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others. [...] This is what Winnicott deemed a 'false self' -- that is, a self which is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual's own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile, because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfillment."

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I flew off to Aix-en-Provence for a 10-week study abroad program. For the first time in my very sheltered life, almost every pillar of protection had been knocked over. 

All the self-defense mechanisms I had carefully cultivated over the years wouldn't work here:

  • The program consisted of 2 boys and 40 girls; I had attended an all-boys prep school for ten years.
  • The local culture was very expressive and open (a lot of kisses, touches, and proximity); I had a pretty conservative upbringing in a stoic Pakistani Muslim household. 
  • People in Aix didn't speak much English; my French was "academic" -- great for probing analyses on Voltaire, but little practical value.

As a result, during my first week in Aix, I subsisted off of a Nutella-and-bread diet, holed up in my room watching Amelie in darkness. I exercised the only semblance of control I could find -- stick my head in the ground.

Eventually, I realized what was going on with me. Many of my unconscious habits of disengaging with uncomfortable situations had now become not only alarmingly conscious, but also ineffective. I feared going out to the market to grab groceries or start a conversation with a stranger because I feared how my errors in French or other quirkiness would negatively impact how others viewed me. Even if they couldn't care less.

The Fear of Social Rejection

This is a pretty common setup for the College Kid Abroad narrative. The "immersion" aspect throws him (or her) for a loop; he leans into the awkwardness; lingual and personal transformation ensues. He returns with a Mediterranean tan, a chiller, slightly arrogant demeanor, and new clothes/music. Or maybe he doesn't lean in and has a miserable time.

Why does this happen? We can look at some psych literature for some clues. In his excellent book Others in Mind, Philippe Rochat asserts that self-consciousness is a modern syndrome in which the "self is an object to itself co-constructed in interaction with others."

"As a species, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop. We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others."

In other terms, I create an idea of "Ammar" largely in relation to other people's recognition of me. When we sit with friends and talk about random things, on one level, yes, we're engaging in friendly banter and love. But we're also exploring and experimenting with our sense of self by mutually recognizing each other and actively being aware of the existence of each other. We are simultaneously constructing others and being constructed by others.

Rochat writes that a side effect of this "co-constructive" feature of being human is a hard-wired fear of social rejection. When social encounters make someone anxious, it may be because he fears that others will see him unworthy of recognition. This is a case of believing that others are actively constructing and de-constructing the person, as opposed to all of this being a shared, cooperative activity. 

Some of this is genetic, but much of it is environmental -- if you've been raised to view your sense of self coming from certain accomplishments (and that most of your human interaction with others revolves around discussion of said accomplishments), then of course there will be anxiety about not being "good enough" for others. If you feel your self driven by other people's expectations of you, then at some level you fear their rejection (and thus lack of recognition) of you.

This process of co-construction could also be why we: act differently around different people; enjoy being regulars at coffeeshops or delis or bars or restaurants; feel comfortable in small groups but lose footing in crowds; say things like "I'm so glad I met someone who's as weird as I am"; join cults.

Getting Out of the "Comfort Zone"

Over time, the way we deal with this constant co-construction becomes habituated and subconscious. My relationship to myself and to others stabilizes, so then I get a person named Ammar who generally is x and does y and thinks z.

Going abroad shatters this habituated self and brings all of this to the conscious surface. There are no comfortable nooks you can reliably crawl back to, no previously saved versions of You that other people agree upon. Every encounter is a potential source of social rejection -- if not because of your quirkiness, then definitely because of your broken French. 

Being abroad (or generally speaking, being thrown way out of your comfort zone), you have to consciously re-address your relationship with this co-construction. Will you play an active role in exploring the different ways you can experience yourself and experience others? Or will you passively accept the easiest version of yourself that others expect you to be?

How to Travel Well

A large part of traveling is really a way for your "self" to travel, to be thrown out of the context of the self it has been habituated to be.

Traveling well is to harshly reacquaint yourself with the fact that you are a constructed You (and that you have the power to construct that person however you wish).

Traveling well is also realizing that how you treat other people (or even things and places) is also constructing them. There is a responsibility in not only compassionately constructing yourself, but also compassionately constructing the people around you.

In this sense, traveling well doesn't necessarily require a passport or a sexy Airbnb apartment rented out in Havana. You can travel well by more actively participating in co-construction: brunch with friends, conversations with Uber drivers, hikes, long walks. Though that Cuba trip does sound pretty awesome.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1083318 2016-08-23T18:27:10Z 2016-08-24T14:50:20Z finding secrets of the self

From Sufi scholar Zia Inayat Khan:

"Wisdom is the fruit that ripens when, with crazy courage, we plant ourselves in the garden of radical unknowingness. It is the deep breath that accompanies the willingness to not know, to rest in the mystery, to abide in surprise and allow the sacred to reveal itself in its terrible beauty and startling ordinariness. To be wise is to come undone and pay attention to the dismantling and celebrate what rises from the annihilating depths of love’s fire."

Lately, I've been reading a lot of works by Sufi scholars. One of the most profound ideas that constantly reappears among their teachings is the notion of secrets. Hidden truth. Wisdom that is not visible until the beholder is ready to see it. This type of understanding is not rational; it does not appear simply by being present and logically coherent.

The idea of hidden truth is embedded in the very mechanics of Sufism's patron language. Mostly every word in Arabic takes shape from an algebraic combination of three consonants. The pattern in which they are combined often give them their meaning. 

Let's take a look at the various combinations of Q-L-A (Anglicized to make it easier to follow):

  • There's the verb qalla, which means "to become less" or "to diminish".
  • And there's the adjective qaleel, which means "a little (amount)" or "small (in quantity)".
  • But if you change it a little, to istiqlal, now you have the word for "independence".
  • One more slight alteration, and you get istiqlaliyyah, which means "self-reliance".

You can see how generative, poetic, and suggestive a language gets when small and almost unnoticeable alterations yield potentially great differences in connotation and meaning. Especially when you as the observer bring your own specific experience to the table.

One person may hear qaleel in istiqlal -- to be independent is to diminish the self. 

Yet another person may hear istiqlal in qaleel -- to become less is to become independent.

Maybe there is equal meaning in both, but we cannot unlock the true duality of meaning until we are ready to see and feel it.

The Fable of the Four Travelers

The Sufis are all about this concealed beauty to things. One fable that illustrates this principle really well is Idries Shah's story about the four men in search for food.

"I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.

“I want uzum,” said the Turk.

“I want inab,” said the Arab.

“No!” said the Greek,  "we should buy stafil.“

Another traveller passing, a linguist, said, "Give the coin to me. I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.”

The traveller buys them four small bunches of grapes. They realize that they had each wanted the same thing -- grapes. The disharmony had been caused by their faulty understanding of each other. 

Even deeper still, in Sufism, the juice of a grape steeped with time is the wine of wisdom. But before the wine can be tasted, the man must first learn to recognize the grape as a grape.

Modern Grapes

In these modern times, our "grapes" of misunderstanding exist within ourselves. Oftentimes, when we feel something is missing from our lives, we seek out a surface-level acquisition of something.

For some, that may be material things. Buying the newest and the hottest. Quality by association.

For others, it might be knowledge. Reading voraciously but not deeply. Looking to extract wisdom from other sources rather than seeing these sources as vehicles for extracting wisdom from the self.

Or maybe it's something like relationships, or prestige, or money, or some other indicator of success. 

All of these amount to a faulty understanding of what we're really missing.

Becoming the Indiana Jones of Secrets

So what do we do to find what we're missing if our current model doesn't work? Hunt secrets. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, trained in the works of philosopher/secret-hunter Rene Girard, has written about secrets for years. In his Zero to One essays, he wrote:

"Every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator."

In the realm of business, this makes sense. Airbnb rediscovered the secret link between homes, intimacy, and lodging. Uber rediscovered the secret of car pools. Pixar rediscovers time and time again the power of ancient stories retold with new characters.

Perhaps every great self is also built around rediscovering secrets that are "hidden from the outside." Finding these secrets of the self is not a formula, but once you start seeking them, small innocuous seeds of experience get much more interesting. Nothing is boring anymore. And slowly that vague feeling of modern emptiness might just start to dissipate.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1076612 2016-07-27T19:29:18Z 2016-07-27T20:09:27Z a guide to recognizing bullshit

From ecologist Garrett Hardin's Filters Against Folly:

"The greatest folly is to accept expert statements uncritically. At the very least, we should always seek another opinion. Moreover, to the extent that time allows, we may become a little bit expert ourselves; but we don't have time enough to go far in this direction. 

[...] We need lay defenses against expertise. Fortunately there are such. The most important defense measure is to make oneself sensitive to the biases introduced by the assumptions and methods of experts."

Game of Thrones, British Accents, and Bullshit

Around this time of year, many of my friends participate in the weekly ritual of lifelong connection and sweet everlasting Platonic love (or whatever), huddling around a friend's HBO Go subscription and watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I always get asked if I want to watch, but truth be told, I really do despise the show. Maybe I'm just salty that I don't get invited anymore.

"Why? I thought it'd be right up your alley?!"

I hate the British accent. That's my only reason for not watching the show (that, and I also dislike medieval costumes).

Let me back up a few years.

During my freshman year at Georgetown, there was a guy (let's call him Hugh) in one of my international relations classes. He had made a name for himself for his deeply insightful commentary. It was as if his every word dragged against a charm-soaked silk on its way out of his mouth, producing this Oxford-cultivated je ne sais quoi.

Every time Hugh spoke, you could feel everyone kind of perk up from their hangovers and pay attention. I definitely fell for it.

One day, though, I wondered how I would respond to Hugh's words if he had a different accent. So I started transcribing his words, going to the library later in the evening, and then quietly reading them out in different accents (sorry, I'm pretty weird).

It turned out that there was very little substance to what he was saying. The "insights" we had thought he had been bestowing upon us were largely a stream of multisyllabic smart-sounding jargon -- "neoliberal thought," "postcolonial constructivist narratives," "tectonic shifts in global political theatre," etc.

Much of what he was saying could have be distilled to "People are angry at the British Empire and don't know what to do with themselves."

The Milgram Experiment

Years later, in a psychology lecture I occasionally showed up for, the professor mentioned an experiment that enlightened me on what had happened in the Case of Hugh the Bullshitter. In situations of uncertainty or moral confusion, we tend to seek out and abidingly listen to what appear to be authority figures.

Back in 1961, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a role-playing experiment in which "teachers" were told to administer electric shocks of increasingly high voltage to "learners" who didn't answer a question correctly. Unbeknownst to the teachers, all the shocks were fake, and the learners were all actors pretending to get shocked.

At some point, these "shocks" approach an absurdly high voltage, and the actors started screaming in anguish. Many of the teachers, unsure of what to do, shifted nervously in their seats and muttered some quiet words of criticism.

But the experiment runners told them to continue. "It is absolutely essential that you continue." "The experiment requires that you continue."

So at the behest of the experiment runners, an overwhelming percentage of the teachers continued administering these electric shocks. 65% of the teachers escalated the shocks up to the maximum voltage that the experiment allowed.

Obviously, there are many interpretations of what the Milgram Experiment observed. But one big thing it revealed was our natural inclination to listen to those who, through language and circumstance, behave like authority figures.

This is scary on many levels. But the scariest is that we unquestioningly and unwittingly defer to authority on a daily basis. In fact, many of us young ambitious types working in professional services end up mimicking and adopting the very behaviors of the people who have used language to bullshit us.

(I'm not saying to never listen to experts. But real experts typically don't cloak their work in impenetrable fluffery).

I've witnessed this in my 4 years since graduating from college. People who were at some point smart, thoughtful, and careful thinkers have in many ways degraded in the way they communicate, now monkeying the language of their bosses (for profit, social-climbing, and some pleasure). I can't say I haven't fallen victim to this myself.

Three Types of Bullshit

So let's examine what I think are the three forms of bullshit that we encounter every day (whether at work, or in school, or on TV).

  1. Notational
  2. Linguistic
  3. Ritualistic

Notational Bullshit

Mathematical notation plays an important role in building, explaining, and representing models. But the notation itself can easily become a form of unnecessary authority-signaling.

For example, that notation above looks pretty sweet and beautiful and intelligent, but it's really just expressing a very simple idea: "Given a list of ice cream flavors (A) and ice cream toppings (B), give me a list of all the different ways these flavors and toppings can be combined with each other."

It's succinct and elegant, but there's no reason to put too much value on the notation itself. Just because someone knows how to use linear algebra to notate combinations/permutations doesn't say much about his competence in being insightful about them.

We saw this in the startup world a couple years ago when people were going bananas about "viral coefficients". Notationally, this looked like this:

But really, all this is alluding to is "For every one invitation to my app I hand out, how many people actually sign up for my app?"

Fucking simple. You don't need notation to explain that. If your product is awesome, then 1 invitation will lead to the invitee signing up, then inviting all of his friends, most of whom also sign up. If your product sucks, then your one invitation will lead to 0 sign-ups.

But getting obsessed with the mathematical notation game is a common ploy among nerds like me who derive their self-worth from sounding smart. And it makes outsiders think our tinkering/experimenting is really some intense Hadron Collider-caliber theoretical physics-based shit that requires a lot of technical knowledge. Which it doesn't.

Linguistic Bullshit

Linguistic bullshit is what I call jargon that isn't fulfilling its purpose. Jargon is a domain-specific language used by a group of people to more precisely refer to a shared set of concepts. So when a lawyer says "due process" or "fact pattern," they are referring to an abstraction very specific to their field. When a banker says "LBO", it's a more concise way of saying "these guys bought the shit out of a down-and-out company with plans to change their top brass and flip them years later for a profit." In these two scenarios, the jargon is very helpful.

But here's an example where the jargon is designed to make a simple thing sound much more complex than it really is.

From Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson's talk at Stanford, Unlearn Your MBA:

"I have a funny example of how bad things can go when your brain has become all mushy with all this MBA bullshit.

This is Domino's CEO David Brandon talking a few weeks ago:

'The weakness in our value chain with the customer was really in our core product.'

...What?? What does that even mean? Well, I tried to translate that into human, and what I came up with was:

'Let's be honest, our pizza used to suck. I'm sorry. I swear the new ones will be better.'"

Linguistic bullshit, like notational bullshit, is often used to convey expertise (rather than to convey insight or truth). Be wary.

Ritualistic Bullshit

The third, most subtle form of bullshit is the bullshit of ritual: repeated behaviors that signal authority by telling observers that the person knows what he's doing.

Don't get me wrong, rituals are important. In basketball, the rituals that players use before shooting a free throw are crucial to the activation of muscle memory & mental clarity. Morning meditation or journaling or that weird thing you do before an important test/speech/what-have you -- these play the role of getting an individual into the mental space required to perform at a high level.

But contrast these earnest forms of ritual with the following absurdity Dan Lyons describes in his book DisruptedThe CEO of HubSpot brings a teddy bear to every staff meeting, giving it an equal seat at the table, supposedly as a stand-in for HubSpot's customers:

"Here are grown men and women, who I presume are fully sentient adult human beings, and they are sitting in meetings, talking to a teddy bear. And I am working with these people. No: Worse! I am working for them. At Newsweek I worked for Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson. Here I work for a guy who brings a teddy bear to work and considers it a management innovation."

When a ritual, just like notation or jargon, exists theatrically rather than functionally, then we know there's a problem. 

The Effect of Permitting Bullshit

During a brief stint working with a PR firm in NYC and a year-plus with a media startup, I've learned that the cream rarely rises to the top. The cream is largely manufactured.

The people running sexy companies, getting frequent mentions in influential publications, and shepherding large Twitter followings -- many of them got to that position by strategically using some mix of notational/linguistic/ritualistic bullshit to convince people that they know what they are doing. They were able to sell themselves as authorities.

And because the real authorities were too busy checking their own work to properly sculpt their "brand", these pseudo-authorities now drive mainstream thinking on most things.

However, not all prominent thinkers and doers are bullshitters. It's our job as consumers to learn how to tell the difference.
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1068862 2016-07-02T22:17:10Z 2016-12-03T16:20:52Z a personal grad school year, 3 months in

A handful of quotes. I promise they are related.

From Andrew Yang's Smart People Should Build Things:

"If you work in professional services you will be paid handsomely and have a brand-name firm on your résumé. You’ll gain skills, confidence, and exposure. But you may also become heavily socialized and specialized, more risk averse, and accustomed to operating in resource-rich environments with a narrow set of deliverables. You’ll be likely to adopt an arm’s-length relationship with your work. You won’t build anything; instead, you will compartmentalize and put the armor on each day as deals, clients, and colleagues come and go."

From David Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:
" [...]  productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be). But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the 'service' sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations."
From Nassim Taleb's How to Legally Own Another Person:
"Evidence of submission is displayed by having gone through years of the ritual of depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day, punctual arrival at an office, denying himself his own schedule, and not having beaten up anyone. You have an obedient, housebroken dog. [...] (However), there is a category of employees who aren’t slaves, but these represent a very small proportion of the pool. You can identify them as the following: they don’t give a f*** about their reputation, at least not their corporate reputation."

From Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture:
"Our point of departure must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play-forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in ritual and productive of culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness."
A couple months ago, I left my job to pursue personal projects until I ran out of money (that's probably just code for "I wanted my own schedule"). On the surface, the decision seemed risky; to me, it was as risk averse as anything I've ever done.

I had grown increasingly aware of a trend amongst myself and my friends. College had made us well-groomed analysts -- give us a research task, dangle us some $$ + perks + prestige, and we'll produce the best fucking slide deck or Excel workbook you'll ever see.

The lucky few of us who had spent college aggressively seeking and cultivating their interests scoff at our situation. The rest of us, in the absence of any clear interest in anything except status and validation, decided to go into financial/professional/technical services hoping to acquire some "Skills" that would later be great "leverage" when we finally do decide to "do what we love" (which we haven't spent enough time learning about, so...).

That is scary. I grew up writing and enacting really bizarre mini-plays with my siblings; singing in the shower and then translating those half-baked melodies into half-baked Garage Band songs; reading Orioles box scores, memorizing player stats and then predicting what their final season stats would look like. The things we did when no one forced us to do them. I'm definitely not alone here, though the specifics may vary.

Personal Grad School, 3 Months In

Anyways, it's been three months since I made my decision to leave my software engineering job. My goals for "personal grad school" are, broadly, to be able to quickly build anything from the ground up in a really short period of time, regardless of medium or difficulty. There were successes and hiccups and huge failures. I will document them below as honestly as possible.

Starting a startup: Failure

This was rather interesting. To convince myself and others that quitting my job was a good idea, I grabbed my biggest hammer and started looking for nails. And so everything in the process looked like a nail. Translation: I jumped into something to "play entrepreneur" and not actually build anything.

I spent two months talking to current and former teachers, school administrators, principals, parents, students, investors, other entrepreneurs. I tried to convince a great friend to leave his job at Uber to join me (so douchey of me). I applied to Y Combinator for funding for a nonexistent product that had one founder (me), getting mentors to vouch for my application. I wrote some code and spent too much time trying to make it perfect. I hung out at WeWork because that felt pretty cool.

This fizzled out pretty terribly. I had nothing delivered, no pre-sales; I hadn't even validated the idea. I was running around trying to convince people my idea was awesome and totally worth investing $$ in. I was scared, so I just did things that looked like success; this was my old brain still at work. But I learned a lot about myself during these two months. The epic failure was totally worth it.

Diving into technical concepts: Success

I realized from my failures that I didn't have enough confidence in my engineering, design, and sales skills to do anything. So the following month, I devoted each week to an intense, project-based exploration of technical concepts. Each week, I had to deliver a product and a blog post walking through what I built. During this month, I learned how to (and now ensues some largely unintelligible technical jargon): deploy a load balanced app to AWS, incorporate a fully Dockerized development-to-deployment workflow, write a simple virtual stack machine in Java, learn functional programming and math fundamentals via the Haskell programming language, and use bit manipulation and Hamming distance to crack repeated-XOR-encrypted messages in Node and Python.

(Edit: Also important note here is that I started learning how to code a little under 2 years ago. Discussion for another day: strangely, we overvalue our short-term selves and undervalue our slightly less short-term selves.)

There's a common piece of wisdom that goes like "The antidote to fear is hustle." To integrate that idea into constantly working on things that I knew nothing about, I broke each week into three 2-day sprints. Every 48 hours, I needed to be able to tangibly do a new thing. By doing this, I would force myself to focus only on what was vital and only go down rabbit holes that were necessary. Hat tip to Hack Reactor for teaching me this technique.

Building shit fast: Success (and ongoing)

Finally, it was time to get to start getting things out the door. My confidence in my coding skills had risen tremendously in just a short month. I have a Google Doc of around 500 small seeds of ideas, so I began picking a few to work on. In one month's time, I built: a Chrome new tab extension called "Do One Thing" (a to-do list capped at just one thing every day); a Slack bot called "Hack Genie" (who answers your code questions for you); and a book recommendations list called "Bookswell".

Each of these had varying levels of success. The Chrome extension took one day to write, but it didn't appear to be something many more people would find uniquely interesting, so I moved onto my next project (though I still use this extension every day). The Slack bot also took one day, and I still use it fairly often, but it also wasn't something that I felt many people would fall in love with.

Bookswell project was pretty awesome. Before writing any code, I simply shared a book recommendations spreadsheet that I had been passively working on for a year. The response was overwhelming, so I spent a few weeks building a web version of it, which itself has gotten thousands of visits in just a week or so of being live. My next steps with this are to just get it more exposure.

The cool part with each of these projects was that the only calculation running in my head was whether they were immensely useful or not. I wasn't worried about whether I had the chops to get them done or not, because the previous month had ingrained in me that I could now build almost anything I wanted to. 

Most importantly, I wasn't evaluating projects based on "What will this lead to?" or "What's the long-term vision?" (This required some pretty intense unlearning of old habits.) It's this type of thinking that squashes seeds before they have time to bloom. Many amazing things arrive in this world ugly, slightly deformed, and with no clear sign of why they made it that far. Despite all that, they managed to make themselves useful, for reasons yet unclear to their makers. 

Projects moving forward (update: December 3, 2016)

Given the sprawled shape of this calendar year, I ended up further sprawling. My mentors Myles and Oz invited me to join them in SF for ~10 weeks to eat/breathe/sleep computer architecture & operating systems. The amount of learning done here cannot be overstated.

However, my most profound experiences in SF revolved around building a daily practice of meditation, prayer, running, and writing.

I'm now back on the East Coast ready to move from opportunistic maneuvers to more deliberate, principled, craft-driven decisions. Programming is a lot of fun, and it can deliver pretty outsized value to society (in some cases). I'm excited to dig in and focus on this for the upcoming years.

The Secret Sauce

Writing has without a doubt been the secret sauce over the past few months. Every project and every concept that I was struggling with required a blog post of some sort. This forced me to be able to appropriately explain what I had learned. Oftentimes, we say we've learned something when we are able to do it right once, but it is in being able to explain it coherently that the concept finally gets internalized.

Beyond that, writing has helped me organize some of the more esoteric ideas and thoughts I've been having learning about (which is essentially the purpose of this Posthaven blog). I highly recommend that everyone keeps their own personal blogs with this express purpose. The mini-trends in what you choose to write about will teach you more about yourself than almost anything else.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1064479 2016-06-17T20:03:50Z 2016-06-17T20:03:53Z new scarcity in the information age

From MIT Media Lab's Alex Pentland, Social Physics:

"One disturbing implication of [our] findings is that our hyperconnected world may be moving toward a state of too much idea flow. In a world of echo chambers, fads and panic are the norm, and it is much harder to make good decisions. This suggests that we need to pay more attention to where our ideas are coming from, and we should actively discount common opinions and keep track of contrarian ideas."

From investor Peter Thiel's Zero to One:

"Courage is in far shorter supply than genius."

Disclaimer: this post is longer than my usual stuff, and it's still a work in progress. I may have huge blind spots and indulgences here, and I'd love to hear where they are or if you got totally lost somewhere in my rambling mess of an essay. But I had to get my thoughts down, so alas here we are.

In classical economics, there's an idea called the Scarcity Principle. If you've ever taken econ, this is probably one of the first things you learn.

The scarcity principle, in (very slightly) technical terms, is the market disequilibrium caused by the limited supply of a good and a corresponding high demand for it. The efficient markets hypothesis implies that when this happens, either supply expands to meet the demand, or prices go up to lower the demand until supply = demand.

It's arbitrage in the most fundamental sense -- if you as a supplier discover a disequilibrium, you start selling that thing at higher prices. Or you start making more of that thing and undercut your competitors at a lower price. Human Craftiness 101.

Scarcity Principle: Used Bikes and Tuna Fish

An example that comes to mind is the used bicycle market. In any bike-friendly city, you can probably buy a used vintage Trek road bike for $150 off Craigslist, refurbish it for $50-100, and then resell it for ~$450-600 on eBay.

There's an unmet demand for vintage bikes that are in great physical condition. These types of bikes are scarce. Your Craigslist sneakiness happened to respond to that scarcity. And this scarcity will remain as long as hipsters keep riding fresh bikes and as long as refurbishing a busted beauty takes more time and effort than a normal person would want.

In the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you also see this principle in action: the wholesale price of tuna has risen tremendously as the tuna population has dwindled and the global demand for fatty tuna has increased. 

This has led two a few parallel trends: i) things that look and taste like tuna being labeled and sold as tuna, ii) large corporations running tuna farms, basically breeding and "manufacturing" tuna, and iii) high-end restaurants driving up their prices (knowing their customers are price insensitive), thus continuing to buy wild tuna. 

Tuna is the scarce resource. It will remain scarce as long as its texture and flavor remain highly-valued and as long as the tuna population remains endangered.

Building "Old Scarcity"

Guess what the big reveal is? Our highly-professionalized, white-collar knowledge market is also susceptible to the Scarcity Principle (as are our new media darlings out in Silicon Valley). And that is where this blog post is headed.

Over the past 150 years, the US economy has become highly financialized and instrumentalized. The concepts of corporations, public markets, commodities, derivatives, and stakeholders have been formulated to help us regulate, predict, reason about, and exploit human economic activity at a large scale.

Those who can understand the markets can figure out where the money is flowing and redirect some of it to themselves. Managing this complex system in part created new, lucrative livelihoods -- corporate law, investment banking, management consulting, hedge funds, etc. This is the scarcity principle in action-- Old Scarcity, as I'll call it. If public corporations need to drive value to stakeholders, how? If banks need to drive returns to investors, how?

Consultants provide analyses and recommendations to executives, bankers provide financial models and projections to potential investors, lawyers provide due diligence and legal paperwork to all parties involved. What is scarce here is the know-how of navigating a complex system safely and opportunistically (sounds a lot like driving a car, huh). Since money is exchanging hands in such large sums to make these transactions/deals happen, this know-how gets compensated handsomely. Who benefits? Smart, highly analytical, and hard-working elites.

Here's the thing, though: Old Scarcity is subject to the same forces as fish and used bikes. Old Scarcity remains as long as the system in which it operates remains somewhat understandable and predictable. And Old Scarcity remains as long as there aren't enough people with the know-how to do all of this financial wrangling and navigating well.

Dismantling "Old Scarcity"

Have you heard the old folktale of John Henry? John Henry was a skilled steel-driver who beat a steam-powered hammer in a race to build a railroad tunnel, but ultimately died as his heart gave out due to the stress of the job. 

The common takeaway with this story is the power of human industriousness, but really, all I see is a proud guy who lost to a machine. Maybe he should've derived his self-worth from something a machine couldn't replicate as easily. Maybe this is a moving target and what it means to be human keeps evolving as we make earlier versions of ourselves obsolete.

This is the crossroads at which the Old Scarcity industries find themselves at. On one hand, the system itself is becoming far less predictable and far more complex. On the other hand, trading, document review, and data analysis by algorithms are here, and they are beginning to do a better job than their lawyer/banker/consultant counterparts. The know-how is no longer scarce (or even useful all the time).

It will take several decades for this reality to really permeate and take full hold over the labor market, but it's here. Why pay a bunch of 20-somethings premium salaries when a monthly subscription to PandoraTech will do all of their jobs for you? The previously highly lucrative jobs as glorified wheel-greasers and bean counters will soon be done much faster and better by an algorithm written by your geeky cousin. And so the Scarcity Principle in this professional economy will be largely optimized into efficiency by our machine friends.

Building "New Scarcity"

The demise of Old Scarcity will illuminate the New Scarcity. Information and knowledge used to be scarce, it used to be something that institutions hoarded and justifiably charged $200,000 for. But now (almost) anything can, with enough Google-fu, be learned. Of course, some things still can't, and maybe those things are worth investigating further.

So what is scarce in a world where information is abundant? Courage and taste

The courage to create and build things that have very little precedence, or to create anything at all, is scarce. Machine learning works really well with large datasets, but what if the dataset is empty? On the flip side, when you have so much access to information (and thus many logical reasons to not do something), why do anything that will inevitably draw criticism and doubt? Those who are willing to do things are hot commodities.

Taste (the ability to be opinionated, principled, and insightful about things) is scarce. What use is all this data when it drowns, overwhelms, confuses, contradicts? What have you really learned when your information consumption is just an infinite stream of watered-down clickbait? Can you trust your gut? Those who know how to are hot commodities.

When large-scale computing can do most of our repeatable tasks infinitely faster and (for the most part) better than us, what do we have left to do? Create, build, express, tell stories, do things differently, think deeply and holistically. Either that, or become a computer whisperer and tune those algorithms so that more jobs get obsoleted and more people can be forced to think creatively.

It's less about acquiring knowledge, capital, and labor. Those are cheap and easy now. Those are things a computer can do a lot of this for you. But the things that aren't repeatable and scalable yet are things that require a personal touch. Art, self-expression, and exploration. Through this lens, the sciences and the humanities are more similar than we think.

We're already seeing this happen. Curated lists of things are popping up everywhere (and doing fantastically well). Artsy niche businesses, services, and boutiques are popping up at the grassroots level. Tech companies are focusing more and more on designing strong customer experiences. Lawyers are offloading their grunt work to software so that they can focus on building relationships, understanding the big picture, and catching any details that don't appear in databases yet. Some consulting firms are moving their work towards actually implementing their operational recommendations; others are being hired to ask the right questions, rather than to give the "right" answers.

As the emerging wisdom claims, many jobs will be lost, but a new breed of them will probably be created-- some that we can't quite imagine as being jobs yet. Just as several centuries ago, the job title of "he who pores over a spreadsheet" was unfathomable.

It's an exciting time to be thinking and doing.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1052504 2016-05-18T15:52:56Z 2016-07-06T13:40:03Z how to stop lying to yourself about your career and life, in 7 sloppy graphs

Almost every day, a voice calls out to me. He asks me:

Sometimes this voice is another person - a curious friend, an aunt or an uncle, a stranger or old acquaintance. A parent, a sibling. Sometimes it's that voice inside my own head.

I've learned that this voice, bless his soul, is very often full of shit. You see, the honest, correct, encouraging, and life-affirming answer to that question would be:

We're all just making it up as we go along, and then we re-jigger our personal narratives after the fact, in hindsight. "I did this which led to this and that." 

Messy, undefined narratives in the present tense are part of the deal -- they only begin to take on a shape after you reflect and decide that they have a discernible shape. But if you don't have enough source material, there's not enough stuff to reflect on; your only choice then is to keep moving forward and gathering that source material. 

Alas, that pernicious voice doesn't like this state of affairs. He wants reality to be predictable, unchanging, and easy to reason about. So I lie and give him answers like this:

These are the lies we tell to give ourselves some semblance of control. The mystery is now neatly packaged into a trope, a playbook of sorts. The voice receives a nice little dopamine hit, and he leaves satisfied knowing that his game of Jenga lives to see another day.

Vague Graphs as Rorschach Tests

The disconnect here lies in the fact that much of the observable world is a Rorschach Test -- you see what you want to see, and you see it that way until it kills you (or hurts you enough to cause you to see it differently).

So here's a Rorschach Test. I present 7 graphs, accompanied by quotes that you may have heard before. These graphs have in some form made rounds in mainstream business press, but many of them also serve as the foundation for the work of some of the most thoughtful writers of our generation. So they are dense with different kinds of meaning, depending on where you decide to look.

For each graph, think about what strikes you most about it. Then read the accompanying quote. Now what do you think about the graph?

1. The Problem with Averages

"Much of the real world is controlled as much by the 'tails' of distribution as by means or averages: by the exceptional, not the mean; by the catastrophe, not the steady drip; by the very rich, not the 'middle class.' We need to free ourselves from 'average' thinking."
Some Thoughts about Distribution in Economics, Philip Anderson
2. The Mythical Success Arc

"For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case ... Efficiency, once the sole icon on the hill, must make room for adaptability in structures, processes, and mindsets that is often uncomfortable."
Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal
3. Compounding

"We're taught then when you are given a choice you have to choose only one option. But why choose? ... This multiple-choice approach - if properly managed - can create tremendous momentum. Ideas cross-pollinate. Networks expand."
Bold, Peter Diamandis
4. Reference Bias

“Most people get stuck at the Local Max (A) because changing strategy in any direction leads to poorer results … You’ve got a very good job as an art director. To do better, you’d either have to move to another firm, move to another town, switch careers or go back to school. And all of them have costs and very uncertain returns, so you stay. […] Local Max (A) isn’t actually that great when you realize that Big Max (B) is not particularly far away.” 
Seth Godin, author, entrepreneur
5. The Location of Your Efforts

"The frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters."
More Than You Know, Michael Mauboussin
6. Decision-Making & Skin in the Game

“Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny). […] If you have optionality, you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur.” 
— Nassim Taleb, philosopher

7. What Are Needs?

"At any given time, the input that is most important to a system is the one that is most limiting."
Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1047276 2016-05-07T17:04:47Z 2016-05-07T19:02:25Z your three selfs: the artist, the executive, the critic

From Michio Kaku's The Future of the Mind:

"Although consciousness is a patchwork of competing and often contradictory tendencies, the left brain ignores inconsistencies and papers over obvious gaps in order to give us a smooth sense of a single 'I'."

I always thought that a singular me was in charge of running (and repeating) the process of making decisions. Any inconsistencies could be explained by shortcomings in me, the unified self. Whenever I felt the strong pangs of discomfort from not having an "n-year life plan", this self would arrive upon a way to exit that discomfort.

I now strongly suspect that the decision-maker isn't a cohesive self, but rather a Kakuist "patchwork of competing and often contradictory tendencies." This is reminiscent of that Pixar movie Inside Out, which models the mind as a merry band of characters named Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I think it's more useful to characterize the mind using more dynamic "character archetypes."

(And now ensues a highly unscientific, very anecdotal, metaphor-driven "analysis.")

The Three Archetypes of the Mind

There's the artist, the inner child whose curiosity drives him to poke/prod/build/break/fix. He creates.
Then there's the executive, the thoughtful driver skilled at steering, deciding, and reacting. He navigates.
Finally there's the critic, the guy who just wants to make sure nothing gets overlooked. He deliberates.

Together, this motley crew can do amazing things. But external stressors and internal insecurities often create imbalances between the three. Over time, each character wields a different level influence on the others. We might call this "personality." We might call it "neurosis."

Stress can to some degree be viewed as the manifestation of the different types of struggle taking place between these three characters.

When the critic is screaming those oh-so-sweet-nothings of self-doubt and unworthiness, it means there's dissonance created by some inability by the artist and the executive to deal with a situation. The artist wants to go one way, but the executive is dragging him in another, or vice versa. The critic is sounding the alarm, but his job isn't to problem-solve; he just knows something is wrong. 

When the executive is overpowering, it looks like an inability to sit still, perhaps caused by some disagreement between the artist and the critic. Maybe the artist wants to express something that the critic doesn't think is a good idea, and the executive doesn't want anything to do with that conversation (even though it might be a useful one). The executive is providing a solution, but he doesn't understand the problem.

When the artist takes complete control, it can be characterized by obsessive, frenetic (and maybe hermetic) tendencies all driven by the desire to create and express. What's the tension here? Perhaps the executive and the critic are having a hissy fit. They can't come to terms on what to do, and so the artist is impatient and decides to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the problem. The artist doesn't care for solving problems or providing solutions; he just wants to express something core to his being, at the expense of all else. 

Depending on your personality, you may be picking sides already. I know I love the artist and everything he stands for, but I know other people who would side 100% with the executive, and others who think the critic is highly underrated and needs some love, too.

Yet Another Personality Typeset 

All three need to know their role in any given situation. They need to maintain a healthy relationship with each other. That doesn't mean that they all share the load equally. I'd say there are 6 different permutations that arise from a stable-but-hierarchical arrangement between the three characters:

Exploratory Risk-Taking:
  • The artist searches for a medium to create in, the executive guides that search, and the critic only intervenes if the artist and executive are being erratic.
  • Ethos: "Express and create at all costs."

Exploratory Door-Closing:

  • The artist still searches for a medium to create in, but this time is guided by the critic's discerning eye. The executive only steps in if there hasn't been much action for a while.
  • Ethos: "Express in the right way."

Experimental Analysis:

  • The critic is trying to understand a novel situation, guided by the artist's expansive view of the world. Again, the executive only steps in if there hasn't been much going on.
  • Ethos: "Carefully expand capacity."

Experimental Activity:

  • The critic is still trying to understand something new, but he's now guided by the executive's bias for action. This time, the artist sits back and intervenes if the critic and executive are missing something obvious.
  • Ethos: "Carefully test the waters."

Purposeful Doing:

  • The executive knows what needs to be done, and his striving is guided by the artist's ability to figure out different ways to get something done. The critic sits on the sidelines, looking for cracks in the "this needs to be done" argument.
  • Ethos: "Get it done."

Purposeful Planning:

  • The executive knows what needs to be done, but his actions are guided by the critic, who make sure nothing gets overlooked. The artist sits on the sidelines, making sure those two aren't exhaustively searching in the wrong place.
  • Ethos: "Figure it out."

The cool part is that there's a time and place for each one of these permutations. I feel it takes a pretty self-aware person to be able to comfortably go from one to the other; most of us spend our time in maybe two of these types for our entire life. This leads to "old dog, no new tricks" behavior because when you've found a long-term comfort zone with one type, the other types atrophy.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1035304 2016-04-21T15:03:05Z 2016-04-21T15:09:48Z a less-annoying way to learn things

From Bernard Roth, design guru at Stanford:

"If you have a problem that you're really losing sleep over ... it's because you're working on the wrong problem. (This concept) is what we call in design thinking "Reframing the Problem." The way I suggest you do this is to ask yourself: "What would it do for you if you solved the problem?"

From Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis:
"The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard."
In high school, I prided myself on being a "try hard" - maybe this evokes the phrase "high work-rate." The idea was that if I worked really hard at the obvious things, my performance at a given task would improve vastly. These obvious things included: highlighting textbooks, making flashcards, going all-out all the time in soccer practice, trying to out-hustle opponents on the tennis court; generally, anything giving the visual impression that I was putting in more work.

The Song and Dance of Everything

I had an incredible tennis coach and life mentor named Mr. Kong (or just 'Coach'). He tried to teach me not to try so hard, to focus on the right things

But I was stubborn - my existing mode of work had gotten me this far without a hitch, why change things? He'd have me focus on the rhythm of my feet as I moved around the court; the pitch and sound and timbre of the ball hitting the string bed; the depth and speed of the ball as it came over the net; the different ways I could impart spin on the ball, and what effect it would have on the its trajectory and bounce. I didn't listen.

In retrospect, I realize Coach was trying to get me to focus on reframing the problem. The problem as I had viewed it was "How can I get better?" But if I were to inspect the problem as Bernard Roth suggests, I'd ask "What would solving this problem do for me?" I'd get "better" at tennis so that I could play #1 singles, or gain the admiration of people around me. And what would accomplishing these things do for me? It would affirm my place and my value in the world. And what would that do for me? It would help me have a healthier relationship with the world so that I could enjoy it.

Coach wanted me to reframe the problem to that very last one. How can tennis skip over those intermediary "problems" and cut to the chase? How can it be a vessel to building a healthier relationship with the world around me? Treat tennis as a choreographed song-and-dance (learn the moves), rather than the purpose-driven mechanics of a competitive, "If you win, I lose" game. Learn to love things before you try to master them. Mastery will probably come easier that way.

This is a video of a beginner learning to play tennis in 10 minutes. It's amazing. Great quote (from Tim Gallwey himself):

"... So they’re not thinking, Oh this is what he’s doing with his elbow, this is what he’s doing with his hands. They’re not trying to remember all that. They start humming, and they see themselves doing similar things, muscular movements, as I did. They’re not thinking about it, so it comes out naturally and fluidly."

The assumption here is that natural and fluid is good. It requires less conscious thought than it does to constantly remind yourself to bend your knees, turn your shoulders, brush up on contact, hit the ball ahead of you, oh, and all the while, don't think so much.

At tennis clubs around the country, pros are fleecing amateurs for $150/hour lessons just to give this brand of detailed feedback. The amateurs think they're getting their money's worth, even though their game hasn't improved in 2 years. The pros try to justify the high costs by drowning the amateurs with minutiae. The $150 rate ends up compensating the pro for showing off his deep technical knowledge, rather than actually helping someone become a better player.

The Annoying Science of Spaced Repetition

Learning in general often sees this same dichotomy between the conscious and unconscious. For instance, one concept that's made rounds in mainstream media is the idea of "spaced repetition." To paraphrase the idea: the way to learn something and get something to stick is to review the concept at regular intervals. To make it seem more scientific, let's introduce a graph:
This is fantastic. The solution to learning more effectively is to, at regular intervals, review things you just recently learned. So you'll see a lot of tactics/methods out there in which you keep a really detailed spreadsheet telling you to very mechanically track the things you apparently learned, and then to, every Tuesday morning before your mason jar full of breakfast Soylent (yum), review said concepts.

This spreadsheet-driven approach works for a particular type of person -- namely, those whose process-oriented nature outweighs their self-doubt and fear of failure. These types of people have already developed the habits required to learn at a very high level.

But how about the rest of us, though? We're just getting our feet wet, and the experts want us to use world-class tactics on day one. This is an easy failure pattern. 

But like tennis, the problem of "learning things faster and better" is a matter of reframing the problem to first "learn to love the things you want to master."

For instance.

Fear of reading books:

I've noticed a lot of people don't get into the habit of reading books because they're afraid to not finish them. This is an example of having a strange mental model of what "good reading" looks like - namely, that to read a new book, you need to read another book cover to cover. Or that, to read books, you need to grab something profound and dense and incomprehensible. 

But if you're just getting into the reading game, I suggest keeping a rotating shelf of books (perhaps on your Kindle). You read what you're in the mood for. Skip around, abandon books, find new ones. If what you're reading is too dense, find a less dense treatment of the same topic. "Dense material" is just code for needing to read the prerequisites (idea borrowed from Scott Young). If the prerequisites aren't fun or engaging, find something that will keep your attention. Soon enough, you'll pay more attention to the fact that you finished 50 books this year rather than the fact that you abandoned 200. That's probably 50 more than your total from the past 5 years combined.

The amazing thing about this tactic is that it ends up approximating "spaced repetition" without even trying. You'll start noticing that the concepts in your rotating bookshelf are actually pretty closely related. You'll find yourself reading a chapter of The Hunger Games and a passage will remind you of what you read last week in a book on neuroplasticity. And so now that concept is forever etched in your memory.

Once reading becomes integral to life, then you start a conscious spaced-repetition practice. But to attempt mastery before enjoyment is what they say "putting the cart before the horse."

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1021646 2016-04-09T14:18:14Z 2017-04-09T14:12:11Z the need for a new American Dream

From Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child:

"Quite often we are faced here with gifted patients who have been praised and admired for their talents and their achievements ... In everything they undertake they do well and often excellently; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be - but all to no avail. Behind all this lurks depression, the feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not "on top," not definitely the "superstar," or whenever they suddenly get the feeling they failed to live up to some ideal image and measure they feel they must adhere to."
The American Dream often looks like a cushy job, a big house, a white fence, a yard, and the soothing chirps of some happily nested family of neighborhood birds.

At any given moment, millions pursue this dream the best they can. It often begins in poverty. A family seeking a better quality of life observes what they have and realizes that something about it just isn't right. A child becomes a vessel to a better life, via good grades, diplomas, and paychecks. This is great.

We see this happening generation to generation, as the once-impoverished are now leading (what appears to be) happy, comfortable lives.

The Inheritance of Meaning

For most people, going through this entire process takes several decades, and by the time the process is complete, they're probably deep into the universe of devoting themselves to the well-being of their children. From the looks of it, it worked. And it's all they've ever known; they'll most likely pass it down to their kids as well.

Thus a formula for living is derived to solve for the pesky question of meaning. Go to school, get the best grades, join the best institutions, and get the best jobs. This works for a short while.

But that pesky little question of meaning was never precisely defined-- what is meaning and purpose? Is it monolithic? Are your parents' estimations of meaning the same as yours? How should one live to engage with the question in a healthy manner? Over the past millennium, daily life for humans has radically changed, but the same fundamental questions remain (as evidence, flip through A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium)

At some point in the American Dream journey, meaning morphs from "put food on the table for the family" to something entirely different. This inconvenient truth gets lost in between Math Bowl competitions, orchestra auditions, and SAT prep courses. So everyone is left fighting yesterday's wars -- "meaning" doesn't evolve with the arrival of new conditions. The privileged children of the new elite end up competing over the same things, without the same set of motivating impulses guiding them down these pathways.

One Man's Meaning Is Another Man's Crisis

Countless highly educated kids, cut from this American Dream cloth, graduate from college every year as near clones of each other. They've all just about gotten the same grades, interned at the same tier of companies, participated in roughly the same types of "extracurriculars", and applied to the same schools and jobs. They never did anything without unconsciously running a calculation in their head of how that fits in with their "paper" self. I know because I'm one of them.

In the words of former Yale professor William Dereciewicz, these young elites graduated as "excellent sheep." Never having had to deal with any form of uncertainty, they continually do what is expected of them, and they do it damn well. In the back of our mind, maybe after a 3rd year doing the same humdrum work at a big consulting firm (or these days, a sexy, well-funded tech startup), just maybe we'll wonder why we're doing this.

But our brains have calcified to be unable to imagine a life outside of what everyone views as success. Even though, now more than ever, one can find fulfillment in almost any category of creative work.

I still struggle with all this. You can't rewire 20+ years of training overnight. And you can't rewire thousands of years of evolutionary reinforcement telling me to avoid uncertainty.

A common frame of re-imagination I've found is to seek out people who, coming from a position of some sliver of privilege, decided to go off-script. (Important to note that "off-script" can take the form of different things to different people. This list takes a specific form of off-script):
  • Josh Waitzkin: child chess prodigy, Columbia University grad. Now a Brazilian jiujitsu master and student of the art of learning
  • Tim Ferriss: Princeton grad. Now runs the 4 Hour Workweek blog, podcast, and show that he started a decade ago
  • Naval Ravikant: Dartmouth grad, dabbled in consulting. Now founder of AngelList & famous angel investor
  • Haruki Murakami: Studied drama in college, spent his twenties running a jazz club with his wife. Now a renowned novelist
  • Ken Jeong: Duke grad, MD from UNC, practicing physician. Now a comedian and actor
  • Mohsin Hamid: Princeton and Harvard Law grad, former McKinsey consultant. Now an award-winning novelist
  • Vijay Brihmadesam: Private equity analyst. Quit his job, worked at Chipotle, then started Tava Indian Kitchen in SF
  • James Freeman: Professional clarinetist turned founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
  • Demetri Martin: Yale grad, accepted into NYU Law. Now a renowned standup comedian
  • Joshua Redman: Harvard grad, accepted into Yale Law. Now a jazz saxophonist and composer
  • Ang Lee: Immigrant from Taiwan, famously toiled away on screenplays while his wife supported him. Director of Life of Pi
  • Ezra Koenig: Columbia grad, former Teach for America teacher. Lead vocalist of Vampire Weekend
  • Rollie Peterkin: Penn grad, Wall Street veteran. Quit his job for MMA training in Peru, now an English teacher in Madrid

I wish there was some data to confirm my suspicions, but I think talented/ambitious people going off-script isn't as risky as it seems to them. It's all in their head. The New American Dream is having the courage to successfully go off-script. Someone once wrote that in life, you get 2 out of the following 3: freedom, certainty, and money. The most common form of striving seems to value the "certainty + money" combination. It'll be interesting to see how the other combinations play out as more people get disenchanted by the standard mode of striving.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1020451 2016-03-29T19:19:46Z 2016-03-29T19:19:46Z the three reactions to kool-aid

From Michio Kaku's The Future of the Mind:

"Although consciousness is a patchwork of competing and often contradictory tendencies, the left brain ignores inconsistencies and papers over obvious gaps in order to give us a smooth sense of a single 'I'."

In most realms of human life, there is a status quo and there is a relationship that individual people have with the status quo. The status quo often has much room for improvement. But enough people have busted their asses and worked hard for the status quo to exist, so they aren't going to let the status quo change so easily. These people are probably awesome, and they probably were the status quo changers once upon a time. That's the thing with "the way things are done"-- even when the way things are done change, they find equilibrium at a new set of ways that things are done.

To protect "the way things are done," the guardians concoct a Kool-Aid: a sweet syrupy drink that is largely water and sugar. This Kool-Aid is offered as a way to help newcomers cope with the inevitable "Why are things done this way?"

"Well, you know, it is what it is, but all we can do is work hard and hope for the best and <insert Kool-Aid here>"

The Kool-Aid is a narrative ploy used to redirect questions and turn them into sermonizing about mission, ideology, and other things that are tough to argue against.

The manner in which one responds to the presence of Kool-Aid is everything. It breaks down like this:

The Three Reactions to Kool-Aid

  1. Drink the Kool Aid
  2. Reject the Kool Aid
  3. Wonder why there is a Kool Aid to begin with

First option: you drink the Kool-Aid. You drink it deeply. It's so sweet and delicious. You buy into the story that is being peddled because you hope that it's correct. Sometimes it is; most times it isn't. The world is rarely simple enough to distill into a tasty beverage, hence why the Kool-Aid is so packed with sugar.

Second option: you reject the Kool-Aid. You spit it out, storm off, and reject anything associated with this Kool-Aid.

Third option: you wonder why Kool-Aid is being peddled in the first place. 

Why are people buying into Trump's rhetoric? Why are people buying Bernie's rhetoric? Why are people telling us that Hillary is more realistic? What is the motivation behind all these different forms of peddling in the first place?

You can ask the same types of pointed questions to Kool-Aid distributors in medicine, tech, education, economics, law, basically any part of life that involves "right" and "wrong" of any sort.

The danger with drinking the Kool-Aid is the same with drinking actual Kool-Aid: the more you drink, the more your body depends on it (Have you every tried cutting all sugar out of your diet? Sugar withdrawal is a real thing.)

The danger with fully rejecting the Kool-Aid is that you become an angsty, tough-to-talk-to bystander.

The danger with questioning the Kool-Aid is that you make enemies on both sides of the fence. After all, by merely questioning it, you legitimize the claims of both the drinkers and the rejecters.

At any given moment, there are probably at least 5 different Kool-Aids a person is actively drinking, rejecting, or wondering about the history/ingredients of. I think these roughly break down into the categories of life that your mind spends most of its time in:

  • Career: the sweet, delicious Kool-Aid of a regular paycheck, a suit, and a pat on the back
  • Society: the exotic Kool-Aid of "making a difference" 
  • Education: the school-sponsored Kool-Aid (t-shirt, lanyard, and bottle opener come for free!)
  • Family: the "make you proud", well-adjusted Kool-Aid
  • Existence: the "bearded man in the sky" Kool-Aid

Here's a potential rule of thumb: your Kool-Aid flavor of choice correlates with how you like your coffee/tea. I'm a sucker for unsweetened iced coffee with a splash of soy milk. My parents are suckers for sugary, milky, cardamom chai. My most enlightened friends don't drink caffeine.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/1008191 2016-03-06T17:11:59Z 2016-03-06T20:10:43Z how to game a fair coin

From Jean-Paul Sartre:

"Everything has been figured out, except how to live."

Statistics 101

Here's a common setup: someone flips a coin once. What are the chances that it lands heads?

The reflexive answer is to say "50%", and that of course would be academically correct.

The more skeptical response would be a question: "Is the coin fair or is it rigged?"

Here's the second setup: someone flips a coin 50 times, and it landed heads every single time. What are the chances that it lands heads on the 51st toss?

The reflexive answer might be "pretty high, maybe 75-80%?" Which would, academically, be wrong.

As we know, a fair coin's probability of landing heads or tails is not dependent on what it flipped before. That is, tossing a coin is an independent event. Whether you tossed it 50 times before and got heads every single time doesn't affect the chances of it landing heads or tails that 51st time-- the odds of it landing "heads" is still 50%.

But if you view the flipping of a coin 51 times as a sequential series of events, you get a weird situation indeed. Probabilistically, the chances of a coin flipping heads once is 50%. But the chances of flipping heads two times in a row is equivalent to the product of the probability of heads on each toss, which would be 50% x 50%, or 25%. 

And flipping heads 51 times in a row? The chances are incredibly low (0.5^51, or 0.000000000000004%). On its own, that 51st flip has a 50% chance of landing heads or tails, but the chances of 51 flips in a row being the same face are damn near zero.

So a statistically-minded person would say "The flip itself: 50%. But 51 consecutive heads: 0.000000000000004%." And a skeptic would say "Let me see that damn coin, it's got to be rigged." 

Both of these responses are fair. But all of these responses rely on a certain view of the assumptions involved in the simple flip of a coin. These assumptions can be broadly recognized as:

  1. Initial Conditions
  2. Launch Conditions
  3. Flight Conditions

The strictly academic "flipping a coin" exercise focuses on only a small subsection of these assumptions. Namely: is the coin perfectly weighted? Note that we haven't examined some of the more interesting assumptions, some more outlandish than others. Do atmospheric pressures fluctuate at all in between tosses (gravity, drag forces, etc)? Does the coin land on a surface that favors a particular head? Is the person flipping the coin strangely skilled at controlling his toss? Does the coin have free will? Can the coin change its own trajectory as its being launched and as it is landing? But in our pedantic conversation about this coin, we've only identified consecutivity and coin fairness as the primary movers of probability.

The Hot Hand Fallacy

The same academic focus is used to describe the "Hot Hand Fallacy." This phenomenon is used to explain the case of a basketball player "catching fire" and shooting lights out, seemingly unable to miss. 

When a player has a hot hand, the reflex might be to say that the probability of his next shot going in is much higher than average. He's on fire, and our intuition suggests that there's something special going. But as we saw in the case of flipping 51 coins consecutively heads, the probability of a prolonged hot streak is substantially lower with each additional shot. At the same time, though, if each shot is an independent event, the probability of making the next shot remains the same as it was for every other shot, despite the hot streak. Mind fuck!

There are many more variables at play here that complicate this even further. (Stanford professor Jeffrey Zwiebel discusses some of them in a recent paper.)

First is in "initial conditions" -- has the player been getting more sleep, or meditating; has the team changed its offense in some significant way, or has it settled into its groove mid-season? 

Or in "launch conditions" -- has the player been working with a shot guru and thus reached a breakthrough in the rotation and range of his shot; is the player, now much more selective with his shot selection, more patient with when and from where he shoots; now that he has a hot hand, are defenders double-teaming him or otherwise changing how they guard him? 

Or in "flight conditions" -- is the player in the middle of a West Coast road trip where maybe the weather in the month of March favors his shot; does the height of a hoop in some West Coast arenas vary by a couple favorable centimeters? Absurd, yes, but still worth considering. 

One man's lucky streak might be another's actual, legitimate hot hand. Until defenses grow accustomed and adjust. Or in Steph Curry's case, don't adjust (because they can't figure out how to). A coin flip isn't just a coin flip.

Loaded Coins

The point of all this is that maybe there is a way to game a fair coin. There are probabilities that surround us that we take simply at face-value that might be more under our control than we may imagine. Elon Musk once stated this as the "branching of probability streams":

"You're going to generate some error between the series of steps you think will occur versus what actually does occur and you want to try to minimize the error. That's a way that I think about it. And I also think about it in terms of probability streams. There's a certain set of probabilities associated with certain outcomes and you want to make sure that you're always the house. So things won't always occur the way you think they'll occur, but if you calculate it out correctly over a series of decisions you will come out significantly ahead."

In some domains, the initial conditions largely determine the outcome, while in others, the launch or flight conditions have outsized impact. But when we assess the probability of certain events or outcomes, we often make assumptions on the nature of the variables involved in these calculations. Yes, many values are fixed, but not as many as we would think. I think we can rig many of the coin tosses in our life.

(I'm not a statistician so if any of this is wrong, please let me know.)

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/987468 2016-03-02T15:50:31Z 2016-03-02T20:28:18Z the tradeoff between time and money

From Ricky Yean's Privilege and Inequality in Silicon Valley:

"Then there’s knowing how to manage resources. Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource. My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money."

Everything has a tradeoff (in economic terms, everything has an "opportunity cost," but I really don't like that phrase, so I won't use it).

Shockingly, this actually means that everything has a tradeoff

Going to college has a significant tradeoff that is definitely worth considering. Same with graduate school, or marriage, or "career"-ing, or even the language you choose to speak. The people you hang out with. How you spend your Sunday afternoons.

That isn't to say that you should commence ripping your hair out and second-guessing all of your life's decisions. But it's worth noting that, in a world of infinite tradeoffs, you need to be somewhat aware of what you are trading off, as well as which mental models are guiding you to pick a particular batch of tradeoffs over another.

(This was a fun/scary exercise for me because I quickly realized many of my decisions in the past prioritized cocktail-party "You're an impressive young man" over things that I actually found interesting.)

Often, this game of tradeoffs plays out as a battle between time and money: choosing to spend time on something vs. choosing to spend money on it. I know the two aren't mutually exclusive, but for the sake of discussion, we can assume that we're choosing one at the expense of the other.

The Macro Question: Having Time v. Having Money

Time is your most valuable resource. Money buys time. But at what cost? And when is that cost justified?

A working-class single mother of two and a C-suite executive might be just as busy as each other. But the difference is that certain things can be "automated" by the latter through money that might not be automated by the former. Why wait for a train when you can Uber? Why do laundry or clean your apartment or wipe your own ass when you can pay someone to do it for you? The exec effectively buys time to do other things through avoiding subway delays or hour-long dryer cycles. (This is not always a good thing.)

Time availability & the ability to trade in cash for more time is what seems to be what defines wealth. You can be money rich and time poor. You can have a lot of money but still be unwealthy. Perhaps because you're not very good at the cash-for-time business.

In other words, imagine a 2x2 diagram with Having Time and Having Money as axes:

There are several ways you can be poor.

Time poor, money poor.
Time rich, money poor.
Time poor, money rich.
Time rich, money rich.

This is just a very broad-brushed understanding of "poverty"- it exists on two axes. And it is why we might enjoy watching The Wire as much as watching Gossip Girl - both shows describe time-poor environments with starkly different locations on the money axis. It's also an interesting way to understand needs and desires. Your existential needs differ depending on which quadrant you land in. A question for another day might be: do these quadrants have any morality (is it better to be in one quadrant than the other)?

But back to the issue of tradeoffs.

Spending Time vs. Spending Money

Let's weigh the tradeoffs when you decide to spend money on something instead of time. 

Pros: you buy time to focus on other things
Cons: you might be losing a substantial depth of experience

When you have all the time in the world , you invest in certain experiences and habits by spending time on them. This includes figuring things out slowly and painfully over time on your own. 

When you feel you don't have as much time, you skip the discovery trial & error part. To compress the time required to do something, for the sake of urgency and structure (and comfort/certainty), money automates away the stressful, time-consuming parts.

Buying time with money is a great strategy if you know the potential downsides of doing so. But if people trading money for time aren't aware of the tradeoffs between the two, they may easily become blind to the downsides of money vs. time. As humans, we learn best through experience, and passing around pieces of paper can't quite compete with that.

However, if you are constantly re-evaluating what you might be overlooking, then you'll be in a good spot to recognize when it's time to invest time and when it's time to buy time. Tradeoffs are almost always not evenly weighted, so knowing what you're getting yourself into has large implications on the next set of tradeoffs you might face.

Why is this important anyways? Your micro-level, day-to-day decisions on how to spend (time v. money) very quickly accumulate into macro-level, stable holding patterns in what you have (the 2x2 diagram above). 

Much thanks to Dilip Rajan for raising some awesome points of clarification. I've updated the post to include them.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/977032 2016-01-23T22:06:02Z 2016-01-23T22:06:02Z an inelegant case for rebellion

(It's been a while since I've posted anything. But now I'm back to writing regularly, which feels great.)

From John Berger's Way of Seeing:

“One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

This is my attempt to understand women; in the process, it's given me a possibly deeper understanding of "otherness".

When you are a white, heterosexual male, chances are you don't walk around feeling like you're being watched, observed, or looked at. When you look in the mirror, you see some approximation of yourself. This freedom frees the white, heterosexual male to observe the world without fearing it. Of course, there are exceptions, but this appears to be the default.

When you are a woman, or brown, or gay, there's a different dynamic at play.

You look in the mirror, and you don't just see yourself. You see something to be beholden. You are primarily an object of someone else's vision.

How does this happen? It starts the first time you walk through an airport security check and realize you're being treated differently than others. It starts when you and your friends are going out in the city and get catcalled and followed by a group of men. It starts with one cop pulling you over for a rolling stop at a stop sign, or a loved one looking at you weird for how you dress, or an epithet screamed out of the window of a passing vehicle.

So when you look in the mirror, you aren't even gazing at yourself with your own eyes. It's a bit dissociative where your gaze becomes the gaze of the person who will be looking at you.

The strange thing that happens is that, over time, you may begin to similarly objectify anyone who looks like you. When you see your own "kind", you instinctively objectify because that's what you do to yourself. It creates this weird self-limiting behavior at the scale of entire communities - blacks/browns/women all judging the hell out of each other silently and then feeling judged silently by their own. It's why we see our own "kind" giving us side-eye, but then we realize we're very unconsciously doing the same thing to them. And if we aren't careful with our sense of self, we very naturally conform or force others to conform to a narrow set of expectations.

Meanwhile, observe a random white dude walking by on the street- he has the freedom to blend into the background. He isn't regularly the object of anyone's constant eye, especially not yours, and so you can choose to see or not see him, it won't matter much to him. (Of course, this dynamic flips to some degree when the same white dude finds himself in Japan or in Zambia.)

When you're so conditioned to the feeling of being looked at, you change the way you behave, and you change the way you view yourself. This all happens so subconsciously that either you're actively fighting/overcoming it, or you're passively succumbing to it. 

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/912022 2015-10-02T16:50:48Z 2015-12-05T18:28:08Z consumption habits and thinking beyond convenience

From Kevin Simler's essay Wealth: The Toxic Byproduct:

"[...] money spent on consumption is toxic — value-destroying. This is true even in our daily lives, without the literal magic window. Every time we spend money on a yacht or an iPhone or a nice jacket or even food, we're taking something of value from society and using it for our own purposes [...]

As long as someone's money is tucked away in his bank account, we're safe. But the minute it starts to leak out, via consumption, we all become that much worse off [...]

Earning money (via production) is good for others. Spending it (via consumption) is bad."

And from Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training:
"A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again."
The exchange of money, all it really is is a reinforcement mechanism. 

When you buy something, you are signaling to the seller of that service or good that you value it. If you buy it at a significantly high price or significantly high frequency, you are reinforcing the belief in the seller that he is making something valuable.

As a seller, this is great. You've provided a service or a good that other people find really useful. With enough buyers, you will continue to provide this service or good. This behavior has been reinforced by the "market" (which is really just a bunch of people sitting around swiping credit cards and writing checks/Venmo payments).

As a buyer, you have reinforced a behavior in a seller. By buying something, you have signaled to a seller or group of sellers that you wanted something enough to pay for it. 

This act of buying is very susceptible to being toxic. Why did you choose to buy that one thing instead of another thing? Are you sending the right signals to the right creators? What does eating at McDonald's instead of Chipotle signal and reinforce to the supply-side of the economics equation?

Merchants and sellers (at least those whose names aren't Steve Jobs) are simply reacting to the signals that consumers are sending them. Yes, to some degree the sellers are trying to "hack" consumption habits to profit from them via marketing and design. But it is still the consumers who have great autonomy over what they ultimately purchase. 


Why do you buy the clothes that you buy? 
Why do you eat the food that you eat? 
Why do you refill the tank or pay for repairs on your car?
Why pay for Spotify Premium? 
Why live where you live and pay as much or as little as you do?

These are loaded questions that bring up the issue of "values."

Capitalism gets a lot of flak, but it's really just a solution for "I want that thing. You have that thing. And I really really want it. I'd kill you to have it, or I'd just steal it. But that isn't really feasible or always possible. So here we are." Capitalism makes exchange more convenient, and the exchange is of things that we individually value for some reason or another.

So there's nothing wrong with consumption if the underlying values (aka "things we want") are defensible ones. However, oftentimes the main value underpinning many of our consumption decisions is convenience.

Things can be convenient but also have other rich values associated with them. The trick is to identity what those other values are before optimizing for convenience. The main example of this I see is the McDonald's vs. Chipotle distinction. Both establishments are incredibly convenient. Chipotle differentiates itself by channeling its convenience efforts towards healthy, locally raised fast-casual (or something like that). That's dope.


Clothes: buying at thrift shops v. buying at J Crew
Housing: living in a brownstone in a gentrifying neighborhood v. living in a high-rise
Transportation: biking to work v. driving to work
Diet: eating vegetarian v. eating whatever

Maybe all of this is painfully obvious and that I've obfuscated what was already clear. Oh well.
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/910529 2015-09-28T17:34:25Z 2015-09-28T17:37:54Z how to water a plant, and the design of human groups

From Jan Gehl's Life Between Buildings:

"When outdoor areas are of poor quality, only strictly necessary activities occur.

When outdoor areas are of high quality, necessary activities take place with approximately the same frequency -- though they clearly tend to take a longer time, because the physical conditions are better. In addition, however, a wide range of optional activities will also occur because place and situation now invite people to stop, sit, eat, play, and so on.

In streets and city spaces of poor quality, only the bare minimum of activity takes place. People hurry home.

In a good environment, a completely different, broad spectrum of human activities is possible."

Question: how do you water a plant?

WikiHow tells me that it's a four-step process. 

One: pot the plant correctly. Too small, and its roots will get entangled. 
Two: obey the plant's schedule, not yours. Just because every Wednesday works for you doesn't mean that's what's best for the plant.
Three: stick your finger in the soil. Too dry or too wet means the roots might be rotting and depriving the leaves of water. 
Four: water the damn plant. 

Question: why do you water a plant?

Because if you don't, it will die.

Question: why do you keep a plant, anyways?

Scientifically, because it performs respiration, the source of energy for all living things on Earth.
Sentimentally, because it feels good to take care of something.
Aesthetically, because it looks nice around the house.
Culturally, because it makes for good conversation when you're sitting around.

Question: so ... why do you water a plant?

So that it grows and is able to perform all of the above functions.

Question: how do you water a plant?

You don't tape up the leaves and stem when they start wilting.
You don't paint the foliage green.
You don't replace the soil with just water.
You don't give it a month's worth of water once a month.
You just water the damn plant so that it can grow on its own.

Plant Metaphors
  • The organization as a plant

  • The city as a plant

  • The child as a plant

  • Technology as a plant

  • The world as a fractal series of plants watering plants watering plants, and so on.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/909846 2015-09-26T15:28:00Z 2016-08-08T15:40:19Z kansha, the japanese art of thoughtful eating

From Elizabeth Andoh's Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions:

"When I bemoaned the need to wait a full year before indulging in [certain foods] again, a Japanese friend taught me three words: hashiri, shun, and nagori.

"Hashiri are those eagerly awaited foods you finally find at market: the early spring peas, small and tender ... or autumn's first wild mushrooms that hint of the woods."

"Shun describes that magic moment when a food is at its peak of flavor and abundant. It is biting into a sugary-sweet corn, bought from a roadside stand on a blazing hot summer's day."

"Nagori is culinary regret ... buying eggplant one more time, late in autumn, knowing they can't be as tasty as the ones stewed with young ginger during the summer rains."

Ever since I first watched my first Miyazaki film (Howl's Moving Castle), I've been intrigued by the art that is core to many aspects of Japanese culture. Embedded in their food ("Jiro Dreams of Sushi"), their sport (martial arts), and their business (Toyota) is a common theme of humility, minimalism, and mastery. Maybe I'm romanticizing a culture I haven't experienced first hand yet, but it's really fascinating stuff.

Recently, I picked up Elizabeth Andoh's book on Kansha, the Japanese philosophy of consumption. At first glance, it's just a cookbook. But Andoh explains each and every recipe and cooking technique through the lens of the Kansha spirit. Consumption of all kinds must be aesthetically satisfying, wary of waste, and full of gratitude. (My consumption habits during my year in NYC violated all three of these tenets-- takeout Thai food in plastic containers).

From my basic understanding of it, Kansha appreciates tempo. There's a time and place for everything; instant gratification is frowned upon; sequence matters. And when it's time to act, you act thoughtfully and mindfully, without the automaticity that seems to be a defining characteristic of American life. 

Through the practice of thoughtfulness and timing, you unlock deeper value in whatever you do. Incidentally, you also complete whatever you're doing more effectively. I've noticed that, whenever I'm rushing to get things done, it ends up taking longer. I forget things; my execution gets sloppy.

In Kansha, Andoh describes how you can build an entire meal out of a single daikon (winter radish) -- the green tufts on top become a condiment for your steamed rice, the neck becomes a pickled side dish, and the bulbous center gets repurposed as sliced garnish to your noodles or your soup. This is the daikon meal, in praise of one vegetable, unlocking its full value.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/908290 2015-09-22T16:29:57Z 2015-09-22T16:29:57Z on being wrong for the right reasons

From investor Howard Marks:

"The correctness of a decision can’t be judged from the outcome. Nevertheless, that's how people assess it. A good decision is one that’s optimal at the time it’s made, when the future is by definition unknown. Thus, correct decisions are often unsuccessful, and vice versa.” 

A few weeks ago, I wondered: Is it better to be right for the wrong reasons, or wrong for the right reasons. I've been reading a lot lately to see if there's an answer to this question. Howard Marks clearly has one -- and he bases it in part on the distinction between "first-level thinking" and "second-level thinking":

"First-level thinking says, 'It's a good company; let's buy the stock.' Second-level thinking says, 'It's a good company, but everyone thinks it's a great company, and it's not. So the stock's overrated and overpriced; let's sell."

Many smart people only get as far as first-order thinking. When there is a problem to solve, efforts spill towards the same small handful of solutions. When you possess above-average intelligence, it's easier to do fake-smart things that only appear smart than to do actually smart things (which often appear crazy or stupid).

"First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority. [...] Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted."

"[...] The bottom line is that first-level thinkers see what's on the surface, react to it simplistically, and buy or sell on the basis of their reactions."

For first-level thinkers, the competition is over who can perform marginally better. However, this leaves huge swaths of the possible solution space uncovered. First-level thinkers have a tough time distinguishingpopularity from truth.

Second-level thinking often results in solutions that counter conventional wisdom. This is because second-level thinkers try to expand the relevant solution space, then prod/poke/tinker around in this expanded space (rather than instinctively rushing to where everyone else is).

So being right for the wrong reasons is the fluke of a first-level thinker. You make the false conclusion that what you're doing is working, and you double-down on it. This is a fragile strategy. By contrast, being wrong for the right reasons is the fluke of a second-level thinker.

A few scattered examples that come to mind:

  • Housing: the difference between paying $$$$ for a small apartment in a swanky area v. paying $$ for a larger apartment in a more up-and-coming area.
  • Learning: short-term recognition v. long-term recall. Learning through rote memorization v. learning through teaching.
  • Career: forcibly linearizing the path v. riding the path nonlinearly
  • Raising a Child: authority-based parenting v. reason-based parenting. Draconian v. Virgil.
  • Leadership: charisma that induces over-reliance on one person v. mentorship that raises all boats
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/904556 2015-09-13T03:37:35Z 2015-09-14T16:36:15Z the tyranny of the scrunchy-face

From investor Paul Graham:

"Keep your identity small.

[...] If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [...]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."
College is where the existence of segregation becomes normalized. Whereas before college, only the minority knew it to be true, now everyone knew it's just "how things work," without anyone really appearing to be too mad about it.

Here's a highly scientific playbook of how.

Step 1: Marginalize the Self

"Sand nigger."

I laughed. 

It was part of my tongue-in-cheek persona as the token brown dude in a crew of WASPy white kids (who were awesome guys, by the way).

My high school shtick was one of self-deprecation. I made jokes about my suspicious-looking backpack, about speaking derka-derka, about the 72 virgins in "Islamist" heaven.

The road to assimilation, acceptance, and belonging begins with self-hatred.

Step 2: Marginalize Others

Frat star asks, "Where do you live on campus?"
I respond, "Dubois."
Him: **scrunchy face** "How the hell did that end up happening?"
Me: "Yeah, weird, right?"

When I first moved to campus, I didn't think Dubois was strange. The rooms were spacious and clean; the house dean really cared about the students; the community room always had fun stuff going on.

But Dubois was "where all the Black kids lived." And I was not Black. So I got a lot of scrunchy-faced looks. Scrunchy faces made me feel nervous.

And these scrunchy-faces happened a lot. So I began pre-empting them with my own scrunchy face, to match their rose-cheeked ones.

Step 3: Segregate in Defiance (and Perpetuate the Cycle)

Friend: "Why do you only hang out with brown people?"
Me: **scrunchy face** "Why do you only hang out with white people?"

(Optional) Step 4: Watch "Dear White People"

And then deeply question steps 1-3.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/895849 2015-08-20T16:06:35Z 2015-08-21T17:24:05Z pierre qui roule

There's a small list of thinkers whom I pay especially close attention to. These people include: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Taleb, Paul Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar, and a few more.

Venkatesh Rao is also on this list. He recently shared via social media a great African proverb:

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

A superficial reading of this would interpret the proverb as encouraging "together" at the expense of "alone." But I don't think that's completely right.

Going alone and going fast is important when you're starting something new. People are generally skeptical and scared of anything new and untested. What if it fails? What if it's not so great? No one wants to be on the wrong side of history. Besides, there's so much other crap out there that promises to be great, but turns out to be terribly mediocre. So there's little incentive for the average bear to try a new brand of honey.

I don't think trying to build consensus on Day 1 when grappling with a big idea is a strong move. In these cases, going fast and going alone (and seeing who's willing to run to keep up) is crucial. Most ideas die during this phase. Either they sucked, or the right people weren't leading it.

Once the idea has eclipsed a certain threshold of noisemaking, value creation, and curiosity inducement, that's when it needs to transition. No longer is the idea a wild man's pipe dream -- people now recognize it as important. This is where "go far, go together" comes in. 

The transition from "fast and alone" to "far and together" seems to be where revolutionary ideas and products either make it or break it. Geoffrey Moore calls this transition a "crossing (of) the chasm." You've made it this far, but it won't lead to anything enduring if you can't successfully make this jump.

A few examples (both successful and unsuccessful):

1. Facebook/Twitter/Airbnb/Uber
2. Civil Rights Movement and Black Power
3. Protestant Reformation
4. Zionism
5. Arab Spring
6. Marriage Equality

These ideas in practice have roughly taken the following trajectory: 

a) Most people find the idea strange and creepy at first
b) Leaders refine the mission to have a more resonant core
c) Noisy and influential early adopters tell their friends about the idea
d) The movement tweaks its shape to allow for more people to join
e) The movement catches fire and grows exponentially

However, after e) is where we see many of these stories diverge. 

While a small minority of them actually sticks around for a while and succeeds, many die. 

The transformation from niche focus to mainstream adoption is always awkward and frustrating. Based on critical accounts I've read about the Civil Rights Movement, that's where these revolutions stumbled ultimately. They made it through the crucible of getting off the ground, but as the mainstream takes notice, there's a new crucible to go through:
  • Dealing with powerful, deep-pocketed people who don't want the idea to succeed.
  • Responding to cycle-determined media coverage (they'll love you, then hate you, then love you).
  • Creating space for more people to join without overly diluting.
  • Maintaining the heart and soul of the movement.
  • Letting the movement flourish in the absence of the founder.
  • Avoiding too much internal politicking and turmoil.
(Pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse.)
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/892334 2015-08-15T14:08:00Z 2015-08-15T14:08:00Z the value of studying for the lsat

From Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code:

"The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it's about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions."

This is a strange post, because a) studying for the LSAT made me want to choke an alpaca and b) I eventually ended up dropping out of law school.

Nonetheless, intensely studying for the LSAT (a masochist's idea of a good time) might have been one of the best things I've ever done. I actually felt my brain change shape. I've always struggled with being scatterbrained, but the rigor of the LSAT trained me to be able to organize the clutter and recognize blind spots in my thinking.

Here are the 5 things I learned from spending 4 months slaving away at preparing for this test. It'll probably be evident that these lessons apply to many other domains of life.
  1. Aim big and audacious

    I think people (myself included) get scared of aiming ridiculously high. We overvalue our current selves but undervalue our potential future selves. So what happens is that we set goals that are high, but within arms reach.

    And when things are within arms reach, we might not be hellbent enough on attaining them. Whereas if our goals are absurd, we have to re-evaluate whether we really want to achieve them, and if we do, then we get serious. If not, then that's fine-- time to find something you are willing to go pie-in-the-sky for.

  2. Long-term strategy beats short-term optimizations

    The LSAT has three sections: logic games, logical reasoning, and reading comprehension.

    The logic games section can be mastered in a few short weeks with the right suite of tactics and tricks. Many people spend way too much time working on this section.

    The logical reasoning and reading comprehension sections are a bitch. They are mentally draining and they require an intense level of focus, concentration, and skill. To master these sections, you can't just stumble into a silver-bullet tactic. You need a long-term strategy (reading science journals, retaking old sections in loud coffee shops, etc). Performance on these sections often differentiate the average test-taker from the top 20%, and the top 20% from the top 1%.

  3. Obsession with metrics/data often leads to shortcuts

    There's a saying that goes like this: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." I grew so obsessed with my score that, during early practice tests, I would flip to the back and double-check my answers. This obviously inflated my scores artificially. Bad.

  4. Hoping for a fluke is a recipe for deep disappointment

    "Well, let's see how it goes. I might have a good day today." Said no elite performer ever. There's a high degree of determinism whenever you see masters do what they do. The Jordans of the world don't rely on having a lucky day.

  5. Before simplicity, things get complicated

    During my time studying for the LSAT, I eventually hit a giant wall. For about 2 months, no matter how hard I tried to figure out what the problem was, my scores weren't improving. I kept exhaustive and detailed track of the type of questions I was struggling with, desperately trying to find a pattern somewhere in there. Things got messy, complicated, frustrating. And then it slowly started clicking and making more sense. I had to wade through immense complexity to get to simple.

This post might only be helpful to people who are studying for the LSAT soon. Whatever.

Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/893749 2015-08-14T20:02:08Z 2015-08-14T20:23:45Z straight shooter, the lost artform

From David Heinemeier Hansson aka DHH's talk at Stanford, Unlearn Your MBA:

"I have a funny example of how bad things can go when your brain has become all mushy with all this MBA bullshit.

This is Domino's CEO David Brandon talking a few weeks ago:

'The weakness in our value chain with the customer was really in our core product.'

...What?? What does that even mean? Well, I tried to translate that into human, and what I came up with was:

'Let's be honest, our pizza used to suck. I'm sorry. I swear the new ones will be better.'"

I don't know where all this bullshit comes from. But there's a lot of it these days. People paid way too much to simply regurgitate buzzwords and "best practices" and trends. I think it comes from a fear to really think.

Much of this type of convoluted language comes from giant corporations (that, to be honest, are probably all going to crumble and get replaced over the following century). When you're a tightly run ship, your teams don't have the patience for inefficient talk. There's shit to do! Things that need to get done! Ambitious goals in the horizon, not enough time, not enough money to dream of flying business class. More time spent arguing the specifics, less time blabbering incoherent things about "corporate strategy."

But when an organization gets bloated in any way, the incentives change. Individuals in fat companies are primarily incented to demonstrate to each other that they are smart. Why? Because the worst case scenario of anything they do is that nothing terrible happens to the company. The lights stay on. The best case is that they get a new corner office and a pat on the back. All on their way to finally retiring and getting to enjoy the finer things in life. (Side note: this dream is akin to buying a BMW because it's prestigious, driving it like hell for 200k miles, then treating it nicely for its last 100k. The BMW ends up a junker before it even hits 100k).

When buzzwords and bullshit reign supreme in a realm, you can be sure that this realm is about to (or already has) descended into deep politicking. It seems like a pretty good litmus test, actually, to read anything written by "thought leaders" in a particular industry and see the types of language being used.

You can easily figure out 1) if an entire industry suffers from bullshit, and 2) which individual companies are actually doing a great job of avoiding said bullshit.

Also, Domino's new pizza is actually pretty fucking great! Good job, David Brandon.
Ammar Mian
tag:ammarmian.posthaven.com,2013:Post/893337 2015-08-13T14:31:19Z 2015-08-13T14:36:45Z the concrete of big cities

From Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building:

“Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe.”

Roman Mars produces an amazing radio show called 99% Invisible. I think there’ve only been a few episodes I haven’t been fully enthralled by.

There’s a theme that recurs (purposefully or accidentally) in his podcasts. These are stories of the human response to architecture that man has designed.

Crammed flop houses in the Bowery neighborhood of NYC.
Questions about tables and chairs (why are tables so low? why are chairs so perpendicular?).
Ugly buildings on college campuses (ironically many of which house architecture programs).

I listen to these podcasts as I walk around NYC’s East Village; I spot the hulking Lower East Side projects that Roman talks about.

Or after the episode on street width, I really do wonder: “Does the combination of narrow streets and tall buildings make me unhappy?”

Lately, 99% Invisible spurred another thought that I can’t seem to unthink. Why are our cities so concrete? What does that say about our relationship with our world?

Many of the things I see in NYC are awe-inspiring when looked at in isolation. But taken together with everything else, there seems to be a dullness, a drabness, that remains, regardless of how vibrant and noisy and lively the streets are during brunch time.

There’s so much damn concrete. It’s as if we designed our cities to escape the natural world. Trees, grass, critters, parks — these are mere amenities confined to neatly packaged squares. 

Occasionally, this makes us overtly antsy. So we go to the beach with some friends to unwind and take in the calming, intimidating beauty of the world. Then we complain about bug bites.

The concrete that surrounds us has probably developed a toxic relationship between us and the world. Instead of trying to harness nature so that we and it can coexist, we suppress it and, in its stead, try to approximate it with our toys.

Replace wood with concrete, gravel and sand with pavement.

It’s seems lazy! What if instead of concrete, we had streets dominated by trees; roads and sidewalks that crunched naturally under our feet; filtration systems that weren’t just a series of underground pipes?

I think we’d be a happier lot. Our innovations would look much different, maybe even better than what we see now.

I say all this to try to shake off my own city-induced neuroticism. I'm a (slowly) aspiring hippie. 

Ammar Mian