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a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Cognition

Ada Lovelace Day 2011: Dr. Marian C. Diamond

For Ada Lovelace Day this year, I want to share my appreciation for Dr. Marian C. Diamond.

In years past, I’ve saluted women in the field of computing, which is my field as well. Dr. Diamond, however, is a biologist. Her research includes “neuroanatomy, environment, immune functions, and hormones. In particular, she is interested in studying the effects of the external environment, aging, and immune responses on the cerebral neocortex.” She has, in her words, had a love affair with the brain for about 70 years.

I know very little about biology. The content and methods of her research are, frankly, beyond me, though some of her results have garnered popular attention. She has inspired me by demonstrating that rare combination of gifts: a deep understanding of a technical subject, and the ability to explain it to other people in an accessible way.

In her interviews, articles and lectures, many of which are available online, Dr. Diamond displays these gifts in abundance. Her skill and enthusiasm for both learning and teaching is unmistakable. After applying her gifts in the classroom for many years, digital distribution has now enabled many more people to see and hear her, through millions of YouTube views.

In 1960, she became the first female graduate student in UC Berkeley’s anatomy department, and was apparently given the job of sewing a cover for a magnifying machine. I can only imagine the persistence required to continue from there to become a recognized leader in her field. She has gone on to help many other students along their way, and was named an “unsung, everyday hero” for the support she provided to students outside of the classroom or lab.

As if that weren’t enough, she has also traveled to Cambodia to apply her expertise in helping children injured by land mines. She still teaches today, just across the bay from where I write this, and will turn 85 next month.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 7, 2011 at 19:29

Breathing information

I’ve written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking with other people about this as well, and am beginning to develop a model to apply to my daily life.

There are plenty of unsatisfactory metaphors circulating in this area: we eat the “information diet”, drink from the “fire hose”, endure the “information explosion”, and so on. None of them describe the richness of my experience: the profound variations in style, texture, speed, depth and movement are lost in this kind of dry imagery.

Instead, I think of it like respiration.

We inhale information, and we also exhale it transformed. We do this, consciously or unconsciously, every moment of our lives. Sometimes we do it quickly, other times slowly, and it can be relaxing or stimulating. We only retain a small amount of what we take in, but it becomes a part of us. We can immerse ourselves deeply, meditatively, in a series of breaths, or fail to notice as we breathe shallowly or pause altogether. One breath may be virtually silent, the next filled with a song or a question or a piercing whistle.

We maintain a balance in our breathing, and I aspire to do the same with information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, seeing and being seen. I don’t mean this simplistically, that I should do both in equal proportion (imagine trying to write as many words as you read!), but doing both consistently. It is often only when I share an idea that I come to understand it deeply, no matter how much I have read about it. By writing it down, or telling someone about it, I naturally fill in the gaps in my understanding and create mental structures which help me recall and apply what I’ve learned.

My input and output should be balanced appropriately for my circumstances. Rapid-fire email is like hyperventilation: I can do it for a while, reading and replying in quick succession, and even feel energized by it, but if I go on for too long, I get dizzy. Running might call for a certain breathing ratio, and Yoga quite a different one. Both can be healthy practices, but they are different, and each requires focus and consistency.

Another key lesson from breathing is to let go. A friend recently told me about his daily online news routine, which included closing any unread tabs at the end of the session. I will sometimes hang onto an article or a video for days or weeks before I find the opportunity to take it in. I eventually get around to most of them, but meanwhile they are taking up space and causing a continuous low level of anxiety or guilt. This information isn’t going anywhere, and if it’s truly significant for me, it will most likely turn up again. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.

Similarly, it’s not wise to breathe stale, indoor air for too long. I will try to step outside regularly, and engage with people and media from outside my usual sphere. When the weather is tolerable, I’ll open up the house and let plenty of fresh air circulate. This will help me avoid getting stuck in the “echo chamber” of my own ideas, or in groupthink.

Perhaps most significantly, I will try to remember that information exchange, like breathing, is not an end in itself. It is a means to action. This will remind me to get out of my head regularly, and do something significant with what I’ve learned.

Ready? Breathe.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 2, 2010 at 15:44

Management and information distortion

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
– attributed to Mark Twain

There is a lot that I don’t know about what goes on in my organization. This isn’t only because I can’t observe everything, or because it’s too complex, or because I make mistakes. These are all true, of course, but they’re also obvious. Much more devious is the way the flow of information to me is distorted. It’s distorted by me, and by the people around me, whether any of us are aware of it or not. This is most apparent in considering how people feel about their managers: this is why I have a deeply flawed view of what it’s really like to work for me.

My theory is that power bends information like gravity bends light. The effect is more pronounced with people of greater mass (more authority), and lessened with distance (less direct influence). The more directly you influence someone else’s fate, the more it is in their self-interest to be guarded around you. This means that the people closest to you, who you receive the most information from, may have the most difficulty being open with you, especially if it’s bad news. It also means that the higher your standing in the corporate hierarchy, the more influence you wield, the more people are affected by this.

Pretty scary, right?

Some managers respond to this terrifying reality by trying to collect more information. They’ll quietly cross-check what people are telling them, asking people in different levels of the organization, routing around managers, hoping to get “the real story”. This usually backfires, because it signals distrust to the people involved and makes the distortion worse.

Another common response is to check in constantly, trying to monitor and control the work as closely as possible (so-called micro-management). This is even worse; not only does it signal distrust, but managers who do this become more personally attached to outcomes, and lose perspective on progress and quality due to information overload, self-enhancement bias, and neglect of managerial work. The more it becomes “your” work rather than the team’s, the harder it is to see it objectively.

So what’s a better way to respond to this phenomenon? Here’s what I try to do:

  • Accept it – You’ll never have certainty about what’s happening, so get used to it, and don’t let it paralyze you. Learn decision making strategies which cope well with information noise, and allow you to experiment and adapt.
  • Admit it – Everyone else knows that you have this distortion field around you. If you pretend it isn’t there, you’ll appear deluded. Acknowledge that you don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.
  • Trust – The more you trust someone, the more they trust you. The more someone trusts you, the more confident they can be in telling you what they think. Be grateful for bad news, and never shoot the messenger.
  • Delegate – Enable people with a less distorted view of the situation to make local decisions. Don’t make people wait for information to propagate through you before acting, unless there is a clear and sufficient benefit to the organization.

I was inspired to think and write about this today after listening to Prof. Robert Sutton’s speech at the California Commonwealth Club, which Lindsay Holmwood shared with me.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 9, 2010 at 17:00

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The paradox of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is a name that comes up a lot when talking to businesspeople, especially in the technology industry. His ideas, his background, his companies, their products, and his personal style are intertwined in the folklore of tech. I have no idea whether most of it is fiction or not, and I write this with apologies to Mr. Jobs for using him as shorthand. I have never met him, and my point here has nothing to do with him personally.

What I want to discuss is the behavior of people who invoke the myth of Steve Jobs. In my (entirely subjective) experience, it seems to me that there is a pattern which comes up again and again: People seem to want to discuss and emulate the worst of his alleged qualities.

Jobs has been characterized as abusive to his employees, dismissive of his business partners, harshly critical of mistakes, punishingly secretive, and otherwise extremely difficult to work with. Somehow, it is these qualities which are put forward as worthy of discussion, inspiration and emulation. Is this a simple case of confusing correlation with causation? Do people believe that Steve Jobs is successful because of these traits? Perhaps it is a way of coping with one’s own character flaws: if Jobs can “get away” with such misbehavior, then perhaps we can be excused from trying to improve ourselves. Or is there something more subtle going on here? Maybe this observation is an effect of my own cognitive biases, as it is only anecdotal.

As with any successful person, Jobs surely has qualities and techniques which are worthy of study, and perhaps even emulation. Although direct comparison can be problematic, luminaries like Jobs can provide valuable inspiration. I’d just like to hear more about what they’re doing right.

Perhaps this is an argument for drawing inspiration from people you know personally, rather than from second-hand or fictitious accounts of someone else’s life. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with many different people, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and style. I’ve seen those characteristics first-hand, so I also have the context to understand why they were successful in particular situations. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership, it’s that it’s highly context-sensitive: what worked well in one situation can be disastrous in another. Is your company really that much like Apple? Probably not.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 3, 2010 at 17:33

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Read, listen, or comprehend: choose two

I have noticed that when I am reading, I cannot simultaneously understand spoken words. If someone speaks to me while I am reading, I can pay attention to their voice, or to the text, but not both. It’s as if these two functions share the same cognitive facility, and this facility can only handle one task at a time. If someone is talking on the phone nearby, I find it very difficult to focus on reading (or writing). If I’m having a conversation with someone about a document, I sometimes have to ask them to pause the conversation for a moment while I read.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. In Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care what Other People Think?, there is a chapter entitled “It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…” where he describes his experiments with keeping time in his head. He practiced counting at a steady rate while simultaneously performing various actions, such as running up and down the stairs, reading, writing, even counting objects. He discovered that he “could do anything while counting to [himself]—except talk out loud”.

What’s interesting is that the pattern varies from person to person. Feynman shared his discovery with a group of people, one of whom (John Tukey) had a curiously different experience: while counting steadily, he could easily speak aloud, but could not read. Through experimenting and comparing their experiences, it seemed to them that they were using different cognitive processes to accomplish the task of counting time. Feynman was “hearing” the numbers in his head, while Tukey was “seeing” the numbers go by.

Analogously, I’ve met people who seem to be able to read and listen to speech at the same time. I attributed this to a similar cognitive effect: presumably some people “speak” the words to themselves, while others “watch” them. Feynman found that, although he could write and count at the same time, his counting would be interrupted when he had to stop and search for the right word. Perhaps he used a different mental faculty for that. Some people seem to be able to listen to more than one person talking at the same time, and I wonder if that’s related.

I was reminded of this years later, when I came across this video on speed reading. In it, the speaker explains that most people read by silently voicing words, which they can do at a rate of only 120-250 words per minute. However, people can learn to read visually instead, and thereby read much more quickly. He describes a training technique which involves reading while continuously voicing arbitrary sounds, like the vowels A-E-I-O-U.

The interesting part, for me, was the possibility of learning. I realized that different people read in different ways, but hadn’t thought much about whether one could change this. Having learned a cognitive skill, like reading or counting time, apparently one can re-learn it a different way. Visual reading would seem, at first glance, to be superior: not only is it faster, but I have to use my eyes to read anyway, so why tie up my listening facility as well? Perhaps I could use it for something else at the same time.

So, I tried the simple technique in the video, and it had a definite effect. I could “feel” that I wasn’t reading in the same way that I had been before. I didn’t measure whether I was going any faster or slower, because I quickly noticed something more significant: my reading comprehension was completely shot. I couldn’t remember what I had read, as the memory of it faded within seconds. Before reaching the end of a paragraph, I would forget the beginning. It was as if my ability to comprehend the meaning of the text was linked to my reading technique. I found this very unsettling, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book I was reading.

I’ll probably need to separate this practice from my pleasure reading in order to stick with it. Presumably, over time, my comprehension will improve. I’m curious about what net effect this will have, though. Will I still comprehend it in “the same” way? Will it mean the same thing to me? Will I still feel the same way about it? The many levels of meaning are connected to our senses as well, and “the same” idea, depending on whether it was read or heard, may not have “the same” meaning to an individual. Even our tactile senses can influence our judgments and decisions.

I also wonder whether, if I learn to read visually, I’ll lose the ability to read any other way. When I retrained myself to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, rather than QWERTY, I lost the ability to type on QWERTY at high speed. I think this has been a good tradeoff for me, but raises interesting questions about how my mind works: Why did this happen? What else changed in the process that might have been less obvious?

Have you tried re-training yourself in this way? What kind of cognitive side effects did you notice, if any? If you lost something, do you still miss it?

(As a sidenote, I am impressed by Feynman’s exuberance and persistence in his personal experiments, as described in his books for laypeople. Although I consider myself a very curious person, I rarely invest that kind of physical and intellectual energy in first-hand experiments. I’m much more likely to research what other people have done, and skim the surface of the subject.)

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 12, 2010 at 12:57

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Habit forming

I find that habits are best made and broken in sets. If I want to form a new habit, I’ll try to get rid of an old one at the same time. I don’t know why this works, but it seems to. Perhaps I only have room in my head for a certain number of habits, so if I want a new one, then an old one has to go. I’m sure some combinations are better than others.

I’m currently working on changing some habits, including:

  • Start exercising, swimming three times per week
  • Stop drinking alcohol entirely
  • Start a consistent flossing routine

I’m thinking of adding a reading habit to the set, but it’s going well so far and I don’t want to overdo it. I feel good, and am forming a new routine.

The flossing is definitely the hardest of the three. I hate pretty much everything about flossing. It also unbalances the set, so that I have a net gain of one habit. Maybe that’s the real reason, and if I broke another habit, it would get easier.

Does anyone else have this experience? What sort of tricks do you employ to help you change your behavior?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 23, 2010 at 20:14

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How to decide what to read (and what not to read)?

Like you, dear Internet readers, I have no shortage of reading material. I have ready access to more engaging, high quality, informative and relevant information than I can possibly digest. Every day, I have to choose what to read, and what to pass by. This seems like an important thing to do well, and I wonder if I do a good enough job of it. This is just one example of a larger breadth/depth problem, but I’m finding the general problem difficult to stomach, so I’m focusing on reading for the moment.

These are my primary sources of reading material on a day-to-day basis:

  • Email – I read everything which is addressed to me personally. I don’t reply to all of it, and my reply time can vary greatly, but I am able to keep up with reading it, and I consider it important to do so. I am still subscribed to a selection of mailing lists, but I find them increasingly awkward to manage. There are a few which I scan on a daily basis, but most of them I process in batches when I’m offline and traveling. I’m subscribed to far fewer mailing lists than I was five years ago, though I feel they are still the most effective online discussion facility available. I find myself doing more and more discussing in real-time on IRC and by phone rather than by email.
  • Blogs – I subscribe to a few big aggregators and a random sampling of individual blogs. Most of them I scan rather than read. I do most of this offline, while in transit, and so I don’t tend to follow links unless they’re promising enough to save for later. I’ve recently stopped trying to “keep up” (scan every post) on most of them, and instead just “sample” whatever is current at the time. It feels like turning on a television, flipping through all of the channels, and turning it off again. Even when I do find something which I feel is worth reading, it’s hard for me to focus my attention after a long session of scanning. I do find a lot of good stuff this way, but I’m pretty dissatisfied with the overall experience. I never feel like I’m looking in the right places.
  • Shared links – I share my own links publicly, and follow those shared by friends and acquaintances. I do this with multiple groups of people who don’t connect directly, and pass items back and forth between those groups. I place an increasingly high priority on reading items which are shared by people I know, more than on trying to follow the original sources, because the signal-to-noise ratio is so good: my personal network acts as a pretty good filter for what will interest me. I have the nagging feeling that I need to maintain a balance here, though. If I read mostly what other people are sending me, I feel like I’m living in a bubble of like-minded people and fear that I’ll lose perspective.
  • News – I read hardly any “proper” news. I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, and generally don’t read the online versions either. I do read articles which are shared by people in my network. Traditional media never seems to have the right scope for me. There may be particular journalists, or particular topics I’d like to follow, but news outlets simply don’t group their content in a way which fits my mind.
  • Books – Remember these? My diet of books has shrunk drastically since I started reading more online media. Devoting my full attention to a book just doesn’t feel as energizing as it used to. I hesitate at the prospect of sinking so many hours into a book, only to decide that it wasn’t worthwhile, or worse, to forget what I learned as I’m bombarded by bite-sized, digestible tidbits from the Internet. I feel sad about losing the joy of reading I once had, and want to find a way to reintegrate books into my regular diet.

How do you decide what to read, and what not to read? How does your experience differ between your primary information sources? How have you tried to improve?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 12, 2010 at 19:35