Speaking of Mental Models

Plate Residing

“There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference, and it’s a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

There is a picture of a dog–a windable toy dog–and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says “What makes it move?” Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, “What makes it move?” Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, “What makes it move?” and so on.

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.

What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.

The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.”

―Richard Feynman
What is Science?

It’s very useful to talk about mental models, but if they are invoked as explanations in themselves, “nothing whatever is learned”. What are these mental representations? Are they how we think? What we think?

Here’s a big list of them: Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful. As I look down the list, I mostly see abstract constructs that most likely would never influence behavior in the moment.

How does one drive an abstract concept like “Sunk Losses” deeply enough into one’s psychology that the next time it comes to deciding whether to get off the highway to get gas, this heuristic actually comes into play? Somehow they most become habits, true mental models of how the world is perceived in the moment. They must be known, not applied.

A mental model can only become an unconscious mental habit with deliberate practice that develops an effective mental representation. That mental representation is, at the brain level, no longer a concept but a set of connections that lead to a perception that works better in the world, that improves performance. Mental models without consequence don’t concern us if the goal is deciding better.

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”
Gregory Bateson
*Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity*

Searching for the Victorians

Obviously NOT ART

“Our life consists of materials that have not been assimilated. Where is the centered mid that can absorb all that we have collectively wrought and make poetry–or any art–from it? Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

I am often puzzled by the abandonment of the modern idea of art making progress. Have we reached our maturity? For the most part, music being made now could have been made 20 years ago. When I graduated from high school in 1974, our music and art seemed light years away from the art, music and culture of 1954.

Is this a pause? A period of historical quiet?

Or perhaps the change is going on all around us and since we’re living it, we’re too close to notice how much the world has changed in ways that don’t involve how a guitar is played or how paint is put on a canvas. Maybe this transition to the abstracted world of digital media will be viewed as one of the most significant shifts in centuries. A time when the physical became substrate and data became the world in which we live.

Those who were born into the old ways fear that we now live in a world with no reading, no contemplation, no intelligence outside of the hive mind of Twitter. A loss of human interaction.

Instead of worrying about what we’ve lost (it’s not coming back), why not look around at the birth of the new art?

“Although often grouped together under the banner of “mathematics,” the techniques and attitudes of pure and applied forms diverged significantly in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, pure mathematics and its associated realm of symbolic logic had become so abstract and removed from what the general public saw as math—that is, numbers and geometric shapes—that Bertrand Russell could famously conclude in 1901 (in a Seinfeldian moment) that mathematics was a science about nothing. It was a set of signs and operations completely divorced from the real world.” Searching for the Victorians Dan Cohen

Digging Deeper

The Size and Shape of It

“In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

In creative endeavors, there’s a sense of exploring one’s own mind. Memories, ideas are somehow in there already, but need room to emerge, activity like writing to be shaped, formed and presented whole to others. While inside, unknown, then at least just half formed.

Drilling down in the neural layer, these are those connections and experiences that have imprinted themselves but are forgotten or never brought to a higher level of abstration as concepts mapped as metaphors of other feelings, events or qualities of the world.

To bring those impressions to the point where they are telling the truth is an act of relaxation, of removing filters, so that the metaphors are both accurate and original, not mere reflections of conventional wisdom.

“You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

My Relationship With the Sky

My Relationship to the Sky

“Access to the internet was supposed to be this great, liberating force. “You can’t stop the signal!” (Obscure cultural reference. Apologies if you don’t get it. Google it.) Gatekeepers” were going to be swept aside. “Sources go direct!” Formerly, gatekeepers were the people who controlled access to mass media; publishers, editors, producers. With the internet, my little blog could theoretically reach as large an audience as any form of conventional media. The capacity to disseminate information exploded exponentially. The capacity of individuals to receive and process information changed not one whit. With the “gatekeepers” swept away, people were left to their own devices to decide where to give their attention.” Dave Rogers The Internet and the Age of Ignorance

The cloud metaphor that we’ve settled on to describe where the world of the internet resides seems quite apt. I know the sky is real, but it’s out of reach and its contents so attenuated that it can never be directly experienced anyway. It is the sky and clouds from the ground.

In such an unreal place, reality loses its weight. In the world, we try hard to be our authentic selves, embarrassed when we act in ways inconsistent with who we believe we are. Actions have real consequences, so we’re careful about what we say and how we say it. Or at least we try.

In this attenuated, unreal world online we seem freed from those constraints. Things are said on the internet, in public, that one would not say in a public place even if said anonymously. Because in the real world, words have consequences.

It seems to me that some of this is spilling over into our real world, so that belief is no longer of any consequence. What if we start adopting a mental model that there is no true, no right or wrong statements? I can choose to believe in climate change or believe it’s a plot to increase government power over the citizenry. Out and out lying, distortions of fact, become acceptable techniques of persuasion. as we become used to the past disappearing down the news feed within minutes. Repeat anything that supports a chosen belief, since it all flies away into to the wind. In a perpetual now of frayed and fractured attention.

Isn’t the problem just that we’ve allowed ourselves to become suckers for the new monopolists of the attention economy? I believe that there is a growing realization that those who don’t seize control of the technology will be washed away in the ease of it all. Either use these remarkable tools or watch. It may be that modernity is ending with the end of cheap oil and start of climate change; tougher times are likely coming. And that calls for revised mental models that fit the new reality. Not the reality we see in the shapes of clouds or even the old reality of cheap energy and the US as the world’s greatest industrial and military power.

“We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed” **Bill McKibben** *Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet*

Relationship Between Clerical Burden and Characteristics of the Electronic Environment With Physician Burnout and Professional Satisfaction – Mayo Clinic Proceedings

Rock, Table, Morning

“More and more I believe that art—via imagination—is the necessary counter to our information-glut crisis. I explain this by referring back to the root concepts of imagination and information. Imagination is a formative inward power, independent and generative. Information, by contrast, and by original definition, imparts inner form from the outside. To be informed is to receive the print of ideas or—and again I heed the etymology—impressions. Imagination creates shape; information imposes shape.” Sven Birkerts

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

We are all great photographers now. Anyone with an iPhone can create a perfectly exposed, perfectly focused image. With just a bit of thought and awareness, composition of the image is without imagination with a direct view of the image, followed by instant feedback once the picture is taken. Post-processing is assisted by algorithms that create interesting looks with no effort. Event traditional darkroom techniques of adjusting contrast and exposure or local adjustment of light and dark (dodging and burning) can be done right on the phone. No money, skill or training is required to publish the image to the entire world on a social media platform like Twitter, Flickr or Instagram.

Awash in images, the value of a good image is devalued. The image on this page was captured this morning and post-processed with 6 different algorithmic engines in about 10 minutes. I’ll admit it has less value to me than if I had begun the morning in the darkroom developing a roll of film and then printing later this afternoon after it had dried. Yet taking the image and adjusting it to reflect how I feel at the moment was no less genuine, just faster and less important today. And here it is to share with hundreds on Flickr and the few who will read these thoughts.

Like many photographers of a certain age, I remember vividly seeing my first print emerge on paper in the darkroom under the red safelight. It wasn’t instrumental, it was purely experiential, seeing how film and paper transformed a particular view at a certain moment into a flat image with the impression of light and odd effects that were no longer at all what had been there. The smell of stop bath.

It’s hard to make a living as a photographer now. It’s no longer a life of collecting images on slides and providing them to a stock photography vendor. Magazines no longer support the artisans that supplied them images. Our best photographers today are performers, engaging us via social media and selling us vision in return for clicks.

But that’s the value proposition of the image and its maker, not the value of making an image. Making it faster and easier is an aid to imagination, not an impediment. Let’s use the speed and lightness of the virtual to soar. Turning doctors into clerks with Electronic Medical Records is a major contributor to burnout

Disembodied World

The Isolated Field

We are victims of the post-Enlightenment view that the world functions like a sophisticated machine, to be understood like a textbook engineering problem and run by wonks. In other words, like a home appliance, not like the human body. Nassim Nicholas Taleb Via Nicolas Bate

Let’s say the mind is separate from the body; maybe it can be optimized like an industrial process. If the mind is software running on the hardware of the brain, maybe it can be debugged and, gradually, perfected.

On the other hand, if mind is just what the brain does, then as the world affects our brains, the changes become what we think. As we scatter our attention through the always available immaterial world of digital devices, we must become physically attenuated as well. A book or a photograph represent a reality one step away, but one that we can mentally step into and inhabit. Email, messaging and social media are all many steps away–bigger, wider, less personal and less immediate.

Perhaps we become diffuse, abstract and extended in a disintermediated online world. Faster and less solid, having lost its “specific gravity”. It’s all too easy to be part of the crowd in world where nothing is real or permanent.

Then we leave the infrastructure- the computer systems, smart phones, social media platforms, mapping programs, music selection, all for those very clever technologists to run and further optimize, providing us more content, ever faster, all free. Leaving the world to be run by those who know how to minister to the machines that provide our virtual experience, never understanding that we ourselves have become the product, no longer the agent, no longer ourselves. Left with an urge to be real.

Half the people buying vinyl don’t actually bother listening to it: “


“That we have a different, much diminished sense of human presence now; that what might be called the specific gravity of things––objects, events––is lessened in proportion to the expansion of our field of awareness.” Sven Birkerts Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

There was long an expectation that as worker productivity increased, wages would increase. After all, if I can do the work of two, then I should earn twice as much. Or at least make more for my increased output.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, does it? As we do more we receive no more. In fact, as work gets easier it’s value is diminished. Where a skilled short order cook once stood now stands a burger production machine, taking frozen, preformed patties at one end of the conveyer belt and depositing tasty finished food at the other. It’s operator is diminished.

As Birkerts points out in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, we’re increasingly removed from the world, just as we no longer touch our vinyl LPs, our relationship to streamed music is diminished. We rely on Google Maps and never experience the space, not even as represented on a paper map.

As it now all just happens, its of very little value. As we experience more and more in this attenuated manner, we value the experience less. Should we be surprised that we ourselves are now also valued less? Producing nothing real, we are really just the controllers of nothing of substance. We feel.

Increasing the “specific gravity” of experience, feeling its true weight, is a start in returning to reason. The feeling of loss is not mere nostalgia, it is a yearning for real purpose.

“Twenty men crossing a bridge, Into a village, Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges, Into twenty villages.” Wallace Stevens Metaphors of a Magnifico

The View Back

Dried Pomegranate

“In its most complete meaning, intellectual humility is accurate self-awareness from a distance.” David Brooks The Road to Character

Temperament is innate. Just as we are determined to be short or tall, we are calm or reactive by nature. The qualities we bring into the world shapes personality and character because they affect how we react to the world, how the world treats us and thus determine how the world occurs to us: our model of who we are and what to expect.

Brooks, in The Road to Character, wants to provide us with infinite flexibility to whoever we aspire to be, stating “character is not innate or automatic”. On the contrary, it seems to me that character is just as automatic as everything mental quality. If you want to change it, it will take the same kind of deliberate practice that it takes to become a good chess player or musician. One can indeed become one of the character elites.

Brooks, I think is just further participating in the elevation of the self by promoting “character” as another elite pursuit. Of course we want to be rich, but we also want to have a beautiful, heartfelt elegy at our funeral.

From his purely secular viewpoint, Brooks wants to appropriate religious ideals like gratitude and humility, but apparently doesn’t see that the abandonment of these religious and spiritual tradition themselves serves to promote a worship of self above all. If there is something bigger, we are dwarfed and humbled automatically. If not, we are alone as ourselves.

For example, his chapter on vocation is in contradiction to my view that a job is a job. We need to work to live. Some few do work that they are called to or do work more important than just making a living. But most of us sell things or make things, that’s all and its how it has to be. It’s not a moral failure to need to make a buck.

No, it’s how we do the work before us and how we spend our allotted time that we must strive to make better. Maybe it is not ourselves we must improve but rather improve what we do and say. It’s the integration of self and the mental models we possess that allow deciding better in the moment.

“I suspect it is for one’s self-interest that one looks at one’s surroundings and one’s self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for making photographs. The camera is not merely a reflecting pool and the photographs are not exactly the mirror, mirror on the wall that speaks with a twisted tongue. Witness is borne and puzzles come together at the photographic moment which is very simple and complete. The mind-finger presses the release on the silly machine and it stops time and holds what its jaws can encompass and what the light will stain.” Lee Friedlander

Privacy and the Extended Mind

Our thoughts inhabit the most private of spaces. The brain activity an individual perceives as mind is completely inaccessible to any one else. Others know our thoughts only through what we say. There is an absolute ownership of mind based on the metaphysics of the activity, one no police or court can access.

I paused when I read this suggestion that smartphones could share the privileged privacy of mind:

I wonder if every future iPhone product announcement comes wrapped in a message about the importance of smartphones as “an extension of ourselves,” as Cook said today. If you read between the lines, that sure sounds like an argument that smartphones should be a warrant-proof space like the one between our ears. Tea and scones in Cupertino: The “Loop You In” Apple event – Six Colors

Is it possible that the theory of extended cognition of Andy Clark and others is reaching a wider audience and affected how we think about our personal devices? Clark and others suggest that the physical basis of mind should include parts of the world outside the brain used for thinking or to aid memory. It may follow that if mind is embodied both in the brain and in the physical artifacts that we use to aid thinking, then of course the smartphone could held to be as private as the brain itself.

Speech and writing are not privileged in the same way as thought because once words are put out into the world, others can perceive and interpret the symbols for themselves. But a private language or a coded communication is completely privileged. Of course, a government could ask for those artifacts to be decoded or interpreted, but that’s no different from them asking the brain what it’s thinking. One can simply refuse to answer, refuse to decode, refuse to provide the password. Can the government break into the mind without permission?

Just as thought is encrypted in the brain through its physical medium of neurons and synapses, so are symbols deeply hidden in an encrypted phone. As I contemplate the mind, arising from the interaction of brain with the world, I see the logic in extending the private nature of mind to the personal devices used for extended cognition.

P-Values Are For Small Worlds

This week, the American Statistical Association released a statement on “Statistical Significance and P-Values”. The statistical community is trying to help us with  the problem we’ve gotten ourselves into in science by confusing “statisticial significance” with “truth”.

The validity of scientific conclusions, including their reproducibility, depends on more than the statistical methods themselves. Appropriately chosen techniques, properly conducted analyses and correct interpretation of statistical results also play a key role in ensuring that conclusions are sound and that uncertainty surrounding them is represented properly.

The statement by the ASA alludes to the broader issue I’ve begun discussing in the context of Savage’s Small vs Big World dichotomy. Statistical significance is a simple mathematical calculation that holds true within the “small world” of the sample and the questioned asked of the data. The problems arise from overgeneralizing the principles of probability into realms of uncertainty where they no longer apply.

An Example

All me to provide a simple example. If I measure the height of a few Dutchmen, there’s clearly utility in summarizing the central tendency (mean) and the spread of the distribution (standard deviation). These distributional statements are true in the small world exercise of collecting data, making measurements, using some partictular scale, etc. But the relationship of my calcuations to the “real” height of Dutchmen is a more complicated.

For example, If I now move on to measure the height of a sample of New Yorkers, I’ll have a second sample to compare to the Dutchmen. And with the small world of these two measures, I can summarize and even make a statistical inference about the difference between my sample of Dutchmen and my sample of New Yorkers.

As soon as I decide that I need to  actually  determine whether Dutchmen are really taller than New Yorkers for some real world decision, I’ve moved onto a question to determine “Truth”. In the real world, concluding the Dutch are taller than New Yorkers matters once I decide to act on the result. As William James wrote in Pragmatism:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.

So if my real problem is to decide how long the beds for my New York hotel need to be in order to accomodate my usual New York customers and the occasional Dutchman, the question may need to be recast, probably involving the extremes of height, tourist samples and the available length of hotel beds. Perhaps there is a value proposition as well. How many Dutchmen am I willing to distress with a too short bed? What’s the price of extra long beds and bedding? The truth will be known by the satisfaction of my customers and the profitability of my hotel.

Do We Verify in Drug Development?

The truth in medicine and drug development is similarly real world, but our proof comes from the smaller world of a clinical trial or two. I can compare the cardiac output of patients with MI in the presence or absence of a new drug, a small world, mathematical comparison. But once my question moves on to the real world value of the medicine, the question is recast into a large world question and the small world statistical model is one part of the larger question of whether I will accept the efficacy of the drug as true or not.

The truth in medicine will be known by the patients, by the cost to those who pay for the medication. Yet we tend to rely solely on the small world result of the clinical trial, a result that we generally fail to “validate,  corroborate and verify”