On Packing Better

There is a difference between reducing complexity by deciding better and just artificially reducing choice through enforced “simplicity”. It is better, from a decision theory point of view, to have three shirts to choose from than to own only one shirt and lack choice.

With choice comes the chance for a better outcome. But don’t make the mistake of preserving choice instead of making choices.

I always think of packing as a great example of this. Better to decide well what to pack and travel light than to postpone choice and drag around too much for just in case scenarios. I see think is project planning. There are situations that call for robust plans with low failure probability and times for fast flexible plans that may need a trip back to the drawing board.

In the spirit of minimalism, I support the use of Folios

OTC Recommends: The Leather Document Folio | Off the Cuff: “”

True, folios have limited space and can never really compete with the functionality of a messenger bag or roomy elegance of a soft sided brief bag. You always have to hold it, or tuck it under your arm, and often there is no outside slash pocket for a paper or metro pass. But such limitations are to me a big part of their charm.

By necessity I am forced to shed most of the stuff I habitually carry around but never really use. It is simplification by requirement.

Part of the charm of the folio is enforcing the discipline to decide better. When appropriate.

The Challenge of the Blank Sheet of Paper

A clean sheet of paper.

The open road. A new programming language

All examples of limitless possibilities. And where decisions can’t be made because alternatives are not refined.

Here even values don’t help because the is simultaneously everything to choose from but nothing to do.

Create a plan?  Doodle and wait for direction from within or without?

The first principle of Deciding Better is to decide to decide. We’re making decisions all the time, whether we are aware of the choices or not. In order to decide better, its critical to begin to be conscious about decisions. And we know that decisions can only be made in the present. A choice is an action and actions by definition are events in the “now”. You can’t do anything in the past or the future and, by extension it’s impossible to make decide to do something in the future. It’s impossible to change a decision made in the past as well of course.

The blank sheet of paper challenges this approach. How can decisions be made when there are no choices on offer? A blank sheet of paper provides no list of alternatives. Decision Theory suggests that the proper procedure is to brainstorm to create a list of all possible alternatives and then use some value weighting system to choose the best of the alternatives. Am I supposed to list all of the possible things to write? Fiction, non-fiction, lists, drawings . . .  Drawings of what? Fish, birds, building, people, microbes, maps . . .

Way too many possibilities to enumerate. More buckets that I have at my disposal.

It’s well known that too many choices can be as much of a problem as too few choices. In fact we feel most comfortable when there is no choice at all. But at least give me clear alternatives. This in part I believe is behind the flight to simplicity we see these days. As a response to excess we reject complexity all together. Just simplify my life. Make it easy for me. Clear alternatives that represent real values.

Faced with the blank sheet of paper, I believe that the right place to look is in the opposite direction. Not at the paper but into the viewer of the paper.  Look within. The blank paper, the tool on the bench or the computer language has nothing to offer except the possibility of action. It is the actor, not the tool that needs simplification.

There has to be some model that is inside us that provides the list of possible actions to take with that blank sheet of paper. This is a reduction of complexity within ourselves which in principle is no different from reducing complexity in any other domain of making decisions, creating simplified models.

Extended Cognition

Wouldn’t be nice to extend your brain with technology? Improved memory,?More acute vision? The ability to see distant places without moving?

But don’t we actually do these things every day with our available technology?

The Path From Apple’s Newton to Evernote

The basic idea was really simple. We figured that no one is really fully satisfied with our normal brains, with our normal memory. Everyone wants a better brain. And a few years ago, it looked like technology was finally at a point where it would be viable to try to build a service to be your secondary brain – your external brain.

This in some sense what Andy Clark means by Extended Cognition.

We view ourselves as a mind limited within a body. Subjectively, we generally feel like we’re located behind our eyes, between our ears. This is the self perceives with the senses and controls the motor apparatus.

There are several hard questions about this sense of consciousness. What exactly is it? Where is it located? Does it really exist in a physical sense or is it just an illusion, a byproduct of a complex functioning brain? Is it unique to brains or could a computer possess it? Animals? Is it dependent on language?

In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed what I think turns out to be a new and useful perspective. Instead of the disembodied mind of Descarte’s dualism or the embodied mind of Lakoff’s neurobiological conception, they place the mind across both the brain and its extended environment. It had seemed to me over the last few years that there had to be some reality to the conceptual world. I think this was Plato’s intuition as well, but he didn’t have a good metaphor for understanding why, for example, mathematics is real. The embodied mind exists in a world where math works, so the metaphor of math is a useful mental model in the brain. But on reflection, it seems that these metaphors have a fuzzy boundary and aren’t purely interior. When I read and become absorbed in the text or listen to music and see the patterns of sound, I lose my sense of being located in my head. Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi is that sense of immersion when the boundary of self dissolves.

Extending the location of consciousness, the mind, to include objects outside of the borders of the body leads to some interesting ways to look at clarifying values and making decisions. In essence, once the borders of in here and out there are made less absolute, then it becomes easier to understand how abstractions and concepts can be influential in the real world.

And it blurs the line between self and object- whether computer or notebook. Self and other people and organizations. A broader sense of identity.