Colin Dickey: Tempo Shifts

by Venkat on February 24, 2015

Colin Dickey has a great article on Berfrois called Tempo Shifts on the Gregorian reform. Here’s an extract:

The Gregorian Reform was motivated initially by religious purposes: the slippage was moving Easter farther into summer, creating problems with the festival calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The solution devised by the Church was first to remove Leap Days from three out of four centennial years (thus, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 would not by Leap Years, but 2000 would), bringing the calendar closer in line to the actual solar year. Additionally, ten days were to be dropped from the Calendar to bring Easter back in line with its date in the fourth century, when it was first established by the Council of Nicea. October 5-14, 1582, the Pope decreed, would disappear.

Read the whole thing. Great subplot on Guardian versus Trader uses of time (ecclesiastical versus commercial calendars have different needs).

HT: Alan Martin.


When Monitoring a Behavior Makes it Worse

by Venkat on November 16, 2014

I’ve been doing some idle life-logging experimentation for the past two months with a Google Form and some simple Matlab analysis (project repo here). It was partly motivated by trying to operationalize some of my thinking around habit formation and falling off the wagon/getting back on, and partly by the vague idea that I might in the future unbundle Tempo into small idea chunks and rebundle those into an app, instead of writing a second edition.

In the two months, I learned a few interesting lessons big and small. Some were about the right way to log and analyze behaviors, others were about the nature of behaviors and habits themselves. All very interesting.

But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was about the very idea of monitoring behaviors (with anything from a diary to an app) is that if you measure a behavior, it generally gets worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all.

Kinda like if you think too much about how you work the brake and accelerator while driving, you’ll suddenly start fumbling/jerking awkwardly like a student driver.

I think there are two things going on here:

  1. When you bring up any habit for conscious inspection with a tool, you regress from unconscious competence to conscious incompetence (see shu-ha-ri). This happens because most of your later mastery is unconscious, and paying conscious attention to what you’re doing suspends the unconscious parts.
  2. When the habit is a creative habit, there is an additional factor. For an uncreative habit, feedback of error via inspection or monitoring triggers dumb corrective actions. If you’re drifting out of your lane and your fancy new car beeps, you just steer back in. But if your monitoring is telling you that your “hit rate” for successful blog posts as a fraction of all blog posts is falling, there is no obvious action you can take to fix it. So being sensitized to the gap just increases anxiety, which makes performance worse.

The first is a manageable problem in a thoughtfully designed tool that foregrounds and manages the trade-off by setting the right expectations: “warning: this logging/monitoring app will make things worse before it makes it better, like any skill-learning aid.”

The second is a much more serious one. When the right response to a feedback error is a creative action, the tradeoff is between knowing more about the “stuck” situation versus heightened anxiety that prevents you from doing much with the data. Arguably, in this regime, the right way to handle the tradeoff is to turn off the monitoring and go open-loop for a while, trusting creative play behaviors to generate an event that unsticks you.

I think this is why common self-improvement goals like weight loss run aground once you hit the existing homeostasis point.  If your body set-point is say 150 lb and you are at 155 lbs due to too much Thanksgiving and Christmas over-eating, the diet-and-exercise routine in response to what you see on the scale everyday is enough to get you back to 150 lb. But if you’re hovering in the noise zone around 150 lbs (say +/- 2 lbs) and want to move the setpoint itself to 140 lbs, you need a creative lifestyle shift.

Watching the scale daily is not helpful in achieving this goal. You need something else.

I am not entirely sure about how to approach this interesting problem, but for starters, I think it’s useful to segment tools and behavior modification projects into two kinds: sustaining projects (no set points need to move, no creativity needed) and disruptive projects (set points need to move, creative insights needed). They are two very different regimes of behavior modification, and inspection/feedback/monitoring tools work very differently in the two regimes.

I believe we fall off the wagon when we have to shift between these regimes.



I Will Not Rest Until…

October 12, 2014

It recently struck me that only one sort of person makes statements of the form I will not rest until X: politicians. Usually in the context of some sort of holy-warrior mission like reforming healthcare, killing all infidels or exacting revenge. It’s a mark of a pursuit motivated by priceless values. For the rest of us, there […]

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When is a Year not a Year?

September 2, 2014

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales […]

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Why Sleeping-In Makes You More Tired

August 27, 2014

There’s a good article in Wired about why oversleeping doesn’t help. We’ve all been there: It’s been a long week at work, so Friday night, you reward yourself by going to bed early and sleeping in. But when you wake up the next morning (or afternoon), light scathes your eyes, and your limbs feel like […]

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The Four Seasons of Lifehacking

August 5, 2014

Seattle is the farthest north I’ve ever lived, at 47.61 degrees. At this latitude, the longest day is about 16 hours and the shortest is about 8.5 hours, a range of 7.5 hours. Late summer months can get quite hot. Previously, the farthest north I’d lived was Rochester, NY (43 degrees). There, the day length […]

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How Different Cultures Understand Time

July 17, 2014

There’s an interesting article in Business Insider about how different cultures understand time (ht Nikolay Bezhko). It includes this neat graphic.     The article is rather limited (does not mention the very relevant books by Robert Levine, Jay Griffiths and Jeremy Rifkin on the subject), but does make several interesting observations.

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Effort Shock and Reward Shock

July 9, 2014

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in recent times is the idea of effort shock. It’s in a great post by David Wong of Cracked, How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World.   It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I […]

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Language and Strategy

June 25, 2014

This fascinating article (HT: Mark Maxham) explores a Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard and crew meet a species that communicates entirely through metaphor and narrative. The article draws a smart (and in my opinion, correct) lesson from the episode: “Strategy” is perhaps the best metaphor of all for the Tamarian phenomenon the Federation misnames metaphor. A strategy is a […]

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Time, Money and Bandwidth

June 16, 2014

The NYT has an interesting piece on the psychology of poverty, No Money, No Time: My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only […]

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