When Mental Models Go Stale + Levels of Certainty

Mental models are important.  But we need to always consider how fresh our models are.  I like and agree with Derek Sivers’s take that he normally never immediately responds to most questions because his answer will “be erroneously based upon old and outdated self-knowledge.” So here’s my rant for the morning:  IMHO, people really should attach a confidence interval (or “level of certainty”) with their predictions or comments.  Generally, unless I otherwise specify, I usually speak with around an 80% confidence.  Meaning, I am roughly 80% certain in whatever I’m talking about and in my position.  But sometimes, I am much less or much more certain.  In those cases, I will usually specify.

For example, yesterday a friend asked me about Sam Harris.  I know of Harris and have listened to his podcast before.  But several years back I’d lost interest in him and had stopped listening.  Every single one of his episodes –at least for a stretch that I’d listened to– had devolved into an opening ten minutes of airing grievances.  Whether fairly or unfairly (most likely the latter), I’d come to think of Harris, at least as he presented himself, as “the most aggrieved man in America.”  (Also, his podcast’s old name, Waking Up, always struck me as enormously condescending.  So that was already one strike.  His podcast’s new name, Making Sense, is marginally better but still has a whiff of superiority about it that slightly irks.) As of yesterday, my mental model of Harris had understandably gone stale.  That is, I had no idea what he’s up to nowadays, what news surrounds him, etc.

Thus, when I opined on Sam Harris, I think it was responsible that I gave “my-mental-model-of-him-has-staled” qualifier.  I have data on him that I can convey to you, but my impression is an old impression.  And thus, just being cognizant of that actually makes me more amenable to receiving and processing new information on Harris.  If more people followed these guidelines I’m laying out, I think we’d live in a much saner world.  People should go about being, and sounding, much less certain.  You’re more willing to receive and process new data if your cup isn’t already flowing over. The world is rapidly changing and we’re constantly revising our internal models to approximate what on earth is going on around us. In fact, coupled to this thought: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become infinitely more weary of anyone who sounds certain about anything. In fact, if we ever converse, the more certain you sound, the less I’ll probably think of you. (Also, no offense intended, but if you’re young, this especially applies to you.)

A Special Circle of Heaven for Artists

Often, I contemplate the nature of doing good. Listening to a lot of Sam Harris and Peter Singer unavoidably makes these questions top-of-mind, I suppose. Devising a sensible metric isn’t as straightforward as it may first appear. For instance, one’s mind may gravitate to “obvious” answers such as Mother Theresa, Dr. King, or Gandhi. But a quick read-up on any of them quickly yields heaps of criticism. Mother Theresa, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, believed that “the sick must suffer like Christ on the Cross.” Christopher Hitchens wrote especially scathing take-downs of the patron saint, “[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.”

Meanwhile, there is the entire question of unintended consequences. Setting aside Dr. King’s affairs, there remains a larger unanswerable question whether his non-violent approach itself (a la Gandhi’s as well), was actually “the way to go?” Malcolm X advocated “black nationalism” and a more “any means necessary” philosophy. Is there an alternate version of history, a more violent timeline, that actually ends in more equality and ultimate peace?

Rather than grapple with complicated legacies and unanswerable questions, as I’ve grown older (and my mind less supple to entertain impossible conundrums) I’ve grown to take a different tact: I now firmly believe artists –ie. creative people who produce works that spread inspiration and joy– are probably as good as one’s going to get in this life we lead. Bill Gates is currently on a crusade to save Africa and the most impoverished from malaria. But is Gates just hastening human’s extinction with overpopulation and resource depletion? Similarly, Norman “Dwarf Wheat” Borlaug (winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize)hero or villain?

But with artists, eg. Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Tina Turner, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling– the work they put out into the world has touched the lives of hundreds of millions. Billions, in the long-run. Or I think of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Whether you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, black or white or Hispanic or Asian– it is likely you’ve at one point been touched by Journey or Van Halen— and your day brightened just a little by that interaction. Probably, maybe?

In closing, I feel Salvatore Sanfilippo, creator of Redis, said it best in his recent goodbye letter as he stepped down from the open-source project he helped found. Pretty much sums up my current sentiments exactly:

“I’d rather be remembered as a bad artist than as a good programmer.”

Salvatore Sanfilippo – Creator of Redis


Here are two pieces of advice I’ve found helpful.  The first is one I learned long ago, which has stuck with me for nearly a decade.  It’s never far from top-of-mind whenever I begin a new project.  The second is one I just heard this past weekend on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast interview where he spoke with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street.

One of my favorite stories that I find inspiring comes from the book, Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker.  In the book, Baker recounts the origin story of IBM’s Watson– specifically back in 2011, how IBM conceived and executed the project.  The anecdote that’s always stuck with me is before they embarked upon this multi-billion dollar endeavor, IBM’s Watson team tasked a summer intern who’d just joined with the task of trying to create “Watson” with the most basic, off-the-shelf, open-source software that was commercially and freely available.  They timeboxed it to three weeks and simply let the intern, a bright fellow, I’m sure, wander off into the interwebs and do his thing.  The motivation behind this assignment was to develop a baseline not constrained by conventional thinking.  It’d be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing if the IBM team poured billions into Watson only to have it outperformed by a garage project some rando created in his spare time.

I’ve always found this story compelling because it champions a scrappy and resourceful mindset.  Forget all of the fancy tools, machine learning, expensive vendor solutions, etc.  You’re not always the King of England with superior firepower, vast armies of men, and overwhelming force.  Sometimes you’re Mel Gibson in Scotland and the only things you have are your own two bare hands and your wits.  Learning to build a lean, mean, fighting machine is a healthy approach and good for the human spirit.  After all:  “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”

The second piece of advice comes from Shane Parrish/Warren Buffett:  Choose a domain of knowledge that doesn’t change quickly (Eg. Not technology.)  This way you give your knowledge base a chance to compound and grow.  If you are working in a fast-changing domain, the ground is always shifting beneath your feet making it extremely difficult to build on your terrain of knowledge.

Parrish cites Warren Buffet as an example who, famously, for many decades shied away from technology because Buffett simply felt like he didn’t understand it.  (Now certainly, and by Buffett’s own admission, that ended up being a huge mistake and he left billions on the table, but that’s beside the point.)  Instead, Buffett focused his investments on consumer staples and things like rail transportation.  By focusing on just the few, slow-moving industries that he knew well, Buffett was able to make tremendous amounts of money.

Authorial Responsibility & Burden

In my humble opinion I feel an author possesses exactly zero authorial responsibility and burden apropos meeting some kind of standardized set of social expectations and norms.  I just finished listening to Hank’s Green interview with B&N and also saw that J.K. Rowling has stirred up controversy again, this time for casting Claudia Kim, a South Korean actress, as Nagini from the Harry Potter books.  Apparently this is a huge faux pas because it propagates a sort of “unhealthy ‘Asian Dragon Lady’ stereotype.”

For all the culture warriors out there expressing outrage:  Take a breath, calm yourselves, and please sit down.

Rowling owes all of you people nothing.  The same way Lucas owes all of you people nothing as well.  If you dislike their creative decisions and the choices they’ve made, the door’s right there.  Please show yourself out.

I’ve heard that there are broadly two camps of thinking when it comes to this topic:  Camp A thinks that an artist creates for themselves.  Camp B thinks that the artists creates for their audience.  I plant my flag firmly in Camp A.

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