In this edition: exponential time, magical questions, groupthink, to-don't lists, Wilfred Brimley singing Vanilla Ice, tomato-eating goats, and more.
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Ideas + Insights
The more I go down the AI rabbit hole, I'm beginning to realize that we're living in exponential time:
We can plan for what we can predict (though it is telling that, for the most part, we haven’t). What’s coming will be weirder. I use that term here in a specific way. In his book “High Weirdness,” Erik Davis, the historian of Californian counterculture, describes weird things as “anomalous — they deviate from the norms of informed expectation and challenge established explanations, sometimes quite radically.” That is the world we’re building.
I cannot emphasize this enough: We do not understand these systems, and it’s not clear we even can. I don’t mean that we cannot offer a high-level account of the basic functions: These are typically probabilistic algorithms trained on digital information that make predictions about the next word in a sentence, or an image in a sequence, or some other relationship between abstractions that it can statistically model. But zoom into specifics and the picture dissolves into computational static.
Speaking of AI, if you're not using it in your writing, are you making a mistake?
It’s a mistake to ignore the risks posed by these large language models (LLMs), which range from making up facts to belligerent behavior to the possibility that even sophisticated users will begin thinking the AI is sentient. (It’s not.) But ... it would also be a mistake to miss what the existence of these systems means, concretely, right now, for jobs that consist of producing text. Which includes a lot of us: journalists like me, but also software engineers, academics and other researchers, screenwriters, HR staffers, accountants, hell, anyone whose job requires what we used to call paperwork of any kind.
Sometimes, you've just got to ask for things. Here are three "magical questions" that make asking easier:
1. “Is there any other way to…?” This is probably my all-time favorite question. You can phrase it lots of ways in many different situations. In effect, you are rejecting a proposed offer (rule/guideline/norm/etc) and looking for alternatives. Very often, of course, the answer is yes, there’s at least one other way to accomplish pretty much everything. Probably even several other ways at minimum. Once that point has been established, everything else tends to get easier.
2. “Can you help me with …?” Another general question with many use cases, this question makes things personal by directly appealing for personal help.
3. “What would you suggest here…?” A bit less personal than the previous one, this question invites the other person to brainstorm with you. Maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe they know the specific magical question that would change everything—but they’re not just going to volunteer it without being asked for input. So, ask.
You all know I'm a sucker for these "lessons learned" posts, but there are some gems in this one, including these.
The time will pass anyway. Maybe it’ll take you five or ten years to succeed at whatever you want to do. Well, those ten years will pass anyway. In ten years you can either have made progress on your goals, or still be whining about how long things take.
Someone else has already solved your problems. Unless you’re at the fringes of science and technology your problems are not new, people have been dealing with some form of them for thousands of years. Read books, they’ll give you answers.
Most of the world is held together with duct tape. The last 5-10% of everything seems to get slapped together at the last minute. It’s just hard to see in any area where you aren’t an expert. Don’t worry about living duct-tape-free.
When you're frustrated with someone at work, start by asking these questions of yourself, first:
1. Have I been clear about expected work outcomes? 2. Are my expectations reasonable? 3. What do I know to be true about this employee? 4. Am I managing to results? 5. Am I holding everyone to the same standard? 6. Am I providing actionable feedback that is clear, firm, and kind?
This might be more "Yes, and ..." than "Either/Or," but when you're stuck, consider making a To-Don't List:
This is a bit of a mind-bender, I know. But stay with me here. The via negativa, at its core, is about recognizing that when you don’t know the right way forward, you might succeed by focusing on what you know to be wrong instead. If you have been feeling stuck—in, say, your job or relationship—but don’t know exactly what to do to make things better, the via negativa might be exactly what you need.
Is your group groupthinking?
Groupthink serves as an attempt to protect a collective identity by helping to maintain positive social characteristics. This may be especially true when the group feels under threat. Rather than share alternative views, the group effort is directed towards “maintaining a shared positive view of the functioning of the group”. This is achieved by ensuring consensus at all times, regardless of how sensible the decision is.
Jason Kottke has been blogging for twenty-five years for the same reasons I used to blog (and now write this newsletter):
I had a personal realization recently: kottke.org isn’t so much a thing I’m making but a process I’m going through. A journey. A journey towards knowledge, discovery, empathy, connection, and a better way of seeing the world. Along the way, I’ve found myself and all of you. I feel so so so lucky to have had this opportunity.
Apparently, you can judge a book by its cover.
Browse and download hi-res copies of classical and modern art at Artvee.
Uncanny Matrix Mashup Featuring Wilfred Brimley. Watch this.
Words of Wisdom
Stop trying to make people believe what you believe. Try to make them believe that you believe it - Ed Mylett
Don't waste your life riding the brakes. – Julie Gurner
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” —F.M. Alexander
“The biggest obstacle to increasing your self-awareness is the tendency to avoid the discomfort that comes from seeing yourself as you really are.” – Travis Bradberry
"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." – Epicurus
"There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen." — Vladimir Lenin