Seeing Through Lenses

Raw, unfiltered sense experience is a crushing torrent of stimulus. In the same way that a machine learning algorithm extracts relevant features from its inputs, the human mind seeks patterns in the mess of activity passing through it.

To “make sense” of anything, we are always relying on some Way of Seeing. You can think of it as a “lens” through which the stimulus hitting our senses gets interpreted.

A lens highlights some parts of experience, while inevitably hiding others. What gets highlighted constrains which actions feel relevant or possible.

Many people that are drawn to doing design work enjoy looking at the world through a lens of usability and human interaction. A button on a remote control is interpreted from the perspective of how humans might interact with it — what they expect the button to do or how easy it is to press. A public park is perceived in terms of where people might be able to sit or what kinds of activities might occur in the open spaces.

There is a different, although related, lens that is often used by artists. They like to view the world in terms of aesthetics. Rather than concern over convenience or ease of interaction, they perceive in terms of beauty and emotional impact.

Combining these two can be difficult. You have to synthesize different perspectives — use different lenses. The results can be impressive when done well.

And yet, there is no “one true lens” to rule them all.

There is no single optimal or “correct” way to interpret the world. It depends on what you care about or want to accomplish. The relevance of a lens is a function of the context within which it is used. Any lens comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

The iPhone is a good example of a synthesis of several lenses, but there are inevitable trade-offs. Usability must be sacrificed for aesthetic appeal, and vice versa. Which is more important, which is correct? There is no objective truth here.

Most people can access many lenses but inevitably find some more rewarding, or easier to use, than others. The lenses they practice more end up being their strong suits and become even more relied upon. It can be easy to forget how different lenses impact people.

The different ways of seeing of a Democrat and a Republican can sometimes make communication all but impossible.

When someone’s views seem incomprehensible, consider that they may be using a different lens than you. What might yours be missing that theirs can see?

Three Stonecutters Inverted

Do we justly elevate those with sweeping visions and grand aspirations?

The parable of the three stone cutters, as popularized by Peter Drucker:

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Drucker is not indifferent between these motivations. He sees the second stonecutter’s drive and thirst for excellence as meritorious — capturing the American spirit. Even better is the third stonecutter, however, perhaps because of his grand scale and desire for impact. Drucker suggests that it’s his broader vision and contribution to a structure that unites past and future. The other stonecutters lack awareness of this big picture.

Consider an alternative perspective.

The first seems to be “just” working for a living. What does that mean in practice? Likely, he is inspired by love for his family and those closest to him. He is motivated by the practical necessity of quelling hunger. He is aware that his family depends on him for survival. By materially providing for the lives of others, his labors serve a greater purpose. Communities and nations are built up out of tight circles of families and friendships, not generic people or citizens.

The second is merely doing the “best job” he can. This seems individualistic and perhaps even self-indulgent. Why bother perfecting stonecutting? However, his drive to constantly improve can serve as an inspiration to others. By highlighting the beauty that is everywhere hidden in plain sight, others can find fresh appreciation for the everyday. His obsession with his craft can even elevate it to an art.

The third is inspired by doing big things. He wants to make a lasting impact and turn man towards “higher” ideals. He highlights his desire to toil for the common good — a cathedral that all can benefit from. He serves an amorphous, anonymous peopledom — pure altruism. Or, at least, that is what he wants everyone to think. It’s certainly a good story and captures our attention — just see how Drucker elevates this man.

Any yet, they all engage in fundamentally the same activity. Some just have a more flattering story.

I’m increasingly skeptical of the consequences of elevating the third stonecutter at the expense of the others. If I met these three men on the street, I am tempted to reverse the ordering: I am more likely to want to trust the first over the second, and the second over the third.

Interpersonal Legibility

Interpersonal legibility is approximated by how quickly a stranger can grok you. Choosing how legible we want to appear involves making an interesting trade-off.

On one extreme we can become a Deleuzian persona of “pure difference”. You are totally free to be “yourself” but simultaneously you present as an enigma to others. You are totally unique but also hard to understand — you find yourself on your own planet. Think John C. Lilly.

On the other hand, if you maximize your interpersonal legibility you become a stereotype. You appear as an “average” — an everyman. People will think they can quickly understand you but the “you” on display is likely in tension with how you see yourself. “Oh, he’s just a NYC finance-type”.

We shape our legibility to negotiate a balance between being inscrutable and being uninteresting.

Navigating the balance of interpersonal eligibility is a good case of Scott Alexander’s “law of equal and opposite advice”. Some people may find themselves feeling more connected to others if they become more legible, whereas others may benefit from getting weirder.

Everything in motion

My biggest takeaway from 10+ years working in algo trading is a visceral sense of how everything is in motion. The software we build relies on libraries and tools which are constantly changing. The hardware stack, from the telecom infrastructure to the processor cache, improves every year. The exchange’s rules are subject to revision, along with their software approximations of those rules. The people in the business move between institutions, and institutions themselves come and go. Nothing stands still — everything is constantly inching forward, or at least in some direction.


When we find a solution to a real-world problem, we create an intrinsically-unstable piece of knowledge. The knowledge is unstable because it relies on lots of other parts standing still. But all those little parts are themselves subject to the wheel of change. When we have an insight and want to take advantage of it, it helps to remember that the knowledge is time-sensitive and decaying. The knowledge is pointing to “things” but those things aren’t static — mere patterns that are soon to be memories. Eventually, everything rearranges and most knowledge becomes obsolete. We can piss or get off the pot, and if we stick around long enough the pot will disappear.


I rarely beat myself up for trying and failing, whereas in retrospect the prospect of failure feels very scary. Failure can often be made less costly than the suffering we later call upon ourselves for failing to act.

Where are you heading?

There are at least two ways to answer this question.

You can speak of where you want to go. This is the story you tell about your Self — usually, a story that allows you to look good and feel proud. To some extent, this story is wishful thinking. But not completely. By putting aspirations into words, we nudge ourselves towards acting in their direction. If only by suggestion, or when we are otherwise indifferent between two actions. On the margin, this story we tell starts to influence the choices we make.

Alternatively, you can answer the question of “Where are you heading?” by looking at the actions you take. Assuming you knew nothing about yourself — and had no access to your stories or aspirations — except the visible actions you took today, yesterday, last week, and last month… where does it look like you are heading? Even better, if you have the courage: ask someone you know relatively well where they think you are heading.

The distance between these two answers is a measure of how much you are fighting yourself.

Motivation: universal solvent

One factor separates spinning my wheels in life and making exhilarating progress: motivation. How motivated am I to do the thing that I’m trying to do? How yummy does it feel? 

You can try all the psychological tools, productivity techniques, or rationality strategies in the book, but if you don’t feel motivated to do the thing then you’re going to suffer and the result will disappoint. Conversely, when you’re starving and seek food, you will reliably surprise yourself with the kinds of challenges you can overcome.

In the same way that water can dissolve more substances than any other liquid, motivation can dissolve pretty much any problem you can think of.

The best part is, it doesn’t matter where your motivation comes from. It doesn’t matter how it works and you don’t need to try to control it. You can pretend like it’s magical — some combination of past experiences. Given the hand you’ve been dealt, what can you do with it? Find what’s yummy and allow yourself to become an expert at that. If you’re not doing what’s yummy or trying to get yourself to find other things yummy (“wanting to want”), you are torturing yourself. This is a choice you’re making.

Patterns of distraction

While meditating, my mind often wanders. The style of that wandering isn’t random. The majority of the time, I find myself planning. Thinking about what I will be doing that day, or next week, or for the next few years. Breaking everything into pieces and rearranging them to solve the puzzle of maximizing fulfillment or happiness (or something). This likely serves at least some value. I hit upon some combinations of actions and ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. My future outcomes end up a tad bit more pleasing.

I often wonder what it would be like to have a different pattern of mind-wandering. Presumably, there are people whose minds wander towards reflection or self-assessment. Maybe their mind is more interested in replaying their previous day and its interactions with others. Drilling into the details of micro-expressions and vaguely phrased text messages. There are probably minds that enjoy wandering to the current events as presented by the media. The latest thing Trump said or what is happening in a far-off genocide.

These patterns govern much of our conscious experience. How do they impact our quality of life and the kind of person we become?

Hearing is believing

Spinoza and Descartes disagreed about whether we can neutrally assess a proposition before believing it. Descartes argued that this was possible and necessary in order to be rational. Spinoza suggested that it’s simply impossible — we must first accept something as true before we can understand it. Daniel Gilbert tested this [summary] about 30 years ago and it looks like Spinoza is the winner. It takes effort to unbelieve something after hearing it, even when told it is false.

This seems important. By default, we seem to immediately believe what we understand — what we read or hear or see. This is a bit scary for epistemic hygiene. On the plus side, it makes our beliefs quite malleable. Read something that you want to believe, or perhaps just say it to yourself, and it may become so. Prayer and affirmations are then expected to be quite effective.

Then you have to wonder, do beliefs even matter? To some extent, what we say we believe seems to correlate with our actions. But I’m pretty confused on this topic.

Dangers of lucid dreaming

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been having lucid dreams pretty regularly. To the unfamiliar, a lucid dream is where you realize you’re in a dream. And then realize that you can do whatever you want (kind of) since it’s a dream. Anyway, last night I was in the middle of one where I was running along a coastline on wet rocks. I noticed I was running much faster than I would want to in “real life”. Then I considered the psychological consequences of that. Is it possible that I’m subtly training myself to, in this case, be more reckless when running on wet rocks?

It doesn’t seem implausible. Some models of dreaming view it as a kind of “practice mode”. We use simulation to get more practice, thereby preparing us better for the real thing. That would imply that we are relying on dreams to learn. I can only hope that my kinesthetic learning from lucid dreams are sufficiently compartmentalized to only be active when a sense of “this isn’t real” is also present. That doesn’t sound like a great bet.

Bartender school

Today I was listening to an Ibiza cocktail bartender describing how he got into the business. Someone asks if he ever took a class or any formal training. The response was a bit of a chortle. “It’s way overpriced and you don’t learn the little important details. The best way to learn how to make cocktails at a busy bar is by working there and slowly picking up on how the bartenders do it.

While he was saying that, I thought of the trope of how useless business school is (other than for networking). It seems much of a liberal arts education falls prey to this attack. Not to say that it can’t be valuable — I’ve spent much time over the past year pouring over philosophy and psychology. The problem is when you rely solely on this to then go out into the world and do things. What we’re missing is a viable apprenticeship system for much of the economy. How many of us went to bartending school thinking that’s the fast track to becoming a star bartender?