The Middle Way

Suffering comes when you value a thing over living your best life.

Your best life is one where all your needs are met.

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Good Versus Bad Versus …

A rule: Value judgements must be made with measures that are well defined. Good and Bad are far too broad to lead us to a useful endpoint.

Some words we might use instead:

Optimal, sub-optimal, not optimal, etc.

When a behavior supports movement towards a goal, and is efficient, it’s optimal

When it’s not efficient, it’s sub-optimal, and maybe we can improve it.

When it hurts movement toward the goal, it’s non-optimal, or better, not useful.

I’ll admit the phrase “not useful” is sub-optimal, since it’s a bit ambiguous.

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How to Do Anything

The Basics:

Plan → Do → Test

Put another way:

Design → Make → Measure

Or maybe:

Consider → Act → Verify

These are all the same at the core. Under the assumption that you have a problem to solve, you decide how to solve that problem, try your solution, and then see if it worked. In some disciplines, this will be repeatable, allowing you to push a particular project towards perfection. In others, testing is destructive, or the making is a unchangeable (You can’t uncook an omelette), so you take your experiences back to the planning stages, and go again, but with better planning and building.


To make these processes scientific, 4 things are required:

  • Tests must be specific
  • Making must be consistent
  • Changes to the making must be limited to one testable change

It’s much harder to misremember the meaning of things which are written down. It’s not impossible, which is why one must also try to improve that skill.

An Example

An omelette:

The plan: Collect 3 eggs, some cheese (how about smoked gouda?), a shallot, a little milk. We’ll cook in the skillet. Ah, butter to keep things from sticking.

We will break the eggs into the bowl, beat them a little, oh, we’ll need a fork. We’ll chop up the shallot. Need a sharp knife. We’ll cut off some of the gouda.

We’ll heat the skillet to pretty hot, putting the butter in early. When the butter just begins to brown, we’ll put in the eggs. Wait, we want the milk in the eggs before it goes into the pan. All right, milk in eggs, stirred, eggs in the pan, flip it, shallots and cheese on top, wait a little, fold it to make the cheese melt, slide onto plate. Oops, need a plate.

The doing: (Well, writing about the doing is a bit boring, since it’s mostly a recap of the above. Let’s get on to…

The Test:

  1. Taste: Good, eggy. Could use salt.
  2. Shallots. Also good, but maybe sauce them next time.
  3. Cheese. Hot, same as the eggs, but not melted. (Consulting Google) Oh, smoked aged gouda doesn’t melt as easily as most cheese. Oh, and it turns out it’s pronounced GOW da. Who knew?

Let’s get meta

Note that our plan includes a mental walk through of the process of doing. This is a highly important step when you are doing things which are destructive somehow, like cooking eggs or cutting wood. Once you’ve made a wrong cut, you generally have to spend time and money to recover. Of course, some things don’t lend themselves to a detailed walk through, but this technique is still useful. For instance, an important idea in engineering is to “fail quickly”. This doesn’t mean take weird short cuts, or overwork yourself, it means that you tackle the sections of the work with the highest difficulty first, since these are the things you will most likely fail at. If they prove infeasible, you haven’t wasted a lot of time solving easy problems that you now can’t use.

The End

It’s to be noted that a story as, as many things bounded in time, a beginning, and middle, and an end. A story is a way of making a thing known. In the beginning you set the scene, introduce the characters and introduce the conflict. In the middle, you develop the conflict, and move the characters towards resolution. In the end you resolve the conflict, and perhaps consider the resolution. While this seems pretty far away from planning, making and testing, it still works. Consider: You collect the characters, define a goal, act on that goal, and see if it has been met. Of course, for fun, we might fail the meet the goal a few times, which is very popular in action movies, but this still reflects the general process, since testing can, and will fail sometimes. Then, we reset, consider our plan, and go again.

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Bias: the problem of misperception

As thinking being, even very smart ones, we are still subject to a variety of brain potholes ready to turn us off course. These are cognitive biases, that is, ways of thinking that fall into ruts which make it hard to see the truth. A bias could be described as an inclination towards a particular view. Well known biases are bigotry and chauvinism. While these are to be avoided, there are many to be considered.

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to believe a statement which supports your world view. For instance, an article explaining some technical reason why your favorite team is more likely to win than some other might be taken as well written and obviously correct when in actuality, it leaves out many important details which might paint a different picture, details which you might see as missing if the article were written to favor the other team.

A bias to antiquity would lead one to believe that an older thing is better than a newer thing. This can be fed by experiences which would seem to confirm this idea, such as the wisdom of an older person, or a tool made to a higher standard which is an older style. Obviously, it’s the higher standard, and not the age which makes it a better tool. Equally, a bias to newness leads one to favor newer things on the basis that they are perhaps built with modern materials or improved techniques. These biases have something in common: they place value on a secondary state which appears to collect desirable features, rather than putting the value on the features themselves.

This is, in itself, a deep bias, to what you know. In order for one to deal with fast moving circumstances, one develops rules of thumb, which compress the evaluation phase of change. This ability is actually quite important, in that fast evaluation might literally save your life, if danger is immanent. As well, they make life a bit easier, since they allow you to make reasonable decisions in a timely manner. For instance, it’s reasonable to get the same spaghetti sauce you always get if you are still enjoying it. Your shopping would take a great deal more time if you had to attempt to research your potential choices every time you needed more food.

The problem lies with inadequate data, and unexplored situations. Biases keep us from noticing important changes. Maybe the spaghetti sauce has added an ingredient which is bad for you. Perhaps that magazine you eschewed years ago has a new staff, and a new outlook. Even worse is when you view a situation, and decide that your old tools will help, but your cognitive bias hides the mismatch, and task is attempted with the wrong tool, causing grief. To fight against these problems, we must do two things:

  1. Learn about cognitive biases:
  2. Decide, for each situation, when the appropriate time is for a reexamination of the situation.
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How to Work

  1. Have an intent
    1. What problem are you trying to solve?
    2. What proves the problem is solved?
  2. Plan a series of tasks to reach that intent
  3. Consider what data will come from that approach
  4. Figure a way to visualize that data
    1. Make the visualization a map of successful versus failing configurations
    2. Make sure the visualization suggests a plan of action
  5. Proceed with work, collecting data
  6. Consider the data through the visualization
  7. Replan, and rework.
  8. Consider if the approach can actually meet the intent
  9. Consider if the intent is the right one
    1. Many are too narrow. This is characterized by an intent which suggests an implementation, rather than trying to solve a problem
    2. Some are too broad, suggesting having chosen a very large problem to solve. This could be fixed by trying to solve a subset of the stated problem.
  10. Go to 1
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Fundamental Questions

This is a topic I hope to expand, so this will be more straw man than article.

Fundamental questions are those which demand essential information. A fundamental question about a vacation, for instance is what do you want to do on your vacation. The answer, which might be “go to Disney”, “read on the beach”, “I don’t know”, “tour England”, all of these reveal a state which must be resolved before things can move forward. They give you a seed from which blooms detailed questions. Even “I don’t know” is a start, because then you can knowingly move on to the looking for ideas stage.

Fundamental questions in life pertain simply to situations which come up all the time. The most fundamental question I can think of is:

What problem are you trying to solve?

This generalizes activities. I sleep to solve the problem of feeling sleepy. I watch TV to solve the problem of being bored or wanting to escape or wanting to catch up on that fascinating story. The question also can elicit a more specific answer, which may lead to useful refocusing. Take, for instance, this example: Someone comes into the lab, and starts rooting around in the equipment drawers. You could ask “what are you looking for?”, and it’d be perfectly reasonable to do this.

“A USB cable”, they might say. Then you might help them look, or try and find one in another lab or office. After some searching you find one, and  they leave you in peace, for maybe five minutes.

“Do you have one which has the same plugs on both ends?”

This is certainly a good time to ask “what problem are you trying to solve?” Their needs, and subtle ignorance tells the expert (or me, in any case) that they want to attach two computers together, a reasonable act, but one done far better with different means, usually. By asking this question, you can start down a path of solving the right problem.

So, given that very useful fundamental question, I’ll use it: What problems am I trying to solve by discovering fundamental questions?

My hope is to discover efficient means for getting to the root of various problems, and as well, to shake the foundations of my own knowledge, to ensure its stability.

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Language and Time

I’m no linguist, but I enjoy learning about interesting features of languages.

Apparently “Chinese” (a term I use guardedly, as one might mean Mandarin, and one might mean Cantonese, or maybe even another local dialect) doesn’t have the concept of time built into their verbs.

I’ve kind of known this for a while, it was pointed out to me years ago that one must include a specific timing indicator in utterance. The English sentence “I am going to the store” might be rendered as “I go store now”.

The converse observation is what slipped me. English has time baked into every verb. Verbs have a tense.

Consider the verb “run”¹. It has various tenses: I run, I ran, I’ll run, I’m running.

“Chinese” would have to render those as “I run every day” or maybe “I am known to run”. The exact rendition would, of course, depend on the context.

Much depends on the context.   However, the big take away for me is that a people growing up with a language like this would have an alien take on time. Not incompatible, but differently nuanced. It’s possible in that language to consider a verb without the baggage which comes with assigning it into a sphere of time. To get an idea about the difficulty of this, try to imagine the conversation about dance one might have, and consider that you could not only refer to dance now, or dance tomorrow, or dance one hundred years ago, as we can in English, dance, danced, will dance, but there is one more option, dance with no time of the event implied. You can refer to dance as a verb without saying when that dance might happen or have happened.

This will take some consideration to understand the implications, but one interesting use is in spoken word performance, where you could use the same word with different following words for surprising effect.

Using “wu”, which is a Mandarin word for dance²:

I wu, in my youth, to celebrate my victories
I wu, in my prime, to show my sophistication
I wu, in my age, to maintain my faculties
I wu, in my mind, to celebrate my youth, prime my sophistication, and maintain my age

1. In fact, I suggest looking it up in a good dictionary. Its set of associated meanings is quite extensive.
2. Sort of. It’s properly romanized with a falling-rising accent, but this site doesn’t offer that.
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