The Tastiest Pizza is often the Messiest One

Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.” In this article, Uber product manager Florent Crivello write about what he calls the “efficiency-destroying magic of tidying up”.

Florent shares this picture that he calls “an urban planner’s dream pizza” – I bet it’s not what you have in mind as your perfect pizza:

The word chaos has a negative connotation in most contexts. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines chaotic as “in a state of complete confusion and disorder“. Chaos tends to stir up emotions of being lost, not knowing what to do.

When we are at a loss of what to do, more often than not it is because we do not truly understand. The flip side of that is, in the words of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “To understand is to know what to do.”

This was echoed in Florent’s article:

If outsiders complain, but people living inside the system seem happy with it, it probably means that the chaos is serving them right, and that it’s just foreign eyes who are unable to perceive its underlying order.

The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up, by Florent Crivello

It is tempting to equate a lack of order (or at least lack of what we perceive to be order) with a lack of value or quality, which justifies a need for intervention. This is not ill-advised in some cases, with the emergency of rule of law as a case in point. A complete lack of any legal order in a community threatens the safety of its members.

In contrast, some corrections of chaos could produce outcomes that go against our wishes instead of in their favor. Apart from the pizza example above (I assume 99.9999% of the population prefers a ‘messy’ pizza where the ingredients are mixed instead of separated), another example is the free market vs. central planning: a “chaotic” free market is magically more efficient than central planning, in terms of the total sum of outputs produced. Of course, free market is not without its limitations – which is a separate topic.

The point here is: the presence of chaos does not automatically equate a need for correction. If chaos should warrant anything, it should warrant a drive to understand the underlying order, the “invisible hand”, the hidden structure that are yet elusive to our foreign eyes.

Resisting the urge to “correct” chaos may not be that easy. As Brian Arthur, pioneer of complexity theory & complexity science, mentioned in an interview, subjects such as economics seek “equilibrium, a place of statis (stability) and simplicity”. In a sense, equilibrium is (perceived to be) at the opposite side of chaos.

Brian Arthur points out what seems to be in equilibrium could be different from what is actually in equilibrium – this depends on how macroscopic vs. microscopic our view is. For example, the sun seems to be in equilibrium when we look up at it in the sky – it is a beautiful sphere held in place by gravitational forces. Yet, the sun close up is full of plasma bursts – what you could call “chaotic” reactions.

Instead of viewing chaos & equilibrium as opposing concepts, we could view them as relative concepts instead. Instead of being either chaotic or in equilibrium, an object could be both – depending on the context & our level of understanding.

So give chaos some credit – just as the tastiest pizza is not the orderliest one, the best scenario may not necessarily be the most organized one. The next time you find yourself anxious about a chaotic environment? Think about how delicious that bite of pizza littered with messy toppings is – then sit back & relax.

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“All models are wrong, but some are useful”: Man’s Journey to Make Sense of the World

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Edward Pelham Box, British statistician

This quote by a British statistician is, arguably, not limited to describing statistical models. Every thought we have shapes our map (mental model) of the territory (how the world works).

An article on the rationalist blog Less Wrong believes the “abstract concept of ‘truth” is better thought of as “the general idea of a map-territory correspondence“.

The map is not the territory” is a core mental model:

The map of reality is not reality…If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

Farnam Street blog, “The Map Is Not the Territory

This is the paradoxical takeaway: the flaw & value of the map both lie in it being a reduction of reality. On one hand, every reduction is a conscious decision to be imprecise – some information is inevitably lost. On the other hand, compression is what makes it of use to us: focusing on what is the most important (or per the 80/20 rule, focus on the 20% that yields 80% value) allows us to maximize the value density of information we have, i.e., think of it as value per “unit storage space” of information.

I could not attribute the source of this – but someone said: the world always makes sense. If you think something “does not make sense”, what really does not make sense is your model of the world.

For those who are into rationality & critical thinking, I highly recommend this fanfiction: Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality – after all, what could be a more fun way to learn about something than mixing it with magic? 🙂

Here is a quote from the fiction: “I ask the fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe? What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?

As the author wrote in another post: “We need the word ‘rational‘ in order to talk about cognitive algorithms or mental processes with the property ‘systematically increases map-territory correspondence‘(epistemic rationality) or ‘systematically finds a better path to goals‘ (instrumental rationality).

Striving to be rational means striving to improve map-territory correspondence, while acknowledging we could aim to be less wrong but never completely right. This recipe of curiosity plus humility combo is what powers us to build a model that is inevitably wrong, but hopefully helpful.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

BEST Article I’ve Read in 2019: Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking by Peter Kaufman

Hands-down this is THE BEST article I’ve read in 2019: Peter Kaufman on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. I would recommend spending 20~30 minutes reading the entire article slowly, word by word.

In the meantime, here is my takeaway on the key ideas and comments. At the end, I share my plan for putting what I learnt into action:

Understand => Know What to Do

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “To understand is to know what to do.” This is the central premise on which Kaufman basis his talk – to truly understand is what prevents us from making mistakes (vice versa: mistakes are caused by a lack of understanding, i.e., not knowing what to do).

Read => Master Big Ideas From Multiple Disciplines

So how can we better understand?

The answer, for Kaufman, is to start by mastering what Charlie Munger calls “the big ideas” from multiple disciplines. He discovered that each issue of the Discover Magazine features an interview with an expert on his domain of expertise – explained in simple layman terms. Kaufman printed out 144 of these interviews, and read every single one of them.

[F]or the next six months I went to the coffee shop for an hour or two every morning and I read these. And I read them index fund style, which means I read them all. I didn’t pick and choose.

This is the universe and I’m going to own the whole universe. I read every single one…Guess what I had at the end of six months? I had inside my head every single big idea from every single domain of science.

Peter Kaufman

Model => Develop Multidisciplinary Thinking That Works Across “3 Buckets”

Before we develop a model, we need to have a way to test whether the model is sound. For Kaufman, a sound multidisciplinary model would be applicable to what he calls “the 3 buckets”:

  • 13.7 billion years – since the origin of the Universe
  • 3.5 billion years – since the birth of biology on Earth
  • 20,000 years – since the record of human history

Kaufman believes the following rules are applicable in all 3 buckets:

(A) Everything in the Universe works according to mirrored reciprocation. Everything. Every thing.

In bucket #1, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is universally applicable, i.e., for each action, there is a counter and equal reaction => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #2, animals react agreeably to those who treat them well and attack those who treat them badly => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #3, “every interaction you have with another human being” is nothing more than mirrored reciprocation.

Kaufman’s model overlaps with the Mimetic Theory of the philosopher Rene Girard. I’ve previously written about it in “Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game”.

(B) The most powerful force across all 3 buckets is “dogged incremental constant progress over a long time frame”, a.k.a. compound interest.

Albert Einstein said “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.”

Yet, being consistent is what we do not like to do. As Kaufman says, this is called variance drain in geometric terms: “Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding, you’re no longer on the log curve. You fall back onto a linear curve or God forbid a step curve down. You have to be constant.”

(C) Make “Go Positive, Go First” your life motto.

To understand means knowing what to do. Now we heard about mirrored reciprocation and compound interest, what should we do? Kaufman says: “You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.”

This is similar to what Rhonda Byrne writes about in her bestseller “The Secret” – she argues a fundamental law of the Universe is we attract what we are and what we think we will get.

However, human’s loss aversion means that a 2% probability of failure is enough to deter us from acting at all in the first place. Kaufman challenges us to up the game: “If you’re getting beat(en) in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So what do I do with my life? I risk the two percent (chance of being foolish or fail).”

Begin the Doing => Join Me For The “Discovery Challenge”

To move beyond preaching to truly “understanding” (knowing what to do), I have launched the “Discovery Challenge“:

Pledge: I have started reading the interviews in Discovery Magazine to get a grasp of the big ideas across disciplines. I am referencing this PDF resource here (special thanks to the author for compiling).

Join Me: I will be summarizing the Big Ideas in future issues of my email newsletter, delivered every 1-2 weeks, with the motto of “Brainy is the New Trendy. Funny is the New Sexy.Subscribe here to receive the newsletter and curated ideas for free.

Reach Out: If you have other suggestions on how to develop multidisciplinary thinking, feel free to email me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or reach me on LinkedIn – I’d love to hear from you!

No road is long with good company.

Turkish proverb