Insights by Danielle Fong

notes from a girl from the future

Category: Learning

Heisenthought.

heisenthought,

\ˈhī-zən-thȯt

alt. he-is-en-thought, as in, he is in thought, don’t disturb him… (thanks to Marc Chung @heisenthought)

noun.

1. A thought subject to mental collapse triggered by interruption.

2. A mental event or sequence characterized by coexistence of loosely related, sometimes contradictory, sets of knowledge or tasks. Highly dispersed in knowledge space, though it may support well defined momentum. Apt to tunnel through imposing technical or energetic barriers.

Collapse triggered upon the observation of the state of current knowledge by a third party. During the beginning states of observation, keen thinkers engage in a mad scramble to save mindstate, which may at some later time be partially reloaded. Status reports are heisenthought’s natural predator. Occasionally, members of a team will spontaneously ‘go dark’, in an attempt to think through some difficult problem — sometimes the only strategy which will work to extricate oneself from local extrema in solutionspace.1,2 Caution should be taken when observing said people, as doing so will both collapse their progress into a single, likely suboptimal path, and be likely misinterpreted as disloyalty, hubris or laziness, since they have disengaged from discussion with no apparent progress.

3. A mental event or sequence characterized by firmly specified and demarcated generating bodies of knowledge, and ill discernible forward movement. Induced by overspecification of problem, method, or solution. Collapse upon observation of current direction of progress by a third party. “‘Are we moving forward on this?’ ‘The heisenthought collapsed; we’re moving, just not in the right direction…'”

4. A coherent collection of thoughts sufficiently isolated from random outside influence. Obeys the relation Δknowledge Δmomentum ≥  ħ/2.

5. A tongue-in-cheek term invented to cast off workplace ‘pings’, ‘check-ins’, ‘status-reports’ and ‘how’s it goings?’.


Notes:

[1] – For example, read the interviews with Max Levchin in chapter 1 and Blake Ross in chapter 29 of Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work.

Max discusses how he went dark for a year, and came up with the something that really mattered — a way to fight fraud.

We had this merger with a company called X.com. It was a bit of a tough merger because the companies were really competitive—we were two large competitors in the same market. For a while, Peter took some time off. The guy who ran X.com became the CEO, and I remained the CTO. He was really into Windows, and I was really into Unix. So there was this bad blood for a while between the engineering teams. He was convinced that Windows was where it’s at and that we have to switch to Windows, but the platform that we used was, I thought, built really well and I wanted to keep it. I wanted to stay on Unix. […]

I had this intern that I hired before the merger, and we thought, “We built all these cool Unix projects, but it’s kind of pointless now because they are going to scrap the platform. We might as well do something else.” So he and I decided we were going to find ourselves fun projects. […]

It was me acting out, but it was kind of a low time for me because I was not happy with the way we were going. Part of having a CEO is that you can respectfully disagree, but you can resign if you don’t like it that much. But then eventually I became interested in the economics of PayPal and trying to see what’s going on in the back end, because I was getting distracted from code and technology. I realized that we were losing a lot more money in fraud than I thought we were. It was still early 2001. If you looked at the actual loss rates, they were fairly low. You could see that we were losing money, but, given the growth of the system and the growth of the fraud, fraud was not that big of a problem. It was less than 1 percent—it was really low. But then, if you looked at the rate of growth of fraud, you could see that, if you don’t stop it, it would become 5 percent, 10 percent of the system, which would have been prohibitive.

So I started freaking out over it, and this intern and I wrote all sorts of packages— very statistical stuff—to analyze “How did it happen; how do we lose money?” By the end of the summer, we thought, “The world is going to end any minute now.” It was obvious that we were really losing tons of money. By midsummer, it was already on a $10 million range per month and just very scary.

[2] – Blake discusses how, by necessity, they closed up the source and process during the early stages of work on Firefox.

Phoenix was basically a fork of the Mozilla code base that we controlled. We closed off access to the code, because we felt it was impossible to create anything consumer-oriented when you had a thousand Netscape people in search of revenue and a thousand open source geeks who shunned big business trying to reach consensus. We just wanted to close it off and do what we thought was the right thing. We went through a couple name changes, Mozilla offered us more support, and that’s kind of how it all got started.

Thanks to Marc Chung and Joel Muzzerall for reading drafts of this.

Keeping Prediction Honest

I base my action upon prediction. Every technologist should. I try to see how the world will be, and then try and see within that future what place I may come to hold.

So prediction is fundamentally at the heart of a technologist’s work. At the highest level, we must predict to find what work focus on, and what future to aim for.

You might then think that prediction, as a skill, is worthy of practice. And practice it gets. In living rooms, in pubs and classrooms and yearbooks and dial-in talkshows and newspapers and blogs and comment threads and slashdot and every polluted corner of our existence, you find evidence: prediction is practiced all the time.

There’s a problem. In most areas of the technologist’s pursuit, it’s easy to see whether you’ve done well. Code should compile. Planes should fly. Cars should go. Bridges should stay up. We have a lot of honesty in our discipline, much of it because we are blessed with tests that we find hard to fool.

A typical test for predictions, on the other hand, is whether the story sounds good at the pub. You make some exclamation. People nod and clap. Everyone forgets.

This would be fine if you’re just looking for some conversation. But if you are, like technologists fundamentally in the business of creating the future, it becomes lot more troublesome. We are left to ignore predictive incompetence until reality slaps us coldly across the face. We are flying blind.

Taking a cue from Trevor Blackwell, I’ve decided to inject some rigor into my life: when I make predictions, instead of casting them abstractly into the air, I’ll post them here: einfall.slinkset.com. (edit: embarrassingly, slinkset is down, and I do not have an archive. Archive.org to the rescue! http://web.archive.org/web/20090510010305/http://einfall.slinkset.com/) And I won’t delete my predictions — if they turn out wrong, I’ll keep them there, as permanent reminders to learn from.

Through accountability, honesty. Through honesty, improvement.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell for the inspiration, and John and Brett from Slinkset for the List Hosting.

Notes: a friend of mine noted that most of my predictions seem ‘pessimistic’, in the sense that they take the form of ‘X will not Y.’ I would have to agree with him. But this is largely a byproduct of how these predictions were made – they’ve come from studying some field, working in it for a while, and coming to the creeping realization that one or more of the current approaches were doomed. Besides, much of the skill of experts comes from the ability to ignore false trails.

Further Reading: An excellent site for major predictions (often with significant wagers) is Long Bets.

The Choice of Work

During the back and forth of exchange with a technical recruiter, he finally asked me what I was looking for. And so the floodgates opened.

This may sound weird, but I pretty much choose employment based on the promise of quality work. Other factors fade into irrelevance.

When I say quality of work, I mean more than the work environment, more than the magnitude of technical challenges, and more than the IQ of those I’d be working with. I want the opportunity to walk paths with the greatest hope of leading to first-class work. Nobel-prize winning kind of work.1 This force guides me, and so inevitably I tend upstream of technological change. Money and prestige are mere proxies for what I really want: to develop and inspire fundamental changes in the way people live. That doesn’t mean I need tackle the greatest problems humanity now faces (yet). What matters is that I, personally, have a reasonable approach. So I must always remind myself to, as Richard Hamming says, ‘plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow’ — because small projects can, swiftly and strikingly, grow momentum and value.1

I find little value in submitting myself to some company culture. I instead mean to develop my professional values, ambitions, and goals: for example, I would like to develop new methods, make them available by open sourcing them and make them popular by evangelizing them. I’d love to be given the chance to teach what I’ve learned. Excellent people bring ideas and perspective to a communities of makers. Given time, I think this will evolve naturally into a company culture worth having.

Most big companies grow faster than they could build trust, to a size greater than strong values can be supported. Natural culture is the product of alignment of creative philosophies, and in BigCo, this is too often replaced with virtual company nationalism. Fascism even. I find this is more than distasteful. I haven’t really learned how to work within it at all. I could devote my efforts to such an organization only were there deeply meaningful work to be done. And why bother?

Paul Buchheit's first Google Check.

Angling to be upstream of technological change, I bait unusual questions and find surprising answers. Give me the choice between a VP position at a big five media company with oodles of benefits, and, say, work at an early netscape or google for a totally minimal salary, and I’ll choose the latter every time. I’m pulled towards organizations where I can learn about organizing, rather than learning about institutional tradition. It’s not important for me to learn about how to run a large organization: if ever I do, I won’t follow of the paths of current captains of industry. Instead, I intend to help grow large, leaderless, open organizations, and so I’d do almost anything for a chance to work with Caterina Fake, or Linus Torvalds.

I want to work on something I find deep personal meaning in. I strongly believe in supporting open culture. I don’t think I’d work for long in games or entertainment unless it could influence some social change. I worked at MochiMedia because it made possible an income stream for small independent developers where none existed before. This finally opened up professional game development from BigCos. Now, much innovation in gaming emerges from bedroom studios. Independent game developers can now commit to their art in a way they before could not.

Similarly, I’d work at YouTube rather than Hulu, even though one’s a startup and the other isn’t, because they’re more interested in involving everyone in the process. As Clay Shirky says, they’re interested in ‘finding the mouse’.

I want to work somewhere where I can truly make a difference. Why am I working in technology at all? Archimedes once said, ‘If you give me a lever and a place to stand, I can move the world.’ Technology is my lever. I need only find place to stand. This makes me wary of startups that try to do good, but aren’t particularly focused on doing it efficiently. I wouldn’t work for most charities. There’s too little pressure on them to focus — the tempering influence of market competition is replaced by government demands for ‘accountability’, which arn’t nearly so powerful.

There are numerous ‘ecogreen’ websites out there that try to promote simple, green ways of living. These may be virtuous, however, in terms of minimizing environmental impact I think they’re somewhat irrelevant.2 Saving plastic bags won’t lift a toe on our carbon footprint unless we find ways to either cut down on air and automobile travel, or do it more efficiently. And on carbon footprints — global warming is, I think, a red herring — there are thousands of nasty effects of pollution from, say, coal-fired power plants that will hit even if global warming doesn’t occur (though I think, probably, it will). Too much of China now wears breathing masks.3

I can see myself dedicating myself to the right company, so long as our goal, philosophies, and ambitions align. Yet these are stringent requirements. So far, then, I’ve found it necessary to reserve some energy and time for my own projects. So I must be open with companies: with most, I want only consulting work, to help them with some particular project, idea or problem. And I want to be completely, totally honest with everyone about it, because so far, the high road has never let me down.

Sincerely,
Danielle

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Notes:

[1] – From the classic talk by Richard Hamming, You and Your Research. I don’t, particularly, apologize for my ambition here. Why shouldn’t I try to do first class work? The Nobel prize winning part is purely incidental. But this is the kind of work I mean — a significant contribution, one that people can build upon.

[2] – The free, online book Sustainability – Without the Hot Air is an excellent read. It is the first thing I’d suggest to someone interested in seriously starting into environmental matters. I shouldn’t claim that small contributions to green living are completely irrelevant — each does have some small effect. Perhaps raising the issue of green living in our collective consciousness will have an effect greater at second order than I imagined. But so many of our behaviors are misplaced. Many people, for example, go out of their way to buy ‘sustainable’ products at Whole Foods, say, when in reality, longer vehicle trips do more damage than almost anything you could buy. Many things are sold in a way to make you feel good about buying them. They don’t have any real effect!

[3] – This is worded provocatively, but pollution in China is a growing catastrophe. See ‘As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes’ and ‘Where Breathing is Deadly’.

———


Thanks to Alex Lang, Ma’ayan Bresler, Nick Pilon, Colin Percival, Michael Nielsen, and Joel Muzzerall for reading drafts of this, and Charles Beatty, for sparking it.

PS: Certain misconceptions have been raised. Some feel that this is one demand of an over privileged generation. I reply to this here. Additionally, I am not, in fact, abandoning my startup. But I do need money, and a visa, so I am looking into either employment or seed funding.

Advice to the Bright and Young

Max.

An article on one bright young man, Moshe, recently appeared on Hacker News. For a long time I’ve been meaning to write about the subject, and what was to be a simple comment morphed into this essay.

The story of educational acceleration is an old one. Curious, bright children learn and explore rapidly on their own, and interactively with their parents. The world is like a playground for the growing mind. The child takes in everything. Eventually, these children find themselves mired in school’s morass. There are new adventures: more kids, older kids, a new environment. Yet kept in one place, individual attention of parents replaced by lectures from often overtaxed and uninterested teachers, their minds are left to go fallow. While some of school is new, and quite enjoyable, boredom and obedience, for the curious child, is torturous, a fact which lucky children and mindful parents come to confront.

Alternatives appear: skipping grades, dropping out, home-schooling, gifted programs, science fairs, participating in the popularity game, sports, focusing on musical or athletic achievement, playing hookie, becoming jaded.

After entering junior high I pretty much stopped responding to the world at large. Life rapidly degenerated. I quickly dropped out, and luckily my parents didn’t make me go back. At that time both of my parents were very busy with work, and so homeschooling couldn’t work for long. We discovered that college was much cheaper than private school, which didn’t seem very good anyway. We argued my way in.

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