Empathy vs Analysis - you can't do both at the same time

Human beings have two systems in their brains -- an empathetic social system that allows us to simulate other people's experiences, and an analytical system that allows them to solve logical problems. 

In an experiment at Case Western Reserve, it turns out you can't run both systems at the same time. (Story via Luke Bearden via Lookmark) After watching test subjects alternate between empathetic and analytical problems in an fMRI, they noticed that one would turn off when the other turned on.

The MRI images showed that social problems deactivated brain regions associated with analysis, and activated the social network. This finding held true whether the questions came via video or print. Meanwhile, the physics questions deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

"When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks," Jack said. "This tells us that it's the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it's a physiological constraint on cognition."


"You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business," he said. "But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking."

The researchers speculate that this separation between two networks within the brain account for the gap between facts that we know scientifically and facts that we know experientially. 

It seems astonishing to what extent our conscious lives are defined by the physical limitations and parameters of our brains. Surely if you're building software, it is the ultimate in swapping between analytic (making / coding) and empathetic (something people want).

Further, maybe this mechanism of switching between analytic and empathetic/experiential explains why there are diminishing returns past 50 hours of work per week. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy indeed. 

How to write and think: Use conjunctions

Why can't Johnny can't write good?

Not necessarily vocabulary, or simple grammatical mistakes like the above. It's because he can't use simple conjunctions. Teachers at a Staten Island school changed the game by teaching them how to write... and as a result, how to think. 

What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, andso. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

Being able to express complex thoughts in language is the first step towards thinking in meaningful ways. When I first started at YC, I was astonished at how tough it was to understand what people were doing. I assumed that most founders had some specific concept in their head and they were merely struggling to find words to express them. PG set me straight though -- if a founder can't express their ideas clearly to others, then the simplest and likeliest explanation is actually that the idea is not particularly clear to them either. 

Full article at The Atlantic

Give a fuck about your lifestyle: Manufacturing desire vs satisfying it

"Give a fuck about your lifestyle." KID CUDI, Mojo So Dope

Kid Cudi rejects mimetic desire. He says he doesn't care about your lifestyle, he's just busy living his own. This is cool -- it makes us want to be like him. We care about his lifestyle all the more. Surely he is closer to some source of truth than we are. Cool and mimetic desire are wrapped up in one, from Kid Cudi to James Dean. 

In contrast, Facebook is about manufacturing exactly the kind of desire that Kid Cudi rejects. We see what our peer group is doing -- the people who are like us. They go to our same schools. We grow up together. We work at the same places. But some do better than others, and we see it in their trips, their new purchases, their latest hobbies. All the things about what they do with their time. 

But this is specifically what traditional media (music, movies, TV, magazines, newspapers) have been doing since the beginning. Celebrity news manufactures desire for clothing, food, travel -- all manner of lifestyle choices. Did you hear Larry Ellison bought an island? I'd like to buy an island someday too. Lil Wayne is giving up rapping for skateboarding. I want to skateboard. But it costs money to manufacture desire. PR, display ads. That's why every business in the world spends money on marketing. It's a cost center, a means to an end. Ads are a means to manufacturing desire.  

What's better than manufacturing desire? Satisfying desire. That's what Google is about. When we want something, we look for it there. AdWords means that when someone wants something, you can probabilistically buy a piece of their brain by showing them an ad that they might click on at the moment they want it. You don't have to spend any time manufacturing desire, they've already got it. The entire world's media is already busy generating desire, from Facebook to CNN to the magazines of Conde Nast, to the party I went to last week. In some sense, that is why Google's insistence on gearing their entire strategy around Google+ is inexplicable. What they have is already superior. Satisfying desire is orders of magnitude more valuable than manufacturing it. 

Control and cages: What a shocking experiment teaches us about making bad software

You and your buddy Steve are rats in two cages. The cages have electric floors. Every day at the same time, you get shocked by electricity. It's excruciating, and both of you scream for relief as you search frantically for an escape. After a few days of this, you learn that there's a button in your cage that lets you shut off the shock. It still happens every day, and each day you get better at shutting off the electricity faster. It becomes a mere annoyance to you. 

Steve, on the other hand, looks thin. He's wasting away next to you. Why? What's going on? It turns out, Steve doesn't have the same switch you do. He can't control the electricity (even though you are able to shut off the shock for both cages with your switch), and so he gradually eats less and less as his body deteriorates and develops stomach ulcers. 

This scenario isn't just a thought experiment. It's real. Professor Jay Weiss at Rockefeller University used just such an experiment to show how profoundly important it is for organisms to have control over their own environments. Control, pardon the pun, is shockingly important.

It's no mistake control is one of the most important concepts for programmers too. We create software that other people use. We try to create a space in which people can control an information space. Their email, their photos, their thoughts, their work -- the degree to which users can control their digital lives is largely determined by us. 

And our users, like the rats in Weiss's experiments, are subject to electric shocks of both mild and severe intensity. Bugs and poor user experience are the daily shocks. And like our poor rat friend Steve, most users don't have a control switch to shut it off. (If you've ever fixed a bug in open source that you use, you know the feeling of having a control switch, which is probably one of the major reasons to program in the first place.) 

When we write software that sucks, we are (consciously or not) pressing a red button that makes people feel powerless, helpless, and ultimately makes their lives worse. As creators, it's our responsibility and our duty to make our users happy. Software creators are an optimistic lot and we love to focus on the positive impact the things we create can have on society and other people. If Weiss's experiment teaches us anything though, it's that this power cuts both ways. Wield it well, friends.

The light comes from within

My wife is on a cruise right now in Alaska with one of the big cruise liner companies. It's a linear experience -- come on this ship, go here, eat, buy stuff, pay money to get specific experiences, and return to the ship by this time. She can't believe how cheesy everything is, but is doing her best to have a good time. In stark contrast, I just came back from Burning Man, probably the exact opposite of a pre-manufactured form of commodified entertainment.  

You don't buy things at Burning Man. You don't buy products. You don't buy experiences. You just go and experience them, and it's free. There are nightclubs, but there are no bouncers, and no lines, and no bad attitude. This is intentional -- those opening the first dance venues at BM in the early 2000's wanted to create the ultimate clubbing experience -- just great music and dancing, and none of the other terrible crap. At night, that's what people do -- dance and party, but with no BS. Radical self-sufficiency means it's up to you to bring your own intoxicant of choice, show up when you want, and leave whenever you want. 

In bars, there's a weird pecking order. VIP bottle service, long lines, and always -- NO RE-ENTRY. Have you ever thought about that rule? Why wouldn't a place allow re-entry? It's because drunk angry people who were affronted in some way sometimes go back to their car, get a gun, and come back and shoot someone. So you need rules and security people to prevent that from happening. At BM there aren't even bouncers, or walls, or even anything to really get pissed off about. 

Me and my campmates were enjoying a set by Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza in one of the main arenas at 2 O'Clock last week. Someone was causing a ruckus, having just thrown their water bottle at the stage. Fellow dancers noticed and politely tapped the guy on the shoulder -- "Don't do that here. We don't do that here." We're here to chill out and have a good time. Don't ruin it.

I admire that deeply. A self-regulating utopia of mutual respect. There's something odd about treating experiences like commodities. We talk about travel experiences like they're things to visit, it's something we go to and to take something back. Most of the time when we're on vacation, we're there to *extract* something. But what happens when money is removed from the picture? Well, then rather than pay, you contribute. You add your funny dance to the crowd. You bring your own gifts, and participate. You make your own art.

That's the main lesson I learned after a week out on the playa. I believe more than ever that we were put on this earth to create. We are not here to consume and extract -- we are here to put out our own intentional THING -- whatever it is. Art. Business. New knowledge. Music. 

Imagine, for a moment: 

You enter a crypt filled with pirate treasure. The crypt is absolutely dark. You have a flashlight with you and switch it on. You gasp as the flashlight beam illuminates red rubies, glittering gold, green emeralds and cobalt blue sapphires. What beautiful colors these precious objects have!

Actually, this is the illusion of projection, these objects have no color, no light energy, the light, color and energy are mere reflections and refractions of the white light of the flashlight which contains all colors.

Excerpt from zaporacle.com

There's light within you, and the shiny things you see are reflections of that light. It's been in you this whole time, all you have to do is create and let it shine.