Kairos and Spannungsbogen

“If there is any concept that demands our attention, it is Kairos.” – Curlington Q Curls

The novel Anathem had a set of martial arts practitioners who payed special attention to what they called “emergences”, which were unexpected situations where a story could change substantially in a short window of time, which were often dangerous, and which demanded a bias for decision and action.

The martial artists in the story viewed emergences with an almost spiritual reverence as great opportunities, and oriented their training to overcome the natural human tendency to lock up during these moments. They were training for kairos.

On the other hand, the novel Dune had the Fremen, who had the concept of “spannungsbogen”, rough German translation “bow under tension”.

To quote, “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’ – which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”

I find these are important concepts to pair, because while at first blush they seem to be in conflict, they’re well separated by context. In most moments, most quiet moments especially, spannungsbogen is called for. But here and there, if you sense an emergence, it is very healthy to switch to kairos.

So it is with most oppositional pairs: no right or wrong, only context.

But never freely mix greek and german words. That’s just always wrong.

Chasing The Wind Episode 5 – World Building

New Blog! remakethemap.com is the successor to brothermycroft.blogspot.com.

In the fifth episode of Chasing the Wind, we build a world from scratch and start to fill it with story ideas.

This is hands down my favorite episode so far.



Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 5 – World Building

RSS: chasingthewind.libsyn.com/rss

Podcast home: chasingthewind.libsyn.com



Chasing The Wind Episode 4 – Legacy

New Blog! remakethemap.com is the successor to brothermycroft.blogspot.com.

In the fourth episode of Chasing the Wind, Avi and I discuss the making of things, including things we want to make, maker spaces, how to learn to make, and safety when making.


Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 4 – Making

RSS: chasingthewind.libsyn.com/rss

Podcast home: chasingthewind.libsyn.com

The Hang of Thursdays

I think I understand why Arthur Dent would say “I never could get the hang of Thursdays”. Why I feel the same way.

It has to do with strength and limits.

Work weeks require strength; each person is subjected to stresses, and must hold themselves together for as long as possible.

Weekends are for resting and processing things.

On Monday, the weakest people start to break down.

On Tuesday, moderately weak people start to break down, sometimes because of karma from Monday’s breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for two days.

On Wednesday, average people start to break down, sometimes because of karma from Monday’s and Tuesday’s breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for three days. That’s why Wednesday is Hump Day; a normal person has a fifty fifty shot of making it here without breaking down.

On Thursday, moderately strong people start to break down, sometimes because of karma built up from the week’s existing breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for four days.

By Friday, everyone has hope, and most people have ways to coast. If a person can make it to Friday, that person is usually okay.

The strongest people rarely ever break down because they usually make it to Friday.

So “I never could get the hang of Thursdays” is something you feel if you’re a moderately strong person. You can get past Hump Day. But you might or might not make it to Friday.


I feel like there are two consequences to the truth of Thursdays.

First is that Wednesday night is a great night for processing activities. If you can do a hard workout, or meet with some friends, or have a small group, you’ll blow off some of your week’s stresses and have a better chance of making it through Thursday.

Second is that, if you can’t quite get the hang of Thursdays, then Thursday deserves your special consideration. Save your focus powers for Thursday and hit it with everything you’ve got. You’re very close to being one of those people who can make it through to Friday.


I think I’ve figured out the general case for having good Thursdays, at least for me, at least in this phase of my life.

Thursdays have a gravity of their own. If Thursday is the day the moderately strong break down, then it’s the day of most chaos, and thus, most external need and most unexpected opportunity!

Thursdays thus have a gravity of their own. The probability of being pulled in an unexpected direction by a need or an opportunity is high. So they’re hard days for rigid planning and goals. But if you just go with the flow, you do so little of your intended work, you feel bad.

So the trick is to have plans, treat them lightly, drop them when called, and return aggressively to them when possible, all while maintaining low expectations. And to credit yourself for reactive actions; Ben suddenly wanted to go for coffee at 9:45am. I get points for doing that instead of insisting on a prior plan. And points for jumping right back into work when we’re done.

I think I’m getting the hang of Thursdays.

Chasing The Wind Episode 3 – Legacy

In the third episode of my podcast with Avi, we discuss what it means to have a legacy, how it can inform your daily choices, the legacies of some modern day people, and how legacy has changed as a motivation in scientific work.

Of the thirteen episodes we’ve recorded so far, I think this is my second favorite. I feel like I learned things while recording this.


Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 3 – Accessibility

RSS: chasingthewind.libsyn.com/rss

Podcast home: chasingthewind.libsyn.com


Theoretical yield (biology/chemistry)

The Predictive Part of Predictive Processing

[Prerequisite: a working understanding of Bayes’ Theorem, and ideally some time spent playing with other machine learning techniques]

One of my favorite blogs has a review of the book “Surfing Uncertainty”, a somewhat accessible text about Predictive Processing.

Avi’s Glean: Awesome! This is a good model of the brain, and you should read it. It (probably) allows us to attach hard numbers to any layer of cognitive science.

That said, I will be writing blurbs critiquing various sections of the book review, and eventually of the book. My long term intent is to refine the theory for myself.

“As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.”

Assuming that’s actually the theory and not just Scott’s interpretation, I have an intuition that this piece is where the theory is most wrong, the use of Bayes’ Theorem specifically. I think Bayes’ Theorem is posited here because:

1. It’s accurate.

2. It’s simple.

3. It’s what we understand.

But I don’t think that’s going to be correct because:

1. The brain isn’t necessarily going for what’s accurate. Accurate and effective can be divorced for a variety of reasons.

2. Neural layers are capable of much more nuanced and complex modeling (in your and my intuitions, in commonly held neural models, and specifically in the predictive processing model, this is true).

3. Since we’re in the early days of applied probability, there’s no reason, except as a placeholder, to guess what we know instead of what we don’t.

A Cure for Hiccups

[Epistemic Status: Totally Speculative]

I rarely get hiccups, but the hiccups I get are relatively violent and they last a long time.

Over the last few cases of hiccups, I have developed a cure which works for me. Try at your own risk, N of 1, results may vary, etc, etc. Here’s my method:

Surfing, in the abstract, is controlling something on the leading edge of a wave.

A hiccup is a spasm. A spasm is a wave. I have control of the muscles that form this wave. So in theory, I can surf a hiccup.

When I get a case of the hiccups, I stop what I’m doing and focus as much as I can on breathing. I breathe deep, full breaths, as though I had no hiccups, but I breath them very slowly, and for a minute or so I just pay attention to the feeling of the hiccup spasms.

Once I have a sense of how the spasms feel and where they’re happening, I start to try to focus on the leading edge of each spasm. Instead of feeling the spasm as one discrete shock, I try to separate it into a rise, a crest, and a fall (or for the mathy: instead of feeling the spasm as a step function, I try to feel it as a sigmoid up and a sigmoid down).

Once I feel like I can recognize the leading edge, I try to ride it. I don’t fight to stop it, I don’t let it come uncontrolled. I try to squeeze my throat muscles just a little bit in front of the leading edge of the spasm.

When I get it right, what I feel is a sort of managed spasm. It still comes, but it’s not explosive. I feel as though the wave has less amplitude, but it’s wider.

After a few well managed spasms, the hiccups pretty much go away on their own.

That’s my hiccup cure! Good luck with it.

Chasing The Wind Episode 2 – Organization

My friend Avi and I are (still) making a podcast!

The podcast is about everything. Test audiences have reacted positively.

We crosspost to chasingthewind.libsyn.com.

The second episode is about organization – the systems we use to organize things in our lives, and how we might make improvements.

Credit goes to Avi for making the podcast with me, setting up the distribution system, and writing most of the descriptions and reference lists.


Download the episode: Chasing The Wind – Episode 2 – Organization

RSS: chasingthewind.libsyn.com/rss


The Man Who Was Paid Less

Once there were two men who chanced to join a large company on the same day. They sat in the same row on the same floor of the same office, and so became friends.

Both were good and honest workers, but it happened one day that the two men discovered that one was paid a dollar more than the other.

“Oh, haha, it’s really no matter,” said the man who was payed less, and he tried to put it out of his mind.

But days passed and he could not ignore the plain fact that he was paid a dollar less.

“Ah, I’ll work harder,” he said to himself. “That way my salary will increase, and I can put it out of my mind.”

So the man who was payed less began to work harder than his friend. He took shorter lunches, and stayed late nights, and was more diligent in his work.

Once his pay was raised, he contrived to compare salaries with his friend. But his friend’s pay had been raised too, and both men were surprised that it was still a dollar more.

The man who was paid less laughed it off, but he was still quietly troubled, and sought to fix the discrepancy.

“Maybe he’s a better negotiator,” thought the man who was paid less. “I’ll ask for a little more money. Then I’ll have the most, and I can put this out of my mind.”

So the man who was paid less asked for more money, and since he was hard working, his boss said yes.

The man who was paid less sought out his friend. “I asked for more money,” he said.

“That’s strange! So did I,” said his friend. And they were surprised to find that the friend was still paid one dollar more.

The man who was payed less put on a cheerful face, but he was furious, and immediately returned to thinking about how to catch up.

“Maybe he cuts corners,” thought the man who was payed less to himself. “That’s it. He cheats a little in his work. I’ll have to do the same to catch up.”

So the man who was payed less started to cheat his employer in small ways. He pretended to work late, but often snuck out. He made up numbers on some of his work sheets. But he wasn’t good at covering his tracks. His boss found him out, and he was forced to resign.

He happened to meet a recruiter around the same time, and the recruiter put him in touch with another company, who gave him a job for even more money.

He compared again with his friend, and was shocked to find the friend had gotten another raise and still made a dollar more.

The man who was paid less carried on like this for years. He tried everything he could to increase his salary, but his friend was always paid more. He tried good things and bad things. He tried switching jobs, many times. He tried praying. He even tried to let it go, but he could not.

Finally the man who was paid less gave up and retired. A while later, his friend retired two.

One day, when they were very old, the man who was payed less asked his friend how he’d managed to always make more.

“Did you work hard without my knowing it?” he asked.

“No. I think I did the average amount.”

“Did you cheat? Were you cleverer than me? Were you that much more savvy about office politics?”

“No. If anything, I felt like you became the clever and political one because of this. And I never cheated.”

The man who was payed less thought for a moment.

“That’s it! You must have been nicer than me! More decent, more deserving. If you’d been payed less, you would have accepted it gracefully. It wouldn’t have eaten at you like this.”

“Oh, not at all,” said his friend. “If anything I would have fared worse and been more jealous. That’s why I was always so polite and modest about it. I figured it must have hurt you, as it would have hurt me. Anyway, there’s nothing I could do about it.”

“There wasn’t,” agreed the man who was payed less.

Some time later, the man who was payed less passed from this earth. It is almost not worth mentioning that he had lived a decent life, had a nice family, or experienced many interesting things, since although these things were true, they were of little account to him personally.

The man who was payed less went to his afterlife, and was directed by an angel to wait in line to meet his maker. Far from fearing judgement, the man who was payed less waited eagerly, for he hoped to obtain an explanation from Kami.

When his turn came, he stepped confidently into Kami’s office and strode right up to the chair reserved for him. He didn’t wait for an introduction or a preamble, just sat down and asked, “Why did he always get a dollar more? What was the lesson in that? What was the reason?”

“Sometimes these things just happen,” said Kami.

The End.

If this tale offends your sense of how things ought to be, perhaps you feel differently than you thought about the meaning of life (or lack thereof).

The Quality of Political Conversations

[Conceptual prerequisites: signalingcounter signaling, recent speech controversies]

A friend of a friend recently opined, “I am coming to think that most educated Bay Area people are incapable of discussing politics at a level of sophistication above that of angry babies”.

An issue of signaling is the cost of not signaling correctly. If you project the wrong image (which might mean wrong clothing, wrong speech, wrong behavior, or other things), are you ignored? Ostracized? Punished? Killed?

In some places the cost is low. You project the wrong image in the busy part of New York. Who cares? I’m in a hurry. Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Who cares? People live and let live.

In some places the cost is higher. Yesterday I read an article about some gay students in Missouri who had their yearbook quotes scrubbed from their yearbook. My great grandmother was ostracized right out of her husband’s small North Carolina town for having a famous Yankee general as a relative. Personally, I found the signaling costs were unpleasantly high in the American south.

In some places the cost of wrong signaling is extremely, dangerously high. Stalin’s Russia.

I agree with my friend’s friend. I would say that the Bay Area, while not Stalinist, has gradually increased the cost of wrong signaling until it’s even higher than in the American south. Substantially higher, with the result that the quality of political discussion here is now worse than it is in the south.

Politics is the business of collaboration, of building human capital. Political discussion is the business of finding agreement and disagreement in politics. If the cost of looking wrong is a strong dose of ostracization, freely discussing politics risks losing at actual politics. So nobody will freely discuss politics. We live in an era of angry news, so the easiest fallback is to discuss angry news. It’s hard to discuss angry news (and only angry news) as anything other than an angry baby.