Virtual Terrain Maps IV: Inspired Guessing

Virtual Terrain Maps IV: Inspired Guessing

SUMMARY: I write about the experience of unintentional, high-quality collaboration leading to insights of how I know more than I knew, and that I should apply GUESSING more frequently because it actually works well as a starting point.[al]: I’ve been preoccupied. I’m keeping busy with Agenceum work while figuring out how to position my services for 2010. I’ve also got a couple or surprising collaborations going on too with iPhone developer [Al Briggs][al] and instructional media designer Mary Wiseman. What’s surprising about these independent collaborations is that I’m doing them at all; for all that I’ve said about how great collaboration is, I’ve always found it difficult to actually find collaboration partners. This time, Al and Mary made it easy by themselves suggesting collaboration and then proving that they had the ability to follow-through and be self-guiding. It’s way too early to tell whether these new collaborations will succeed, but everyone involved knows this and is not making a big deal out of it. We’re all happy to try, and the professionalism of these collaborators is making me sit up a little straighter myself. So far, we’re just talking and emailing intermittently, seeing where the collaboration goes.

Even with the intermittent nature of our collaboration, I’m finding that this additional piece of scheduled work is adding a bit of stress to my life. I’m 80% sure it’s the good kind of stress, but I also am thinking everything else that’s on my mind. One way of dealing with it has evolved out of the Google Wave with Colleen™ conversation that Colleen and I have been maintaining for a few weeks now. This week is SLOW WEEK and I’ve been thinking of ways to SLOW DOWN, which is kind of tough because I think I’m already too slow. So much to do…how can I even THINK of going slow? But then I remembered that this whole Wave Experiment got started with a random tweet I made about not hurrying or waiting; if I go too fast, I screw up. If I wait, I lose opportunity and initiative. So I am trying to maintain mindful progress, and not freak out about all the things that aren’t getting done. I have to trust that it works; there isn’t anything I can really do about it anyway in the near term. Everything I’m doing all somehow factor into the same formula for success that I’m splashing around the laboratory of my daily life.

Yesterday, in the spirit of slowness and saving money, I decided to make rolled sushi Futomaki instead of buying it somewhere. Trader Joe’s had some asian cucumbers, and I had the nori (seaweed sheets) and rice vinegar at home. I dimly recalled Mom showing me how to make it sometime before going to college; her version of it had a filling made of fresh-picked cucumbers, sweet omelets cut into strips, and caramelized canned tuna fluff. Theoretically, I had the knowledge to recreate it! So of course, I just decided to wing it and see how close I could get. The memories of my mother close at hand, I spent about 90 minutes cooking the rice, seasoning it, toasting the nori, pickling the cucumber, making the sweet omelet, and then wrapping it all up into the rolls. And they came out…TERRIBLE. The recipe on the vinegar bottle suggested a proportion of 1/3rd cup to 3 cups of rice, but I had started with 3 RAW cups of rice, which I suspect resulted in at least 6 cups of COOKED rice. The cucumber was too salty despite my rinsing. I didn’t put enough rice down and the rolls fell apart when I cut them. The taste was not as I remembered; I have had better Futomaki at all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. Despite this “failure”, I was actually rather exultant, because the basic technique had worked from memory. I had just made some errors that are easily corrected next time around, now that I knew what to look for and what to measure more carefully. I trusted my knowledge over my memory of procedure, and no one died. And I think being able to trust my knowledge over memorized procedure–heck, memorized ANYTHING, including to-do lists–is somehow important to The Success Formula. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I guess I am learning to explicitly trust my “inner knowledge” in more things. Inner knowledge is about principles and truths, not procedures and facts. I’m naturally drawn to principles first, because I need them to organize procedures and facts in my mind. Most instructional material, however, skimps on the principles because the content creators either don’t understand or care. And most consumers of instructional material don’t want to understand or care either; they want the minimum effort necessary to get a result. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, but I am a student of an advanced school of laziness: I want to know the minimum set of principles that describe all results. And to really know that, you need to know where the principles come from. You need to know their “true names”, because labels are often misleading when you are just starting to learn something.

A supporting breakthrough occurred last week, while I was trying to understand the fundamentals of a new content management system (CMS) called ModX Revolution. I need to have a simple CMS to help streamline the creation of simple website, so I picked ModX to start with. After spending several futile hours attempt to grok the system from the documentation/tinkering alone, I started to resort to more extreme measures. First, I outlined every piece of jargon I found (e.g. “snippets”, “chunks”, etc.) on index cards and tried to group them by concept. As I discovered what linked to what, I wrote notes on the relevant cards. This didn’t actually get me much farther in making sense of “what fit to what” beyond a superficial level, but I decided to write a blog post about what I had figured out about ModX on the Agenceum site as a kind of consolation prize.

As I struggled to explain the ModX concepts to an unknown audience, I realized I should start with a model of how I thought it should work. Once I had that, I realized that I could just map what I knew about ModX onto it, and suddenly it fit together. I knew more than I did, but I had relied on the documentation to tell me what I knew. In other words, I had the expectation that the documentation would eventually reveal to me how it all fit together. The extensive docs rather admirably do try to explain it all, but like much technical documentation it fails to define a basic model as a reference. I don’t know WHY most documentation neglects this; I suspect this is because a lot of developers learn how to code by trying out examples and modifying them to internalize how it works, kind of like learning to walk by falling down a lot until they find a few things that work. The good programmers take their internalized knowledge and fly.

But I digress: I used to think that my need to establish a framework was a weakness because it took longer for me, compared to others, to get results. However, it can lead to immense breakthroughs, and I imagine I can cut the time-to-grok down by applying the framework immediately EVEN IF I DON’T KNOW HOW IT IS SUPPOSED TO WORK. That shouldn’t stop me from guessing how it should work. This is a counter-intuitive approach for me because I went to engineering school for 6 years, and I am not in the habit of acting on what I do not know for sure. In fact, engineers are conditioned to build a safety margin just in case what we know ISN’T SO; we design for 120% of the worst case even if failure isn’t critical, and a minimum of 200% when catastrophic failure carries meaningful repercussions. My mistake is applying this cautious attitude to understanding other people’s systems, when guessing is probably the best thing I can do when documentation and textbooks inevitably fail.

Perhaps this is what my friend Senia meant by You already know. And then there’s the twisty bit of advice I got from the TV show The Unit: what would you do if you knew the answer? In my case, I don’t want to just know the superficial details: I want to grok. Quoting Wikipedia:

In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proofing the theory.

Even if I don’t know the details, technology, methodology, concepts, what-have-you behind something I want to learn, I certainly already have an idea of how I relate to the area of study. This goes beyond learning a few procedures and facts that produce the low-hanging fruits of personal achievement, useful and necessary as they are. There is a time and place for that. It’s even probably most of the time and in most places. Greatness, though, comes from somewhere else entirely. I just need to get from HERE to THERE, and GUESSING is probably the best way to start when all other ways are unclear. CLARITY comes, once movement commences.


  1. CricketB 14 years ago

    My energy level varies widely, often with the number of outside commitments. One of my goals is to keep in mind that my _average_ week is not nearly as productive as a productive week, but it doesn’t take much to turn an unproductive week into a productive one, even on the last day.

    Your mother was very different from mine. Once I had the basics, she taught me to cook by leaving the kitchen.

    As a storyteller, I agree with “knowing” rather than “memorizing”. The first lets you improvise. The second locks you in and if you miss a line you can’t recover.

    Your engineering training differs from mine. In Chemical Engineering, we almost always start with a guess and then refine it. The equations are just too nasty. E.g., Gas pressure affects reaction rate, which affects temperature, which affects rate and pressure, and… Assume ideal gas law applies (and formally state the assumption), do the math, then check the final pressure and see if the assumption was valid. If not, decide what to do about it.

    Music is another place we need to experiment. What really matters is playing something pleasing. All the theory is just a way of describing patterns others have discovered. Writing scales and chords in the workbook is useless unless you also play them, and get them wrong a few times.

    Scientific American interviewed David Allen this month. His advice (paraphrased by me): Moving in the wrong direction will get you to your goal faster than not moving at all. As you get closer to the first draft of your goal, you will learn more and refine it.

  2. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    CricketB: I never knew that about ChemE…neat. One of my roommates was a Chem Major, and he tended to make fun of the ChemEs while lamenting that they made more money.

    I may be overly-romanticizing my “training”. I think it probably was a healthy mix of not knowing how to really methodically learn the material independently (and not being particularly interested in a lot of it either). That said, there was a big difference in stuff I believed I already knew “how” it worked through experience (digital electronics, via learning to program my Apple II in assembler) and stuff that I didn’t have the foggiest notion about (analog electronics, signals, and associated math). I tried to absorb the material through reading to let the structure seep in first, but I didn’t actually put my foot down and really sketch it out in a way that made sense to me in my world.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this applies in the next month or so.

  3. CricketB 14 years ago

    ChemE supervises start-up of $$$ plant. Goes well until big stirring paddle starts going slower, and slower, and slower, until it finally stops.

    ChemE goes back to the Chemie. “Oh, yeah, sometimes the mixture hardens.”

    “What do you do about it?”

    “Oh, we just break the test tube and start over.”


    Engineers were are expected to be able to teach themselves stuff. (I won’t say we were taught how to do it, not sure how they would have taught that. Maybe that was why we got the occasional incompetent prof.) They couldn’t teach us everything we might possibly need. It would take too long, and every ChemE job needed different knowledge. In the foundry (pour molten metal into moulds), guess who dealt with waste water testing and plant maintenance. Hint: There was no MechE, nor was there a ChemE (until I was hired). Neither Accounting, Purchasing nor Sales had basic science. Answer: The metallurgical engineer.

  4. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    I’m a math major, and sometimes find our terminology helpful for these things.  There’s a numerical method for finding an equation’s zero (you may recall from calculus) that involves making a guess, called I-sub-0, and using its slope to generate I-sub-1, which is still wrong but less wrong than I-sub-0.  Then you use I-sub-1 to generate I-sub-2, and so on until you’re as close as you’d like to be.

    In times when I find myself paralyzed by the fact that my plans aren’t perfect, I find it helpful to write a small subscript 0 to the right of the project title.  It’s a reminder that this plan ISN’T perfect—but by implementing it and watching how it goes, the next plan will be better.

  5. CricketB 14 years ago

    I remember that course, a million different ways to find zero. Well, maybe only five. Very useful for final year.

  6. Frances 14 years ago

    Thanks for the calc reminder.

    “In times when I find myself paralyzed by the fact that my plans aren’t perfect, I find it helpful to write a small subscript 0 to the right of the project title.  It’s a reminder that this plan ISN’T perfect—but by implementing it and watching how it goes, the next plan will be better.”

    Excellent idea.

    Enjoyed the Chem insights as well.