104 - Odds and ends

27-09-2023

decision-making

What happens in groups happens to individuals as well

Computer scientist and author Cal Newport writes about doing deep work in a distracted world. In a recent podcast episode, he divides the universe of productivity tools and softwares into three categories:

  • Those that add (new) capabilities
  • Those that subtract pain points
  • Those that speed up tasks

He argues that the third category of productivity tools are the least understood and most oversold. Using the process of writing as an analogy, he points out how we can get caught up by speeding up pedestal-building and ignoring monkey-training.

Imagine you’re writing a piece that captures the canon of knowledge on a hard and important problem. The rate at which you can produce good writing is a function of your speed of productive thought. How fast you can type matters a lot less to what you’re trying to do.

Knowledge creation is less a function of how quickly the tools with which you produce knowledge or produce applications of that knowledge allow you to do so, and more a function of the speed with which you can generate new non-obvious insights.

Generating new insights involves performing several complex cognitive tasks in a certain order. Simply learning a list of keyboard shortcuts won’t get you to new insights any faster than having a protein-rich diet helps you understand the role of proteins in our physiology.

Beating the urge

Human tendency when dealing with any problem of consequence is to strive for early progress. To build some momentum and draw motivation from it.

Forward motion is easy to see and readily appreciated. But forward motion is also misleading in that it may give the appearance of progress across a patch of flatland only for you to run up against a mountain later.

If you had cared to look for the mountain first, you would have made different decisions. You would’ve first tested if there was a way to cut through the mountain, or go around it. If not, you would have reconsidered the mission. Astro Teller and Elon Musk are two figures on whom some of humanity’s biggest aspirations depend. Their decision-making shows that…

Few things are worthwhile at all costs

Fridman: When do you think SpaceX will land a human being on Mars?

Musk: Best case 5 years, worst case 10 years.

Fridman: What are the determining factors, would you say, from an engineering perspective? Or is that not the bottleneck?

Musk: The fundamental optimization of Starship is minimizing the cost per ton to orbit, and ultimately cost per ton to the surface of Mars. This may seem like a mercantile objective, but it is actually the thing that needs to be optimized. There is a certain cost per ton to the surface of Mars where we can afford to establish a self-sustaining city. _And then above that [cost], we cannot afford to do it. _

It may not be apparent—and we will keep coming back to it—but what Musk is talking about here is an idea that is utterly common and yet not recognized nearly enough. That in itself is hardly a problem. One of the consequences of such a lack of recognition is that we come face to face with the same situation again and again without being any wiser for it.

Its commonness is borne out by the fact that various disciplines seem to have a name for it. What you may know as limiting reagent, reverse salient, herbie, bottleneck.

Problem: Human tendency when dealing with any problem of consequence is to strive for early progress. To build some momentum and draw motivation from it.

Agitate: Forward motion is easy to see and readily appreciated. But forward motion is also misleading in that it may give the appearance of progress across a patch of flatland only for you to run up against a mountain later.

Intrigue: If you had cared to find the mountain on your path first, you would have made different decisions. You would’ve first tested if there was a way to cut through the mountain, or go around it. If not, your entire project would be in jeopardy.

That intractable piece is rather common, yet inadequately recognized. So common, in fact, that it is known by various names in different disciplines. A chemist may call it a limiting reagent; a physicist, reverse salient; a famous book named a character with this quality and called it herbie; and regular folks may know it as a bottleneck.

Positive Future: Not knowing where the bottleneck in your project is means you won’t be able to run the project up to any good. It may mean you will do all the easier things quickly and then get stuck at the hardest thing, such that all your previous efforts are put to waste.

Solution:

The construction of the iconic Sydney Opera House faced significant challenges due to its complex design and engineering requirements. One of the major bottlenecks was the development of a suitable roofing system. Architect Jørn Utzon's visionary design presented multiple engineering challenges, leading to delays and cost overruns. The project suffered from a lack of effective solutions for the roof's construction and structural stability. As a result, the original estimated cost of $7 million skyrocketed to $102 million, and the project faced multiple delays before its completion in 1973.

But in organizations it’s harder to identify where the bottleneck is.

Figuring out if the monkey can be trained at all may not seem like doing anything at all. But it is the kind of meta-thinking that will save you a ton of wasted money and time later on building a prototype.

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