Sunday, July 19, 2009

Notes on The User Illusion, Part One

The User Illusion, is a magnificent book. It is written by the danish author Thor Nørretranders. The Swedish title of the book, "Märk Världen", is a better title. "Märk Världen" means Notice the World it can also be a pun, "Märkvärdigt", means Astonishing.

The popular usage of the term information has been perverted from the original meaning of the word. The original meaning of the word is similar to the word data. It is something that can be transmitted, stored or transformed. It does not have anything to do with meaning. In popular usage the word information is often interpreted as something that has an actual meaning and not just raw data that may or may not mean anything to anyone.

Thor Nørretranders refers to information as data. It does not matter if a conversation over the phone is gossip or if it is an explanation of the theory of relativity. It is information nonetheless. He claims that random information commonly referred to as chaotic as containing more meaning than ordered information. To support this claim he gives a simple example.

A random sequence of coin-tosses (101010101111) cannot be reduced to anything but the same sequence of coin tosses, while a regular sequence (111111111111) can be reduced to the simple statment: 12 ones. Therefore the 12 ones contain less information than the coin-tosses.

Another interesting aspect of this is that it is impossible to know in advance if a sequence can be reduced or not until the actual reduction has been done. This is related both to Turing's halting-problem and to Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

Logical Depth

A conclusion's logical depth is a measurement of its meaning, its value. The harder it is for the sender to reach a conclusion, the larger is its logical depth. The more "calculation time" he has used the greater is its value, since the receiver of the conclusion is relieved from having to perform the same calculation.

Logical depth can informally be defined as the number of steps in a conclusion or causal chain that connects something with its probable origin. Logical depth describes complexity.

A table of moon phases can be calculated by a simple formula, but it takes time. A living organism can be specified by a few genes but it takes a long time to develop the complete organism.

Chaos and disorder cannot be reduced to something less. The shortest program is identical to it all. They have no logical depth.

It is difficult to make things look easy. Clarity demands depth.

Communication and Exformation

To communicate is to take information (a mental state) in the sender, reduce this state to a message that can be transferred over a channel to the receiver, the receiver then interprets this message as information (his own mental state).

The explicitly removed information, Nørretranders calls exformation. A statement has depth if it contains a lot of exformation. That is, information that existed in the sender, but was purged while composing the message, and is no longer present in the final result.

There is no possible way to calculate the exformation of a message from the contents of the message. This can only be found in the context of the message. The sender forms the message so that it refers to a common context allowing the receiver to re-create the meaning from this context. A good communicator not only thinks of himself, but also of what the receiver is thinking about.

Meaning is purged information, removed information, unneeded information, exformation.

Information is not needed to transfer exformation. An example is an agreement between a child and his parents that instead of calling every week, he will only call if he is in trouble. Every week exformation is communicated, all is well, by not sending any information at all.

To communicate well we must be able to take the information in our heads and create meaningful symbols of it. These symbols should represent a common understanding so that the recipient of the symbols can induce the same understanding that we have.

Meaning and Consciousness

What we consciously experience in any given moment, limits itself to a very miniscule part of the flood of information that flow through our senses. --Manfred Zimmermann

The bandwidth of our conscious is less than 50 bits/s. Our senses take in around 11 million bits/s with the vision at 10 million bits/s, touch - 1 million bits/s, hearing and smell - 100 000 bits/s, and taste - 100 bits/s.

Most of what we experience, we can never tell someone else. We experience millions of bits but can only verbally communicate decades.

But we are not limited to verbal communication. Just as our senses can recieve 10 millions of bits our bodies can also communicate. Our bodies send out 100 000 bits/s through body movements, voice modulations, facial expressions, etc. It is just not possible to recieve all this information consciously. This is why there is no substitute for face to face.

A good bedtime story is good since it induces feeling in the adult that the child is able to pick up and react to. The excitement, sadness, and happiness induced by great tales such as The Ugly Duckling, by H.C. Andersen is what makes them great. The tale creates a much wider communication channel than a tale that means nothing to the adult, since the emotions emitted from the adult induces the same feeling in the child at a much higher bandwidth than simple words can communicate.

The unconscious is not hidden from anyone, but the person, who for himself tries to hide the sides of himself that were disliked by the people who he loved while growing up.

Others know more about us than we do.

Most of the information that pass trough us is never experienced consciously, although this information has a noticable effect on our behavior.

The Unconscious

When we meet a new person, we usually make a really quick decision whether we like the person or not. We say, "You nerver get a second chance to make a first impression!" and "We don't have chemistry". These decisions are made so quickly that they cannot possible be made by the limited understanding of our conscious. This is indirect evidence of high-speed channels that operate unconsciously.

The conscious is a much smaller part of our life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of.

Our conscious is like a flashlight and wherever it looks there is light. The obvious conclusion of the flashlight is that it is light everywhere. We are conscious less than we think, because we cannot be conscious of not being conscious.

I am sure that there are no words in my conscious when I am really thinking. --Jacques Hadamard

Real thinking is not a process that is performed consciously.

Thoughts die the moment that they are put into words. --Schopenhauer

When was the last time you ate fish? Yesterday? Last year? Never?

The moment you started thinking about this, your conscious mind let go. How did you come up with the answer you gave? Did you think through all the meals you have eaten in your life or did it just pop into your head?

Summary part one

The first part of the book sets the stage for the rest of the book. It introduces, and defines, the words: information, exformation, and logical depth. It also introduces the notion of meaning, consciousness and unconsciousness.

Our conscious can contain less than 50 bits per second. While our senses take in more than 11 million. Our brains process the 11 million bits of information and reduces them down to 50 meaningful bits, symbols that map into the rest of our brain and knowledge. But processing takes time even for something as able as our brains. But isn't our conscious perception immediate? No, it's not, but it appears to be! The second part of the book and the second part of this summary deals with this discrepancy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Notes on The Secrets of Consulting

I finally found time to read The Secrets of Consulting by Gerald Weinberg. With all books with titles like, How to Win Friends and Influence People, I very reluctantly start to read them, because, they sound like books on learning how to be manipulative and I don't want to be like that. But when I finally start reading them, after many independent recommendations from people I trust, I find them to be very down-to-earth and not at all manipulative. They are more about how to become a sympathetic human being and because you are, to become successful in other areas too.

The book is full of good ideas and I am going to mention a few that I like from every chapter in the book.

Why consulting is so tough?

The quotes I like best in this chapter are

You'll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit.

This is very true. I've seen this many times. People who care about credit, usually, wants a little more than they deserve and this will piss of other people who also wants the credit. Meanwhile, the people who don't care about the credit, just keep on working, making things happen.

When an effective consultant is present, the client solves problems.

And the funny part is that it does not matter as long as I feel that I am doing a good job.

Cultivating a Paradoxical Frame of Mind

The answer to Get it done in the shortest time possible is

What are you willing to sacrifice?

This implies that everything is a tradeoff. The most common tradeoffs are Now versus Later and Risk versus Certainty. Another good reply when someone wants to get something done is

We can do I it - and this is how much it will cost.

This is a very good reply since it shows that you know what you are talking about and that you are not just saying something to get the contract.

Being effective when you don't know what you are doing.

The most important thing to remember is that:

It is always a people problem.

People always want to catch a consultant with a lie, so:

We ought to bend over backwards to understate our qualifictions, but    insecurity makes us all victims to occasional exaggeragtion.

Seeing what's there

If you use the same recipe, you get the same bread.

Learn from history. If you don't listen to the mistakes the client has made you are likely to make the same mistakes.

Study for understanding, not for criticism.

A client is not very likely to help you, if you criticise everything he has done. Look for what you like in the present situation and comment on that. Someone will always comment on what's bad.

We may run out of energy, or air, or water, or food, but we'll never run out of reasons.

People never run out of reasons. We can think of a million reasons to rationalize our behavior and none of them may be the true reason. We may not even know it ourselves.

The name of a thing is not the thing.

This is so very true. Naming is really, really important! But we should always be aware that a name is just a label and there is always more to it than that. If we think the name is the thing, we may miss important points.

When you point a finger at someone, notice where the other three fingers are pointing.

It is always easier to blame someone else.

Seeing what's not there

It is as important to see what's missing as it is to see what is there. Use laundry lists to remember what to look for.

If you can't think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there is something wrong with your thinking.

It is easy to become to narrow-minded when it comes to your own thinking.

Words are often useful, but it always pays to listen to the music, especially your own.

Be aware of congruent words and emotions.

Avoiding traps

What you don't know may not hurt you, but what you don't remember always does.

Set triggers to help you remember. Triggers may be anything from songs to one-liners, jokes and mental pictures.

It ain't what we know that gets us into trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.

Never be too sure of anything.

Amplifying your impact

Characteristics of a good consultant:

  • Your task is to influence people, but only at their request.
  • Your task is to make people less dependent on you, rather than more.
  • Try to Jiggle. The less you actually intervene, the better.
  • If your client wants help solving problems, you are able to say no.
  • If you say yes but fail, you can live with that. If you succeed, the least satisfying approach is when you solve the problem for them.
  • More satisfying is to help them solve the problem in such a way that they will be more likely to solve the next problem without help.
  • Most satisfying is to help them learn how to prevent the problems in the first place.
  • You can be satisfied with your accomplishments, even if the client don't give you credit.
  • Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next.
  • Your methods of working are always open for display and discussion with your clients.
  • Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so you most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.

Gaining control of change


Fords Fundamental Feedback Formula
1. People can take any amount of water from any stream to use for any purpose desired.
2. People must return an equal amount of water _upstream_ from the point from which they took it.

Believing in what you do

Would you place your own life in the hands of this system?

How to make changes safely

Nothing new ever works.

I have come to this conclusion myself and I heard Joel Spolsky mention a harsher version of this on the Stackoverflow Podcast. He said Nothing ever works! not just new things.

Trust everyone, but cut the cards.

Fundamental skepticism is necessary.

If you must have something new, take one, not two.

When trying out something new, try one thing at the time otherwise you will not now what fails when it fails.

It may look like a crisis, but it the end of an illusion.

When a crisis occurs it is a sure sign that something has not been right in the first place.

What to do when they resist

The first thing to do with resistance is to appreciate it. If you get no resistance something is clearly wrong. When facing resistance Get it out into the open. Name the resistance in a neutral way. * Locate the nature of the resistance.

You can make a buffalo go anywhere, just so long that they want to go there.

Clients tend to overestimate unspoken negative factors and to forget positive ones.

Good questions for defusing potential resistance are:

  • Is there anything you would like to change about this plan?
  • What do you like best about this plan?
  • What is the one thing that you want to be sure does not change?

    People who are realistic about risks don't become consultants.

  • Step away, if you feel the fight cannot be won.

Marketing your services

  1. A consultant can exits it two states, Idle or Busy.
  2. The best way to get clients it to have clients. It is best to look for new business when you have business.
  3. Spend at least one day a week getting exposure.
  4. Clients are more important to you than you can ever be to them.
  5. Never let a single client have more than one-fourth of your business.
  6. The best marketing tool is a satisfied client.
  7. Give away your best ideas.
  8. It tastes better when you add your own egg.
  9. Spend at least one-fourth of your time doing nothing.
  10. Market for quality, not quantity.

Putting a price on your head.

  1. Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money.
  2. The more they pay you, the more they love you. The less they pay you, the less they respect you.
  3. The money is usually the smallest part of the price.
  4. Pricing is not a zero-sum game. My gains doesn't have to be their losses.
  5. If you need the money, don't take the job.
  6. If they don't like your work, don't take their money.
  7. Money is more than price. If the clients have paid in advance they are more likely to be prepared for the job.
  8. Price is not a thing; it's a negotiated relationship.
  9. Set the price so you won't regret it either way.
  10. All prices are ultimately based on on feelings, both yours and theirs.

How to be trusted

  1. Nobody but you cares about the reason you let another person down.
  2. Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.
  3. People don't tell you when they stop trusting you.
  4. The trick of earning trust is to avoid all tricks.
  5. People are never liars - in their own eyes.
  6. Always trust your client - and cut the cards.
  7. Never be dishonest, even if the client requests it.
  8. Never promise anything.
  9. Always keep your promise.
  10. Get it in writing, but depend on trust.

Lessons from the farm

  1. Never use cheap seeds.
  2. A prepared soil is the secret of gardening.
  3. Timing is critical.
  4. The plants that hold the firmest are the ones that develop their own roots.
  5. Excessive watering produces weakness, not strength.
  6. In spite of your best efforts, some plants will die.

All in all, this is book full of good advice that is worth reading for anyone, not only consultants. Worth noting is that the consultants in this book are very far from the resource-consultants that are the common case in Sweden. The consultants this book refers to closer resemble what we know as management consultants, although it is not an exact match.