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Privatisation – now a game the whole city can play

Sheffield City Council have made a 25 year contract with Amey PLC, in which tax money pays Amey and Amey maintain the roads. Part of road maintenance is looking after roadside trees, of which there are many, and many which are mature trees of all the character and hazards that trees many many decades old have. Amey has made plans to begin its contract period by cutting down 18% of the trees, which hasn’t been wildly popular. Some have suggested that Amey are responding to the simple economic logic of considering 25 years of tree care costs (vs the one-off cost of just cutting down as many as possible in the first few years).

Part of the Council-Amey contact is that both parties can fine the others for breaches of contract. Most of the contract has been redacted, which isn’t confidence inspiring. One rumour is that if, due to protests, Amey are not able to finish their planned tree felling they will be able to fine the Council. This would mean that protesters, through their taxes, would be paying more to the company they are protesting against.

Part of the aspect of this that interests me is that the contract moves the locus of political power from the Council to a multinational. Some opposition to privatisation is about profiteering by companies, but if you are worrying about roads being repaved and trees maintained then profits are less concerning than the fact that you now don’t have any influence as a citizen over the management of public property. Amey don’t need popular support in Sheffield, and however much people hate the Council, the Council’s hands are tied (seemingly).

Now, some enterprising citizens of Sheffield are trying to streamline the process of raising road maintenance complaints. The Amey contract with the Council means that if they don’t adequate maintain the roads, including responding to complaints about their work, then the Council can fine them.

Check and restart vpnc VPN on Ubuntu Linux

I run Ubuntu 16.04 Linux and use vpnc for my vpn (which runs at the command line, rather than through the network manager). This link tells you how to run vpnc at startup, but really I wanted to have the vpn monitored and automatically restarted if it drops. Here’s how I did that.

Following, James Coyle’s instructions, but changing the location of the script (because of this thread):

1. Make a script which checks vpn status and restarts it if necessary

1.1. Create file (at the terminal enter)
sudo nano /usr/local/sbin/
1.2. Copy and paste this into the file
if ifconfig tun0 &> /dev/null; then echo "---VPN active---"; else sudo vpnc; fi
Save and exit. The first line marks the file as a script. The second does the work, which I stole from here
1.3. Make this file executable (at the terminal enter)
sudo chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/

2. Now create a cron job to run this script every minute
1.1. Open root cron jobs list (at the terminal enter)
sudo crontab -e
1.2. Add this line to the end
*/1 * * * * /usr/local/sbin/
Save and exit

And we’re done. You can also worry about where your crontab logs are, and how to check they are rotated daily (so don’t grow infinitely in size). This should be set up as default, so you don’t need to worry about it.

“But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146(3642), 347-353.

in Ancient Day, Waylaid

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.

‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),

Popper on scientific objectivity

…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.

Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)

enough of experts

Michael Gove has become infamous for saying that we (the British) have “had enough of experts”. Here’s the context (FI= Faisal Islam, the interviewer):

FI: But let’s just look at this now, the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the Chief Exec of the NHS and most of the leaders of the trade unions in Britain all say that you, Boris and Nigel are wrong. Why should the public trust you over them?

MICHAEL GOVE: I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t have their own interests at heart.

FI: Elitist? Elitist? The Lord High Chancellor, a conspiracy of elites? It sounds like Wolf Hall.

MICHAEL GOVE: Well I haven’t seen Wolf Hall but the one thing that I would say is that the people who are backing the Remain campaign are people who have done very well thank you out of the European Union and the people increasingly … [Applause] … absolutely. The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

MICHAEL GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

MICHAEL GOVE: Because these people are the same ones who have got consistently wrong …

FI: This is [inaudible] politics this isn’t it? This is Oxbridge Trump.

MICHAEL GOVE: No, it’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.

Full interview transcript here, video of the interview here.

a post-creole continuum

From wikipedia: “William Stewart, in 1965, proposed the terms acrolect and basilect as sociolinguistic labels for the upper and lower boundaries respectively of a post-creole speech continuum”….
“In certain speech communities, a continuum exists between speakers of a creole language and a related standard language. There are no discrete boundaries between the different varieties and the situation in which such a continuum exists involves considerable social stratification”.

And so:

18 different ways of rendering the phrase “I gave him one” in Guyanese English (from Bell, R.T. (1976), Sociolinguistics: Goals, Approaches, and Problems, Batsford).


Too smart for facebook?

It interests me how the generations younger than me have changed their social media habits.

Whilst the professional-age world seems happy with twitter and facebook, younger people have moved their attentions elsewhere (you can google for the evidence of this, here I am relying on a completely unsystematic sampling from biased personal experience).

Is this because they want to avoid the social media that their parents are on? Because they are driven by a relentless and fickle need novelty and illicit thrills? Maybe in part, but there’s also a logic to the specific social media networks which are in vogue.

  1. WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption. As well as one-to-one messaging you can use group chat for the sort of thing you might use twitter @ messaging or facebook chat, with better privacy.
  2. YikYak offers anonymous location-based chat. Obviously they’ll bust you the moment the law wants your details, but if you are just after hook-ups or advice about embarrassing personal problems this is good enough anonymity to protect your identity from your employer (or partner, or friends).
  3. Snapchat messages disappear after a number of seconds, offering the illusion of impermanence for web-messaging. So different from message boards or most IM, where casual banter from years ago is stored for eternity.

So in this way new social media offers some sort of address to three of the big threats of life online: lack of privacy, irrevocable binding of your online actions to your offline identity, and permanent records of even your tiniest online actions.

Maybe The Youth aren’t so fickle and short sighted in their use of social media after all.

Cross-posted at Medium

Optimal training in aikido, part 1

How does anyone know what to aim for in perfecting aikido technique?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Traditionally, Aikido doesn’t feature competition or sparring, rather you take turns to practice the movements, consisting of various locks and throws. After a demonstration by the instructor (sensei), your partner (uke) simulates an attack and you (tori) perform the technique with a level of fluidity, speed and mercilessness matched to your skill and the skill of your partner. After a few goes you swop roles. After a few rounds of this, and maybe the sensei offering some one-to-one comments, the sensei demonstrates another technique and you find a new partner and take turns to practice again.

There are variations, and some other elements of practice, but for many people this is the main way they improve their skill at the art.

I am interested in the best way to get better at aikido (what should we do during training?), and the related issue of what the ultimate target of practice is (what defines a movement as good or bad, better or worse?). There are a few reasons why these issues, for aikido, are not obvious.

Martial arts in general are fighting systems, so they are meant to make you better at fighting. The problem with this is that you can’t train in real fighting (unless you like injury or litigation), so the different martial arts all adopt proxies, which introduce rules to stop people getting hurt. At the same time, the rules of the proxy-fights make them bad simulations of real fights, so if you optimise your skill to be good at a proxy-fight you may build into your technique blind spots for which you haven’t trained (or even for which you have trained yourself to be particularly susceptible). Examples: sparring which is stopped when it goes to the floor, outlawed moves (kicks to the head, eye gouging, various locks and breaks).

Many martial arts convey information about forms outside of ‘live’ contest situations. So Judo, Karate, etc all have a varying emphasis on practising the techniques separately from sparring or competition, and sometimes very formalised routines called kata, outside of competition.

Aikido’s situation is that it teaches some techniques which are too dangerous to do in competition. If your opponent resists it either won’t work or you’ll break one of their limbs. This means that when you practice these techniques you need a high degree of trust and consent from your uke. In a sense the uke is letting you progress the move to the end —they have to start the move as if they don’t anticipate what you are going to do (even though you’ve probably done it with them only seconds before), and then as the technique develops they have to react in such as way as to protect themselves from injury (typically by rolling or flipping).

So when we practice aikido we practice with the cooperation of someone who is, in some sense, letting us do the technique, but we are aiming to perfect a technique which will work on someone who isn’t cooperating. In fact, we want to develop technique which works on someone who is doing more than just not cooperating, they are actively trying to hurt us. The first issue is how to develop effective technique for antagonistic situations from practice which is predicated on cooperation.

The second issue is that, there are usually many ways to make a particular technique ‘work’ (and usually each school or each sensei will teach subtle variations). Is there any principled way to discriminate between these variations?

In a competition based martial art you have a method for answering the questions about the superior variations — if technique A helps people win, it’s good. If technique B is often defeated, its bad. Note that even here you don’t get away from doing some extra thought: because competitions are proxy-fights we still distinguish from legitimate wins and technical wins which are within the rules but would never work in any situation other than the one defined by the rules. People who train exclusively to win competitions, but using gamesmanship and techniques which exploit rule-loopholes are viewed with scorn — they’re optimising the wrong problem.

But in martial arts without competitions, like aikido, you don’t even have the opportunity of this objective but potentially misleading method. We practice the techniques, develop a feel for ‘what works’. And different styles teach different things. How do we decide between them? How do you know you are aspiring to an aikido which has even the possibility of being effective outside of the practice hall?

If you think the answer to this is “you just need to be honest with yourself” then I think you’ve overestimated our ability to do that, and/or underestimated the difficulty of gaining insight into the target of what we’re trying to learn.

Aikido is based around a system where knowledge of the art is passed down from the most senior grades. This system suggest that aikido has some true form which is passed down, like a secret, to each generation. This is obviously falsified, both by the historical fact that aikido was invented by a single individual in the 1920s and by the realisation that none of his students since can seem to agree entirely of how it should be practiced.

The idea of ‘revealed truth’ in aikido also contradicts what we know from the psychological science of motor learning, where self-guided discovery and practice based refinement of movements are known to be key to skill learning.

A useful contrast is other domains of motor skills, sports. Although coaching is important, in something like soccer, there’s a large component of learning through discovery — get on the pitch and kick the ball. The difference to aikido is that aikido doesn’t have a pitch. In soccer you can see how your practice has paid off in the match. In aikido, you practice for a match you hope to never play.

One response to this is to say “Fine, aikido isn’t realistic — I’m doing it for other reasons” which is fine (and probably the wise choice if you started out wanting to know self-defence, aikido is not first place to learn that). However, this response leaves the problem of what you are trying to learn unsolved. Aikido is fun, and beautiful, and patterned by the same constraints of human bodies and movement as dancing, but although it is a lot like dancing, it isn’t dancing. It references combat, but it isn’t clear to me how that reference can be meaningful when the people teaching it and practicing it no longer engage in combat as a profession (contrast the Samurai of feudal Japan).

Cross-posted at medium

making universal singularities into transcendent entities

In these terms the isomorphism between models and what they can model can be explained as a coactualisation of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams. In that chapter we went on to argue that the main danger of this account is making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing entirely entirely independently of the material world. But this potential pitfall can be avoided by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some mechanism or another. If this account turns out to be correct then it will point to an intimate link between ontology and epistemology. And the existence of such a link, in turn, will constitute a powerful argument for breaking with the ontology we inherited from the classic Greek philosophers, an ontology based on the general and the particular, and an incentive to develop a new one based on the individual singular and the universal singular.

Manual DeLanda (2011) ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, final paragraph

Quote #307: from Mughshin to Bai

Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’

‘How many days did it take?’

‘I will tell you. We watered at al Ghaba in the Amairi. There were four of us, myself, Salim, Janazil of the Awamir, and Alaiwi of the Afar; it was in the middle of summer. We had been to Ibri to settle the feud between the Rashid and the Mahamid, started by the killing of Fahad’s son.’

Musallim interrupted, ‘That must have been before the Riqaishi was Governor of Ibri. I had been there myself the year before. Sahail was with me and we went there from…’

But al Auf went on, ‘I was riding the three-year-old I had bought from bin Duailan.’

‘The one the Manahil raided from the Yam?’ Bin Kabina asked.

‘Yes. I exchanged it later for the yellow six-year-old I got from bin Ham. Janazil rode a Batina camel. Do you remember her? She was the daughter of the famous grey which belonged to Harahaish of the Wahiba.’

Mabkhaut said, ‘Yes, I saw her last year when he was in Salala, a tall animal; she was old when I saw her, past her prime but even then a real beauty.’

Al Auf went on, ‘We spent the night with Rai of the Afar.’

Bin Kabina chimed in, ‘I met him last year when he came to Habarut; he carried a rifle, “a father of ten shots”, which he had taken from the Mahra he had killed in the Ghudun. Bin Mautlauq offered him the grey yearling, the daughter of Farha, and fifty riyals for this rifle, but he refused.’

Al Auf continued, ‘Rai killed a goat for our dinner and told us …’, but I interrupted: ‘Yes, but how many days did it take you to get to Bai?’ He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Am I not telling you?’

From “Arabian Sands“, by Wilfred Thesiger

Graeber on Pinker

David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” tells the story of the erosion of social economies by market economies, fueled by a nexus of cash, war and slavery. The way Graeber tells it, the history of Western Civilisation is a history of incredible violence – both the actual violence of colonialism, slavery and debt enslavement, and the moral violence of the conceiving of the self as an isolated individual with ownership over her body and her rights.

I try and summarise the book here and have some commentary here.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, published the same year, presents a very different view of history. Pinker’s analysis supports the idea that 21st Century western society is a utopia of non-violence, in which deaths and physical harms by violence have been progressively contained and diminished over historical time. Part of this argument is the claim that per-agricultural societies are or were dangerous, homicidal places – he quotes statistics showing that something like 30% of male deaths in some foraging societies are murders. One ‘civilizing factor’ in Pinker’s account is the growth of the state and the state’s monopolising of violence.

Recently Graeber put out an “ask me anything” on twitter, so I asked him to comment on Pinker’s book, and the opposite reading of the history of violence and state power that it offers to “Debt”. He was kind enough to answer, and for convenience I concatenate his replies, made via twitter here (you can see them in the original form by starting with my original question).

Graeber: “He’s wrong [i.e. Pinker is] […] Almost anyone who’s ever had a choice of living under states & the “terrible violent” places he decries choose the latter.
take native americans & settler – captured settlers who had option of returning to their families often refused to; indigenous people who were offered right to stay in settler society, even adopted into families, invariably escaped the moment they could

same thing seems to happen with Amazonian societies today

so anyone who knows what life is like in both sorts of society, then has a choice which to live in, never chooses states


his argument that one social order was self-evidently superior is clearly false

This argument from choice doesn’t really seem to engage with Pinker’s argument: people might choose non-state societies AND they be more violent. Pinker’s account of violence in pre-state societies is contested in the scholarly literature, so it is hard for a non-anthropologist like me to judge. Plausibly, Pinker’s thesis can still hold if the historical span is restricted to the period from (horrifically violent) early state societies to now – but that leaves open a wide range of anthropological possibilities for how society could be organised and avoid violence. In other words, it leaves as distinctly more plausible the alternatives that Graeber’s anarchist thought supports.

how psychology has progressed

Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!” ’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.

Daniel Gilbert, referencing George Miller, in Gilbert, D. (2002). Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(1), 3.

Max Bazerman’s question: If you had to make this decision again in a year…

If you had to make this decision again in a year, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now?

One challenge executives face when reviewing a recommendation is the WYSIATI assumption: What you see is all there is. Because our intuitive mind constructs a coherent narrative based on the evidence we have, making up for holes in it, we tend to overlook what is missing. Devesh, for instance, found the acquisition proposal compelling until he realized he had not seen a legal due diligence on the target company’s patent portfolio—perhaps not a major issue if the acquisition were being made primarily to gain new customers but a critical question when the goal was to extend the product line.

To force yourself to examine the adequacy of the data, Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman suggests asking the question above. In many cases, data are unavailable. But in some cases, useful information will be uncovered.

From Before You Make That Big Decision… by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo & Olivier Sibony in Harvard Buisness Review. The idea is similar to Gary Klein’s idea of the pre-mortem. Both, in the style of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ type questions, ask you to take a perspective which is less involved in the decision immediately in front of you, to facilitate exploration the counter-factual space around the way things are (or are as you imagine them), and to return with questions you didn’t think to ask previously.

we know that we are not only these things

At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.

Douglas Murray, 2015, in Standpoint magazine: ‘Is The West’s Loss Of Faith Terminal?

Dan Ariely teaches you how to say “no”

Dan Ariely has this autoreply keyed up, so that by typing a single word he can send you this email:


This is a very interesting and important topic and close to my heart. But sadly, my life is so full these days that I don’t even have time for the things I’ve already promised to do. I even have a few of my own projects that I haven’t been able to find the time to work on. Not to mention that I have projects with close collaborators that I promised to work on and haven’t been able to.

So while this sounds exciting, I know at the end of the day, it would just put me in a deeper spiral of obligation and place even more constraints than I have now. I hope you understand but I have to decline.

Wishing you all the best and lots of luck.


For argument’s sake

cover of ebook
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:

Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.

All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon now

Please no rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are generally difficult to deploy effectively in a piece of writing. When debating with someone over the Internet their use is particularly ill-advised, for at least three reasons.


Reason #1: Would clarity benefit from rephrasing as a statement?. Clarity benefits if you rephrase as a statement.

You can probably rephrase what you mean as a statement, which will be clearer and more explicit. Go on, try it. Rephrase your rhetorical question, and add your answer. The person you are arguing with now has less chance of missing what you are really trying to say. Communication is hard. Communicating with someone who disagrees with you is extra-hard.

Clarity benefits if you rephrase rhetorical questions as statements.


Reason #2: Isn’t it obvious what I mean?. It isn’t obvious what you mean.

In our face-to-face communication we rely on a bunch of non-verbal channels to convey additional information. This is crucial when what we mean is different from exactly what we say. In written language these channels – tone of voice, gesture, etc – are missing. Moreover you can be less certain of what your audience knows or assumes. For these reasons, things like sarcasm are notoriously difficult to pick up on over the Internet. Like sarcasm, rhetorical questions assume a shared understanding to allow you to convey what you mean without stating it explicitly. So, by using a rhetorical question you are taking a risk that your real meaning will be understood by your reader. That is an unnecessary risk, don’t take it.

It isn’t obvious what you mean. Rhetorical questions ask your reader to infer your real meaning. Be kind, just tell them.


Reason #3: Don’t we all know the answer to this one?. We don’t all share the same assumptions.

Rhetorical question assume a shared framework, something you cannot assume when you are disagreeing with someone. If you want to focus on the substantive disagreement you have with someone, don’t dance around it with rhetorical questions. Say what you mean so your reader can respond based on that, rather on what they have to guess about the inspiration for your questions.

The clue is in the name – rhetorical questions are for rhetoric, persuading an audience, a passive mass rather than a particular individual who has the right of reply. If you are arguing on the Internet you should have the courtesy not to treat a singular reader or small group of readers who want a right of reply as an audience. They have a considered opinion which you need to listen to. They may even want to understand what your considered opinion is. You do them – and your opinion – a disservice if you deploy rhetorical questions, which obscure your meaning in favour of self-satisfied point-scoring.

No, we don’t all the know the answer to your rhetorical question. We don’t agree, so we probably don’t share common assumptions. Rhetorical questions assume we do, so you should particularly avoid them in argument.

physics as necessary but not sufficient to explain causation in complex systems

Ellis (2008) has an account of the nature of top-down causation in complex systems. He says there are at least five established forms of top-down causation – ways in which the higher level properties of a system can have causal power over the lower level elements (in contrast to the reductive view which would say that all behaviour of a system can be explained by the lower level properties : the physics is primary approach).

For me, the value of the paper is a single thought: physics provides the necessary, but not sufficient conditions, for explaining human behaviour. Without our physical natures – our undeniable existence as material beings, governed by four primary physical forces – we would not be, but to understand our being you need more than an account of the component materials and their governing forces.

Probably an obvious point, but succinctly put and useful to have on hand when faced with reductionists, or when trying to figure out the proper role of human agency in a strictly physical universe.

Ellis, G. F. (2008). On the nature of causation in complex systems. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 63(1), 69-84.

Learning, Motor Skill, and Long-Range Correlations

Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015) compare expert and novice performance on a ski-simulator, a complex task which is often used by human movement scientists. Acquiring skilled performance on the ski-simulator requires you to learn a particular form of control as you shift your weight from side to side (van der Pol form of damped oscillations).

Their main result involved comparing the autocorrelations (which they call serial correlations) of participants’ performance. The participants were instructed to move from side to side as fast, and widely, as possible and these movements were motion tracked. The period of the oscillations was extracted and the autocorrelation for different lags calculated (other complexity measures were also calculated, which I ignore here). The autocorrelations for novices were positive for lag 1 and possibly for other short lags, but dropped to zero for longer range lags (5-30). Expert’s autocorrelations were higher for shorter lags and did not drop to zeros for any of the lags examined (showing positive long-range correlations in performance).

Figure 3, Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015)
Figure 3, Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015)

Nourrit-Lucas et al put an impressive interpretation on their result. It undermines, they say, that motor learning involves merely a process of simplification, unification or selection of a single efficient motor programme. Instead, they say “Expert performance seems characterized by a more complex and structured dynamics than that of novices.”

They link this interpretation to the idea of degeneracy, in which learning is the coordination of a complex network so that multiple functional units become linked to all support given outcomes. “This enrichment of neural networks could explain the property of robustness of motor skills, essentially revealed in retention tests, but also the properties of generalizability and transfer”

They cite modelling by Delignieres & Mermelat (2013) which links level of degeneracy to extent of long-range correlations. Whilst they admit that other complex networks are also capable of producing the long-range correlations observed, I would go further and say that a “simple-unitary” model of motor learning might also produce long-range correlations if there was some additional structured noise on performance (e.g. drift in attention or some such). Novices of course, would also have this influence on their performance, but perhaps it is swamped by the larger variability of their yet to be optimised motor system. I don’t see why the analysis of Nouritt-Lucas excludes this interpretation, but I may be missing something.

I also note that their result contrast with that of van Beers et al (2013), who showed that lag 1 autocorrelations in experts at at an aiming task tended towards zero. They interpreted this as evidence of optimal learning (ie neither under- nor over- correction of performance based on iterated error feedback). The difference may be explained by the fact that van Beers’ task used an explicit target whilst Nourrit-Lucas’ task lacked any explicit target (merely asking participants to, in effect, “do their best” in making full and fast oscillations).

The most impressive element of the Nouritt-Lucas study is not emphasised in the paper – the expert group are recruited from a group that was trained on the task 10 years previously. In Nourrit-Lucas et al (2013) she shows that despite the ten year gap the characteristic movement pattern of experts (that damped van der Pol oscillation) is retained – a truly impressive lab demonstration of the adage that you “don’t forget how to ride a bike [or equivalently complex motor task]”.


Delignieres, D., & Marmelat, V. (2013). Degeneracy and long-range correlations. Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Non-linear Science, 23, 043109.

Nourrit-Lucas, D., Tossa, A. O., Zélic, G., & Delignières, D. (2015). Learning, Motor Skill, and Long-Range Correlations. Journal of motor behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-8.

Nourrit-Lucas, D., Zelic, G., Deschamps, T., Hilpron, M., & Delignieres, D. (2013). Persistent coordination patterns in a complex task after 10 years delay: How validate theold saying “Once you have learned how to ride a bicycle, you never forget!” Human Movement Science, 32, 1365–1378. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2013.07.005

van Beers, R. J., van der Meer, Y., & Veerman, R. M. (2013). What autocorrelation tells us about motor variability: Insights from dart throwing. PloS one, 8(5), e64332.

The Moral Arc

I am seeking suggestions for things to read on a specific topic, which I am struggling to articulate. I would like to read an analysis of how individuals understand their own moral development. Moral philosophers have accounts of what is moral, how it should be understood. This lacks the first person perspective I want to explore – I want to read something that takes seriously the subjective moral life as it is, not as it should be. Experimental philosophers have accounts of differences in people’s responses to moral dilemmas. This is too static – I want to read something that takes seriously our ability to change morally, and particularly to be agents of our own changes in belief. Biographies, particularly of spiritual or political figures, have first person accounts of moral change – why people lost their faith, or changed faith, in deities, parties or principles – but these don’t allow the comparison across people that I’d like.

I wonder if such a book exists. Something like “In a different voice“, but with more emphasis on adult development, or The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, with a specific focus on moral change.

The motivation is to escape the implicit model of many psychological accounts, which portray people as passive information processors; at their worse stimulus response machines, but even at their best as mere suboptimal rational agents. I’d like to think more about people as active moral agents – as having principles which are consciously developed, seriously considered, subject to revision, passionately defended and debated. Then, of course the trick is to design empirical psychology research which, because it takes this perspective seriously, allows this side of people to manifest rather then denying or denigrating it.

Habits as action sequences: hierarchical action control and changes in outcome value

Dezfouli, Lingiwi and Balleine (2014) advocate hierarchical reinforcement learning (hierarchical RL) as a framework for understanding important features of animal action learning.

Hierarchical RL and model-free RL are both capable of coping with complex environment where outcomes may be delayed until a sequence of actions is completed. In these situations simple model-based (goal-directed) RL does not scale. The key difference between hierarchical and model free RL is that in model free RL actions are evaluated at each step, whereas in hierarchical RL they are evaluated at the end of an action sequence.

The authors note two features of the development of habits. The concatenation of actions, such that sequences can be units of selection, is predicted by hierarchical RL. The insensitivity of actions to the devaluation of their outcomes is predicted by model-free RL. Here they report experiments, and draw on prior modelling work, to show that hierarchical RL can lead to outcome devaluation insensitivity. This encompasses these two features of habit learning under a common mechanisms, and renders a purely model-free RL account of action learning redundant. Instead model-free RL will be subsumed within a hierarchical RL controller, which is involved in early learning of action components but will later devolve oversight (hence insensitivity to devaluation).

Hierarchical RL leads to two kinds of action errors, planning errors and action slips (for which they distinguish two types).

Planning errors result from ballistic control, meaning that intervening changes in outcome do not affect the action sequence.
Action slips are also due to ‘open-loop control’, ie due to a lack of outcome evaluation for component actions. The first kind is where ballistic control means an action is completed despite a reward being delivered midsequence (and so rendering completion of the action irrelevant, see refs 30 and 31 in the original). The second subcategory of action slip is ‘capture error’ or ‘strong habit intrusion’, which is where a well rehearsed completion of a sequence runs off from initial action(s) which were intended as part of a different sequence.

I don’t see a fundamental difference between the first type of action slip and the planning error, but that may be my failing.

They note that model free RL does not predict specific timing of errors (hierarchical RL predicts errors due to devaluation in the middle of sequences, and habitual intrusions at joins in sequences, see Botvinick & Bylsma, 2005), and doesn’t predict action slips (as Dezfouli et al define them)


They use a two stage decision task to show insensitivity to intermediate outcomes in a sequence, in humans.

Quoting Botvinick & Weinstein (2014)’s description of the result, because their own is less clear:
“they observed that when subjects began a trial with the same action that they had used to begin the previous trial, in cases where that previous trial had ended with a reward, subjects were prone to follow up with the same second-step action as well, regardless of the outcome of the first action. And when this occurred, the second action was executed with a brief reaction time, compared to trials where a different second-step action was selected.”

The first action, because it was part of a successful sequence, was reinforced (more likely to be choosen, quicker), despite the occasions when the intermediate outcome – the one that resulted from that first action – was not successful.


Rats tested in extinction recover goal-directed control over their actions (as indicated by outcome devaluation having the predicted effect). This is predicted by a normative analysis where habits should only exist when their time/effort saving benefits outweigh the costs.

The authors note that this is “consistent with a report showing that the pattern of neuronal activity, within dorso-lateral striatum that marks the beginning and end of the action sequences during training, is diminished when the reward is removed during extinction [37]”


They review evience for a common locus (the striatum of the basal ganglia) and common mechanism (dopamine signals) for action valuation and sequence learning. Including:
“evidence suggests that the administration of a dopamine antagonist disrupts the
chunking of movements into well-integrated sequences in capuchin monkeys [44], which can be reversed by co-administration of a dopamine agonist [45]. In addition, motor chunking appears not to occur in Parkinsons patients [46] due to a loss of dopaminergic activity in the sensorimotor putamen, which can be restored in patients on L -DOPA [47].”

My memory of this literature is that evidence on chunking in Parkinsons is far from convincing or consistent, so I might take these two results with a pinch of salt.

Their conclusion: “This hierarchical view suggests that the development of action sequences and the insensitivity of actions to changes in outcome value are essentially two sides of the same coin, explaining why these two aspects of automatic behaviour involve a shared neural structure.”


Botvinick, M. M., & Bylsma, L. M. (2005). Distraction and action slips in an everyday task: Evidence for a dynamic representation of task context. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 12(6), 1011-1017.

Botvinick, M., & Weinstein, A. (2014). Model-based hierarchical reinforcement learning and human action control. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1655), 20130480.

Dezfouli, A., Lingawi, N. W., & Balleine, B. W. (2014). Habits as action sequences: hierarchical action control and changes in outcome value. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1655), 20130482.

Limits on claims of optimality

Jarvstad et al (2014) provide a worked illustration showing that it is not straightforward to declare perceptuo-motor decision making optimal, or even more optimal when compared to cognitive decisions.

They note that, in contrast to cognitive level decisions, that perceptuo-motor decisions have been described a optimal or near optimal (Seydell et al, 2008; Trommershäuser et al, 2006). But they also note that there are differences in the performance conditions and criteria of assessment as optimal between perceptuo-motor and cognitive decisions. Jarvstad et al (2013) demonstrated that when these differences are eliminated, claims about differences between domains are harder to substantiate.

In this paper, Jarvstad et al (2014) compare two reaching tasks to explore the notional optimality of human perceptuo-motor performance. They show that minor changes in task parameters can affect whether participants are classified as behaving as optimally or not (even if these changes in task parameters do not effect the level of performance of an optimal agent). Specifically they adjusted the size and distance of the reaching targets in their experiment, without qualitatively altering the experiment (nor the instructions and protocol at all).

The bound below which performance is classified as sub-optimal depends on a number of factors. The ease of task affects this (for easier tasks observed performance will be closer to optimal), but so does the variability in an optimal agent’s performance, or the accuracy of estimation around an optimal agent’s performance affect. Jarvstad et al conclude that, for this task at least, it is not straightforward to know how changes in an experiment will effect the bounds within which a subject is classified as optimal. They say (p.413):

That statements about optimality are specific and conditional in this way – that is, a behaviour is optimal given a task of this difficulty, and given these capacity constraints included in the optimal agent— may be appreciated by many, however the literatures typically do not make this explicit, and many claims are simply unsustainable once this fact is taken into account.


Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Warren, P. A., & Rushton, S. K. (2014). Are perceptuo-motor decisions really more optimal than cognitive decisions?. Cognition, 130(3), 397-416.

Seydell, A., McCann, B. C., Trommershäuser, J., & Knill, D. C. (2008). Learning stochastic reward distributions in a speeded pointing task. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28, 4356–4367.

Trommershäuser, J., Landy, M. S., & Maloney, L. T. (2006). Humans rapidly estimate expected gain in movement planning. Psychological Science, 17, 981–988.

Perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and description-based decision-making seem equally good

Jarvstad et al (2013) show that when perceptuo-motor and ‘cognitive’ decisions are assessed in the same way there are no marked differences in performances.

The context for this is the difference between studies of perceptual-motor and perceptual decision making (which have emphasised the optimality of human performance) and studies of more cognitive choices (for which the ‘heuristics and biases’ tradition has purported to demonstrate substantial departures from optimality).

Jarvstad and colleagues note that experiments in these two domains differ in several important ways. One is the difference between basing decisions on probabilities derived from descriptions verses derived from experience (which has its own literature; Hertwig & Erev, 2009). Another is that perceptual-motor tasks often involve extensive training, with feedback, whereas cognitive decision making task are often one-shot and/or without feedback.

The definition of optimality employed also varies across the domains. Perceptual-motor tasks usually compare performance to that of an optimal agent, often modelled incorporating some constraints on task performance (e.g. motor noise). Cognitive tasks have often sought to compare performance to the standard of rational utility maximisers, designing choices in the experiments precisely to demonstrate violation of axioms on which rational choice rests (e.g. transitivity).

In short, claiming a difference in decision making across these two domains may be premature if other influences on both task performance and task assessment are not comparable.

To carry out a test of performance in the two domains, Jarvstad et al carried out the following experiment. They compared a manual aiming task (A) and a numerical arithmetic task (B). During a learning phase they assessed variability on the two tasks (ie frequency and range of error in physical (A) or numerical (B) distance). Both kinds of stimuli varied in the ease with which the required response could be successfully produced (ie. they varied in difficulty). They also elicited explicit judgements of stimuli that participants judged would match set levels of success (e.g. that they thought they would have a 50% or a 75%, say, chance of getting right).

During a decision phase they asked participants to choose between pairs of stimuli with different rewards (upon success) and different difficulties. Importantly, the difficulties were chosen – using the data provided by the learning phase – so as to match certain explicit probabilities (such as might be provided in a traditional decision from description experiment on risky choice. They also tested such decisions from explicit probabilities, in a task labelled ‘C’).

The results show that all three tasks had a comparable proportion of decisions which were optimal, in the sense of maximising chance of reward (Fig 3A). For all three tasks more optimal decisions were made on those decision which were more consequential (ie which had a bigger opportunity cost and which, consequentially, were presumably easier to discriminate between, Fig 3B – shown).

Fig3B Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Rushton, S. K., & Warren, P. A. (2013). Perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and description-based decision-making seem equally good. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(40), 16271-16276.

Using individual participant data, it is possible to recover – via model fitting – the subjective weights for value and probability functions. These show an underweighting of low objective probabilities in the perceptual-motor task (Fig 4D) and a overweighting of low objective probabilities in the classical probability-from-description cask (Fig 4F). This is in line with previous literature reporting a divergence between the domains in the way low probability events are treated (Hertwig et al, 2004). However, Jarvstad use the explicit judgements obtained in the learning phase to show that the apparent discrepancy in weighting results from differences in the subjective probability function (ie how likely success is judged in the perceptual-motor domain) rather than in the weighting given to this probability. If probability estimations are held constant, then similar weightings to low probability events are found across the domains.

They also show that an individual performance on a task is better predicted by their performance on a task in a different domain than by the average performance in that domain – ie that individual differences are more important than task differences in nature and extent of divergence from optimality.


Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Rushton, S. K., & Warren, P. A. (2013). Perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and description-based decision-making seem equally good. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(40), 16271-16276.

Hertwig R, Barron G, Weber EU, Erev I (2004) Decisions from experience and the effect of rare events in risky choice. Psychol Sci 15(8):534–539.

Hertwig R, Erev I (2009) The description-experience gap in risky choice. Trends Cogn Sci 13(12):517–523.

The publication and reproducibility challenges of shared data

Poldrank and Poline’s new paper in TICS (2015) asserts pretty clearly that the field of neuroimaging is behind on open science. Data and analysis code are rarely shared, despite the clear need: studies are often underpowered, there are multiple possible analytic paths.

They offer some guidelines for best practice around data sharing and re-analysis:

  • Recognise that researcher error is not fraud
  • Share analysis code, as well as data
  • Distinguish ‘Empirical irreproducibility’ (failure to replicate a finding on the original researchers’ own terms) from ‘interpretative irreproducibility’ (failure to endorse the original researchers’ conclusions based on a difference of, e.g., analytic method)

They also over three useful best practice guidelines for any researchers who are thinking of blogging a reanalysis based on other researchers’ data (as Russ has himself)

  • Contact the original authors before publishing to give them right of reply
  • Share your analysis code, along with your conclusions
  • Allow comments

And there are some useful comments about authorship rights for research based on open data. Providing the original data alone should not entitle you to authorship on subsequent papers (unless you have also contributed significant expertise to a re-analysis). Rather, it would be better if the researchers contributing data to an open repository publish a data paper which can be cited by anyone performing additional analyses.


Poldrack, R. A., & Poline, J. B. (2015). The publication and reproducibility challenges of shared data. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(2), 59–61.

Light offsets as reinforcing as light onsets

Further support that surprise and not novelty supports sensory reinforcement comes from the evidence that light offsets are more-or-less as good reinforcers as light onsets (Glow, 1970; Russell and Glow, 1974). But in the case of light offset, where is the “novel” stimulus that acts as a reinforcer (by supposedly triggering dopamine)? In this case it is even more clear that it is the unexpectedness of the event (surprise), not the novelty of the stimulus (which is absent), that is at play.

From Barto, A., Mirolli, M., & Baldassarre, G. (2013). Novelty or surprise?. Frontiers in psychology, 4.


Glow P. (1970). Some acquisition and performance characteristics of response contingent sensory reinforcement in the rat. Aust. J. Psychol. 22, 145–154 10.1080/00049537008254568

Russell A., Glow P. (1974). Some effects of short-term immediate prior exposure to light change on responding for light change. Learn. Behav. 2, 262–266 10.3758/BF03199191

Animal analogs of human biases and suboptimal choice

Zentall (2015) summarises a rich literature on experiments showing that analogues of canonical human biases exist in animals. Specifically, he takes the phenomena of

  • justification of effort: rewards which require more effort are overweighted
  • sunk cost fallacy: past effort is weighted in evaluation of future rewards
  • less-is-more effect: high value rewards are valued less if presented along with a low value reward
  • risk neglect: overweighting of low probability but high value rewards
  • base rate neglect: e.g. over-reliance on events which are likely to be false positives

The demonstration of all these phenomena in animals (often birds – pigeons and dogs in Zentall’s own research) presents a challenge to explanations of these biases in human choice. It suggests they are unlikely to be the result of cultural conditioning, social pressure or experience, or elaborate theories (such as theories of probability or cosmic coincidence in the case of suboptimal choice regarding probabilities, see Blanchard, Wilke and Hayden, 2014).

Zentall suggests that these demonstrations compel us to consider that suboptimal choice in the laboratory can only exist because of some adaptive value in the wild, with common mechanisms for multiple biases, or the independent evolution of each bias/heuristic in separate modules. At the end of the paper he presents some loose speculations on the possible adaptive benefit of each of the discussed biases.

Three interesting recent results from Zentall’s lab concern risky choice in pigeons

1. Laude et al (2014) showed that for individual pigeons there was a correlation between degree of suboptimal choice on a gambling task (overweighting of rare but large rewards) and impulsivity as measured by a delay discounting task. As well as seeming to show ‘individual differences’ in pigeon personality, it suggests the possibility of some common factors in these two kinds of choices (choices which experimental human work has found to be dissociable in various ways)

2. Zentall and Stagner (2011) show that the conditioned reinforcer (stimuli which predict reward) are critical in the gambling task (for pigeons). Without these intermediate stimuli, when actions lead directly to reward (still under the same probabilities of outcome), pigeons choose optimally. Zentall suggests that the thought experiment on the human case confirms the generality of this result. Would slot machines be popular without the spinning wheels? Or (my suggestion) the lottery without the ball machine? My speculation is that the promise of insight into the causal mechanism governing outcome is important. We know that human and non-human animals are guided by intrinsic motivation as well as the promise of material rewards (ie as well as being extrinsically motivated). Rats, for example, will press a lever to turn a light on or off, in the absence of the food reward normally used to train lever pressing (Kish, 1955). One plausible explanation for results like this is that our learning systems are configured to seek control or understanding of the world – to be driven by mere curiosity – in order to generate exploratory actions which will, in the long term, have adaptive benefit. Given this, it makes sense if situations where there is the possibility of causal insight – as with the intermediate stimuli in the gambling task – can inspire actions which are less focussed on exploiting know probabilities (i.e. are ‘exploratory’, in some loose sense) even if the promise of causal insight is illusory and the exploratory action are, as defined by the experiment, futile and suboptimal.

3. Pattison, Laude and Zentall (2013) showed that pigeons who were given the opportunity for social interaction (with other pigeons) were less likely to choose the improbable large reward action over lower expected value but more certain reward. Zentall’s suggestion is that the experience of social interaction diminishes the perceived magnitude of the improbable reward, making it seem like a less attractive choice (which makes sense if neglect of the probability an focus on the magnitude is part of the dynamic driving suboptimal choice in this gambling task). Whatever the reason, the result is a reminder that the choices of animals – human and non-human – cannot be studied in isolation from the experience and environment of the organism. This may sound like an obviousity, but discussion of problematic choices (think gambling, or drug use) often conceptualise behaviours as compelled, part of an immutable biological (addiction as disease) or chemical (drugs as inevitably producing catastrophic addiction) destiny. This result, and others (remember Rat Park) give lie to that characterisation.


Blackburn, M., & El-Deredy, W. (2013). The future is risky: Discounting of delayed and uncertain outcomes. Behavioural processes, 94, 9-18.

Blanchard, T. C., Wilke, A., & Hayden, B. Y. (2014). Hot-hand bias in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 40(3), 280-286.

Kish, G.: Learning when the onset of illumination is used as the reinforcing stimulus. J. Comp. Physiol. Psycho. 48(4), 261–264 (1955)

Laude, J.R., Beckmann, J.S., Daniels, C.W., Zentall, T.R., 2014. Impulsivity affects gambling-like choice by pigeons. J. Exp. Psychol. Anim. Behav. Process. 40, 2–11.

Pattison, K.F., Laude, J.R., Zentall, T.R., 2013. Social enrichment affects suboptimal, risky, gambling-like choice by pigeons. Anim. Cogn. 16, 429–434.

Zentall, T.R., Stagner, J.P., 2011. Maladaptive choice behavior by pigeons: an animal analog of gambling (sub-optimal human decision making behavior). Proc. R. Soc. B: Biol. Sci. 278, 1203–1208.

Zentall, T. R. (2015). When animals misbehave: analogs of human biases and suboptimal choice. Behavioural processes, 112, 3-13.

Discounting of delayed and uncertain outcomes

Blackburn & El-Deredy (2013) provide a nice review of the literature on temporal (delay) and probabilistic discounting. They note these features of similarity and difference:

  • Both follow hyperbolic (rather than exponential) discount functions
  • Not correlated: impulsivity might be interpreted as steeper temporal discounting, and shallower probabilistic discounting, but steep temporal discounters don’t appear to be shallow probabilistic discounters
  • Magnitude effect opposite: for probabilistic rewards, larger rewards are more steeply discounted, for delayed rewards, larger rewards are more shallowly discounted
  • Sign effect the same: Gains vs loses effect discounting similarly for temporal and probabilistic discounting (gains are more steeply discounted).

To this list their experiments add a dissociable effect of ‘uncertain outcomes’ (all or nothing) vs ‘uncertain amounts’ (graded reward).

Blackburn, M., & El-Deredy, W. (2013). The future is risky: Discounting of delayed and uncertain outcomes. Behavioural processes, 94, 9-18.

Permanent Zero

‘Email overload’ is one of those phrases everyone thinks they know the meaning of: “I get too many emails!”. Last autumn I met Steve Whittaker, who has a reasonable claim to have actually coined the phrase, way back in 1996. He explained to me that the point wasn’t to say that we get to much email, but that email is used for too many different things. We’re using it to send messages, receive messages, get notifications, schedule tasks, chat, delegate tasks, archive information and so on forever.

Shifting the focus from email as number of individual messages (too many!), to email as functions (still too many!) lets you see why the ‘Inbox Zero‘ idea doesn’t quite work. Inbox Zero appeals to my sense of being in control over my email, and it is better for me than not having a righteous scheduling system for my email, but it doesn’t split the multiple functions for which I use email.

Now, for you today, I’d like to share my newest strategy for managing my email, which is inspired by Whittaker’s ‘Email overload’ distinction.

The first thing to do is to separate off the single largest function of email – receiving messages – from the others. You need to stop emails arriving in your inbox, leaving you free to send and search without distraction. Create a filter and have all incoming mail moved to that folder. Now stare in satisfaction at “You have no new email!” in your inbox. Schedule a time to go to your received mail folder and kill as many emails as you can, using your favourite inbox zero strategies (protop: if you send emails at 4.30 you minimise the chances of someone replying that day). Now your workflow which only involves sending messages and dealing with old messages isn’t tangled up with the distraction of receiving new messages.

Next, separate off all email that isn’t personal correspondence. Set a second filter which removes all email without your email address in the ‘to’ or ‘cc’ fields. These are circulars. You can scan the titles and delete en mass.

If you are using gmail, you can import these filters (after editing to make relevant adjustments).
remove from inbox, unless sent to ‘exception’ address
remove all circulars
Right click to ‘save as’, they won’t show up in a browser. Note that my new folders begin with ‘A_’ so they are top of my alphabetised folder list.