A Happy Information Hygiene Moment (and a Great Explanation of the Backfire Effect)

Yesterday, my sister shared this Oatmeal comic that wonderfully explains the backfire effect, the phenomenon where seeing evidence that contradicts our beliefs hardens those beliefs rather than changes our minds.

I love The Oatmeal for its engaging and often humorous visual explanations of important concepts. (XKCD and Nicky Case are also brilliant at this.) My sister knows this, and asked me if I had seen it before. Even though I loved this one, it didn’t ring a bell.

So I did what I try to do in situations like this. Rather than just file it away in my Evernote (where I have thousands of clippings that I almost never see again), I went to record it on the human perception page under “Confirmation Bias” on the Faster Than 20 wiki. To my delight, I found that I not only had seen it before, but I had already captured it on my wiki!

It’s a practice I call good information hygiene (a term coined by my colleague, Chris Dent). When we do it well, we’re not just filing things away where we can find them, we are continually synthesizing what we’re consuming. The act of integrating it into a larger knowledge repository is not only good information hygiene, but is also a critical part of sensemaking. Doing it once is great, but doing it multiple times (as Case and my colleague, Catherine Madden, have also explained beautifully) makes it more likely to stick.

Here’s another, simpler example that doesn’t involve a wiki and may feel more accessible to folks tool-wise. In my late 20s, I met Tony Christopher through my mentor, Doug Engelbart. We had such a great conversation, when I got home, I wanted to make sure to enter his contact information immediately into my contact database. When I opened it, to my surprise, he was already in there! I had very briefly met him at an event a few years earlier, and I had recorded a note saying how much I had enjoyed that short interaction.

I love when moments like this happen, because it shows that my tools and processes are making me smarter, and it motivates me to stay disciplined. I wish that tool developers today focused more on supporting these kinds of behaviors rather than encouraging more fleeting engagement with information.

iPad as a Production vs Consumption Device

A few years ago, I bought a first generation iPad Pro 9.7 and Apple Pencil primarily as a work device. I was drawing a lot more as part of my work, both as a way to help myself make sense of things and to communicate ideas to others more effectively.

The iPad has been amazing for this. I find myself using it more and more as my primary work device — a few times out of necessity, but often by choice.

I also use it as passive consumption device as well — reading articles, watching movies, etc. One thing I’ve noticed is that using my iPad to create — whether it’s sketching, writing, or annotating something I’m reading — uses far more battery (I’d guess 3-4 times as much) than using it to consume.

Even though it’s a minor inconvenience (the iPad has excellent battery life either way), I find this delightful. When I’ve been sketching or writing for a few hours, and I see that I’ve used up 40 percent of my battery life, I get a little endorphin jolt — a tiny reward for making, not just consuming.

“If—”, by Rudyard Kipling

In his excellent book, Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentions one of John Wooden’s favorite poems, “If—,” by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Wooden recites the second stanza of the poem to Kareem, then explains:

“The lines I’m referring to, Lewis, are that Triumph and Disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a man of convictions. Lasting joy comes from that.”


Sidenote: Wooden, Kareem, and a whole slew of legendary NBA centers filmed a series of commercials for Reebok in 1993, featuring then-rookie Shaquille O’Neal. In one of those commercials, they recite the poem to Shaq. I couldn’t find the one with Kareem on YouTube, but I did find this version, which is nice because the person reciting the last line is Shaq’s father.

How Effective Are Different Climate Interventions?

My friend, Mariah Howard, shared this CNN.com climate change solutions quiz today. It’s based on data from Paul Hawken’s excellent climate nonprofit, Project Drawdown. I took the quiz, and it nicely confirmed what I suspected: Other than the consequences of a mostly plant-based diet, I had very little clue about the actual impacts of most proposed climate interventions.

I’d like to see more exercises and visualizations that accomplish this for all sorts of problems. Skilled systems thinker don’t think in terms of binaries. They ask questions like, “How much?”, and, “In exchange of what?” Knowing that driving a Prius lowers my carbon footprint isn’t useful if what I actually care about is getting overall atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million. (We’re currently at 412 and growing.) What matters is how much it lowers my carbon footprint.

That said, there were a few things I didn’t like about the quiz. First, the scoring system doesn’t make sense. (I scored 34.4 percent overall.) You’re asked to rank a set of interventions based on carbon impact. As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out, if your three interventions are ranked 1-2-3, and you rank them 1-3-2, you’re penalized the same as if you ranked them 3-2-1, which is a more egregious error.

Furthermore, the rankings alone don’t tell the whole story. If intervention 1 will remove 10 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere, intervention 2 will remove 2, and intervention 3 will remove 1, then mixing up 2 and 3 wouldn’t be egregious, whereas not ranking 1 first would be a huge miss.

Second, CNN.com tries to show which interventions can be implemented by individuals versus industries and public policy. For example, eating a plant-based diet is labeled as something that individuals can do, whereas investing in high-speed trains is something that requires policymakers. I don’t find this to be a helpful distinction. Sure, I could switch to a more plant-based diet, but policymakers could also end meat subsidies, which would raise the price of meat and consequently lower a lot of people’s meat consumption. On the flip side, the quiz labels more walkable cities as a public policy intervention, but it could just as well as have made it an individual intervention where a whole lot of people simply walked more.

This problem is exacerbated by the quiz attempting to make the impact more tangible by showing the equivalent number of gas guzzling cars taken off the road by each intervention. This is an admirable goal, but it makes no sense in the context of this particular exercise. For example, it claims that “driving an electric car” — an individual intervention — would be similar to taking 75.7 million cars off the road. No, actually, if I drive an electric car, that would be similar to taking one gas-guzzling car off the road. If you read Project Drawdown’s analysis, they make projections based on EV’s taking up 16 percent of total passenger miles by 2050. The details here matter.

All that said, the quiz caught my interest enough for me to go down a little bit of a research rabbit hole, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while but have never gotten around to doing. I also learned some surprising things. I’d encourage others to give it a try.

For more on these drawdown strategies, Travis recommends watching Chad Frischmann’s TED Talk:

Two Seconds a Day in June and July 2019

Didn’t share last month, so sharing both June and July’s videos today:

June was such a full month, beginning with two weeks with my nephews in Cincinnati. When I got back, things slowed down considerably, and I found myself struggling to capture videos every day. But reviewing the compilations re-motivated me, and I now have seven months of wonderful memories. Still not sure how much longer I’ll continue to do these, but regardless, I appreciate having memories of so many moments of beauty and gratitude at a time when things are very difficult in the world as a whole.

See also: