Someone's going to say dopamine isn't a neuropeptide. Whatever, close enough. We're not dispensing medical advice here. (I think it is though.)
I write about Tinderbox from time to time, and I write in Tinderbox all the time. And I've been doing that for maybe over 20 years now? A long time anyway.
There's something about Tinderbox that attracts me to it, even though I don't use one tenth of its capabilities, and probably don't even fully understand those. But it was love at first sight, and I'm still plugging away at it. (And paying for the updates.)
Well, Tinderbox is an application that is among a class of applications regarded as tools for thought. That idea has been around for a long time, perhaps getting its earliest most concrete expression in Doug Engelbart's Mother of All Demos. Some would say Vannevar Bush's As We May Think piece from July 1945 in The Atlantic deserves pride of place as the first modern conceptualization. I don't care. There's probably some obscure thinker/writer we've never heard of who thought of it first. Engelbart and Bush are two we remember best.
Tools for thought is enjoying something of a renaissance, not to say "fad," at the moment. It's the new hotness, which is cool because it attracts a lot of attention and energy and so some new ideas turn up that are worth thinking about.
Each weekend, I participate in a Zoom meetup of Tinderbox users, which usually includes the developer, Mark Bernstein; a super-user, Michael Becker; and the person with perhaps the deepest knowledge of Tinderbox other than Mark Bernstein, Mark Anderson. (Mark A. writes and maintains A Tinderbox Reference, which is what I've linked to in his name.) There are many regular attendees and we've all gotten to know a little about one another over the months, and it's a nice social event and often helpful in understanding Tinderbox.
From time to time we have a guest presenter from among the tools for thought community. Last Saturday, we had Jerry Michalski of Jerry's Brain. Jerry has been using an app called The Brain for 25 years, and has accumulated a repository of more that 500,000 "thoughts" (The name for the fundamental unit of The Brain. In Tinderbox, the fundamental unit is a "note.")
Here's the Tinderbox forum entry for last Saturday's meetup, and the link to the video is posted there along with many other worthwhile links to things that came up in the course of the discussion.
With all that as preamble, let me say I found the whole thing very stimulating. That is, I had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing and observing.
Let me back up a bit and say that we knew Jerry had agreed to join the meetup, so I'd spent some time looking at Jerry's Brain, and downloaded The Brain and played with it a bit. I will say that I was pretty impressed with both the application itself and Jerry's long-term experiment with it. But I did conclude that The Brain wasn't for me. Partly because of the price and party because of the cognitive cost of learning a new app.
So, back to my reaction.
If you watch the video, at some point I ask Jerry what he's learned from that vast collection of thoughts. I shared that I collect a lot of stuff in Instapaper, bookmarks, and so on, and I'm often frustrated that I don't seem to get anything from it. I thought about his 500K thoughts and the 100K images I have in my Photos library and the dismay it often brings me. I asked him if, using a brain metaphor, if he had a practice of synaptic pruning, to kind of make his brain more usable in terms of insight.
Again, an aside, if you haven't watched the video or looked at Jerry's Brain or The Brain, what it does is that it allows a very quick and easy way to capture a brief "thought" and associate it with another "thought." In my experience, it's in these associations that we often find what I think of as "insight."
So I mentioned doing a bunch of reading many years ago, and associating Elizabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief with Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey. Though I don't think I managed to get it out, the insight I believed I found was that all personal transformation (hero's journey) involves loss (of the former self) and therefore a process of grieving. It illuminated many things I was experiencing in my life.
Well, I didn't articulate the question well enough I guess, because Jerry quickly showed the facility with which he could instantly recall his "thoughts" on Joseph Campbell, to include a critical review of his work for omitting women, which, of course. Joseph Campbell was a card-carrying member of the patriarchy and a bit of a racist and anti-semite too, whose job was to mansplain mythology to women at a women's college! (I once disagreed with AKMA about this, but I'm now persuaded he was correct. As a kind and generous person, he hasn't held it against me!) But Campbell still had some pretty good ideas.
What I didn't hear was how these associations have informed his life, his knowledge. What he has is a very, very impressive facility for memory recall, which I suppose can be an aid to thinking. I remember a lot of things imperfectly, like who said them or perhaps the exact construction, but I recall, I think, the idea.
What I think I was observing, because this was, of necessity a limited interaction, was a behavior shaped by the tool. That is, The Brain rewards the user with a very attractive, dynamic, colorful visual display of what are purportedly "one's own thoughts." Except most of what I was seeing wasn't "thought" but perhaps "data."
Yes, someone wrote a book critical of Joseph Campbell, Joseph Campbell is popular because of the PBS series with Bill Moyers, and his best-selling books; so having a contrarian or critical view may be a value-added proposition. But how has that informed anything that Jerry thinks? About Joseph Campbell, or Joseph Campbell's thought or work?
To return what I think I was observing, (Because, I'm not certain, this is an impression; not because I'm trying to be clever about tools for thought or The Brain or the brain. Which long-time readers will know I'm inclined to do from time to time.) is a person genuinely enjoying showing what he could do. He has an audience, he's receiving attention, he has a skill or a facility or a tool that allows him to do some things that most people can't do, and he's receiving positive attention, rewards, for showing that.
What it seemed like to me, is that the tool has kind of trapped Jerry into this habituated behavior. Even as he was interacting with us, he was recording thoughts. And, to be fair, habits are good things, unless they're not. What is the objective with collecting all these thoughts (photographs)? What is the intention? I saw no evidence of any.
Wanting to know dig a little deeper, just to see if I could easily discover some evidence that would disprove my impression, or further illuminate it, I spent some more time in Jerry's Brain. It's a huge brain, so it's possible I simply missed the thoughts I was looking for. I went to the "My" node and looked at "My beliefs." Seemed pretty thin to me. Looked at some other thoughts related to the "My" node and didn't get any better evidence of insight.
There was a conference in November 2022 about tools for thinking. On this page, you'll see kind of a record of it by Kevin Marks, with an embedded video. It's six hours long, so I kind of skimmed around in it until I spotted Jerry and Howard Rheingold. It starts at about the 2:05 mark, because there's a lack of audio problem before then. It gets sorted out. Prior to that, there's a slide that says "Product Demo," but it isn't clear to me that the session is intended to be a product demo of The Brain. Maybe it is, which might alter my view somewhat, but I don't think it's intended to be a demo of The Brain.
If you watch that presentation, you'll see Jerry at a podium with a laptop, with Howard on the big screen behind him. They eventually sort out the sound problem. Early in the presentation, Jerry mentions something along the lines, "Eventually we'll go split-screen," nearly instantly they did, and there was Jerry's brain, with Howard shrunk to half his former size.
I watched the video at full resolution, my impression is that if I were in that audience, I would not be able to read what Jerry was entering in his brain. Not just because of the size of the text, but because of the dynamic nature of the display. So, what was the "focus" of the presentation? Who or what should the audience have given their attention to? Was it "Howard Rheingold, co-starring Jerry's Brain?"
Now, this isn't an offense of some kind. It's just interesting. Jerry is continuing to use his brain as Howard is speaking, recalling "relevant" points and recording other ones. I used scare quotes deliberately, because while the "thoughts" Jerry recalled with such facility, hardly seemed to be of some significant added value to Howard's thought as he was presenting it to the audience.
And Jerry is aware that he's receiving attention from the audience. He's performing up there. At one point, he even interrupts or speaks over Howard (at roughly 2:31:16), responding to some reaction in the audience to something he's doing, saying, "Hey, it's how I take notes!" Which I had to listen to twice because it was hard to make out over what Howard was saying, which was similarly garbled.
This is not to pick on Jerry. I seem to be acutely sensitive to how our dopamine reward system gets hijacked by our technology, partly because my departure from Twitter and that addictive behavior, and partly because of reading at least a part of Stolen Focus. I suppose one could also take the view that I'm "projecting" onto Jerry, but I don't think so or I wouldn't be writing this interminable post.
So, to the point! (Finally.)
I had a visceral response to Jerry's presentation at the meetup. A feeling. I tried to examine the feeling, see if it was true or had some genuine basis, external to moi. (My feelings are my problem. Well, they're mine, anyway.) I considered what it "meant" for me.
I must re-emphasize that I found The Brain very attractive. I genuinely enjoyed the facility with which it could record "thoughts" and make associations between them. I was amazed by Jerry's brain, though I was also confounded by it. What is the point?
We are embodied beings. Knowledge isn't merely the recall of memory. It has a visceral component, it's a feeling, an experience. Dr. Antonio Damasio might call it a "somatic representation." I didn't remember how to spell Dr. Damasio's name. I didn't have a "brain" to recall it for me; but I had the World Wide Web, so I just entered my best guess into Safari. Problem solved. Knowledge isn't simply the recall of memory. Memory informs knowledge, and is an essential part of it, but it's not sufficient by itself.
But I confess I do feel as strong affinity for that dynamic map. In a previous meetup, I'd asked Mark Bernstein if the hyperbolic map view might replicate much of what is going on in The Brain? I'm not certain that it can.
But serendipity awaits. Jerry's Brain made me think about intention. I associated The Brain's native map view with Tinderbox's map view. (I work in outline view almost exclusively. I tend to think hierarchically or categorically.) I wanted (desire) the rewards of experiencing my thoughts in a map view.
But how? For what? What was I going to map? What is my intention?
Much of our thinking occurs unconsciously, and the thoughts emerge to conscious awareness at some point by some process I don't think we understand. Often, or nearly always, accompanied by some sort of feeling.
And I'm feeling very excited. (Dopamine is a hell of a neurotransmitter.)
On January 16, 2016 I created a Tinderbox file called Memento Mori. I last opened it on October 24, 2021. I don't have The Brain to help me remember that, I certainly couldn't recall that; but I do have Mac's Finder, and I know how to use it.
Memento Mori is a document I began for my kids. I wanted to record for them many, if not all, of the things I've learned in this life. The important ones anyway. The one's that helped me have a better experience of my life. The experience of a good life. Because that was not always the case, and those lessons literally saved my life.
It's an outline, because I work in outline view. But this kind of knowledge doesn't lend itself well to hierarchical thinking. I never got very far with it, there was too much friction. Some friction is good, too much is painful. You know what I mean.
It's a map!
Yep, it's a friggin' map! Why? Because we all get a little lost along the way! I got very excited. All the boldface and italics and exclamation points are intended to invoke a feeling of excitement. We are embodied beings, and we share our feelings.
Yesterday I sat in front of a blank Tinderbox map view and just started putting down "thoughts." You could call them aphorisms. Lessons. Points of view. Attitudes. Just whatever came into my head, one thought prompting another. It wasn't long before I had over a hundred, which is about as many as I can fit on my 27" screen.
In Tinderbox, wise users learn to avoid premature formalization. Can lead to disappointment. Since I mainly work in two mostly static outlines, I've never really had to consider formalization before, but now I do.
I'm going to be duplicating this file in its current state, and then work on the duplicate. When I reach a certain point, I'll duplicate the file again to preserve that state, and then work on the duplicate. That way, if I find I've driven into a blind alley, I'll be able to get back quickly to where I started.
Yesterday, after I'd just done this free-form, free-association insertion of ideas, I started moving them around a bit. Kind of grouping the ones that seemed like they belonged together.
Now, how about this? Apple Vision Pro is near the top of the stack, last-in-first-out (LIFO) in my recent memory. What's that about? Spatial computing. What's a map? A spatial representation, granted, only two dimensions. But we have something like 2.5 dimensions in Tinderbox where a note in a map can contain a map!
So I began to think about where these ideas belong on a map. There are ideas that relate to self and ideas that relate to other. There are ideas for which time is the driving element. So I'm thinking of organizing these thoughts concentrically, with self in the center, the field of time in the next ring, and other(s) in the outer ring. I'm not sure exactly how that's going to work, but it feels good.
But these ideas also have an element of polarity, of duality, so maybe the left and right side represent opposite poles. Then there are ideas that are firmly grounded in earthly physics, biology, sociology. Grounded. And there are ideas that are more metaphysical, spiritual. So there's a vertical element to the map.
So, for now, I'm going to kind of move these ideas around into some kind of spatial representation.
That's before I get into linking, which is one of the features I'm not very familiar with in Tinderbox, so I want to tread cautiously here.
And I wonder about attributes, and what they might afford the map. Or other views.
All in all, I'm very excited.
Excitement is a feeling. And all feelings pass. But if you can get some momentum, some immediate rewards, if it's challenging, but just challenging enough, you can find the motivation to keep going.
Tinderbox is an app that rewards intention.
One of the little thoughts, or aphorisms I put down is, Intention is a super-power.
We'll see how it goes...
Originally posted at Nice Marmot 07:33 Monday, 12 June 2023