Shortcuts: Labeling (repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

Recently, Fleur and I have been having debates on the proper label for some pictures. I call them whales whereas she calls them sharks because they look like the animations from Baby Shark. Instead of a post about that, I decided to repost this series.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Homo Sapiens Sapiens cheated evolution in one critical way by creating language. Rather than rely totally on instincts passed along by genes, we pass along an enormous amount of information to our proteges through memes. These may not even be the descendants of our genes. In working together on something, we share enormous amounts of information.

Everything including physical objects, ideas, and behaviors all have a label. Sometimes more than one. A label is a way of identifying something without having to go into the gory details of explaining it every time. (Like I just did.) I can call something an “apple” and anyone who understand this word knows what I mean. Labels bring efficiency to language. Until it does not.

Framing and metaphors are a couple of the tools behind labels. Through them labels acquire properties which then influence how we think. We can be manipulated by these thoughts simply by others choosing one label or the other. A great experiment has test takers write random number at the top. The larger the number, the better the test takers did on the test. How a question is phrased in a poll skews the responses. When we use metaphors also we constrain our thinking. Using the metaphor of a clockwork universe makes us think of mechanical devices and how everything around us are such devices.

Maybe English is a special case. Between Frisian (the ancestral language that make English belong to the Germanic family) and French from the Norman Invasion, English has multiple words for things. Throw in the Melting Pot that is the United States with making up jargon for everything. This language is an absurd mixture of strange meanings. Certain words like “set” have so many definitions one needs to hear or read it in context to understand it.

Then we also have LABELS. LABELS are also labels but have the special nature of how we classify other people. They are how we split people up into groupings to say one is not like another. White vs Black. Extrovert vs Introvert. East Coast vs West Coast. Democrat vs Republican. All are arbitrary. Many are misunderstood. They drift into caricature stereotypes causing hurt. This is where our -Isms arise. Nationalism, racism, or sexism would have no place without powerfully overly broad LABELS. As our conversations become more mature, we need more and more LABELS to express the nuances even while others resist change.

We need labels in order to communicate with each other. We just need to recognize their fallibility. And somehow avoid hurting each other while expressing ourselves.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Shortcuts: Illusions (repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Photo by Michel Berube on

We like to think only those things we experience exist. Or even can experience. What about those things we can experience that do not or never did exist? That is what illusions are. They are cases where we trick the brain into believing something happened that did not. Or tricking the brain into thinking is experiencing reality when it is missing crucially important.

Michael Bach has a nice optical illusions page to demonstrate how easily our eyes are tricked. Every sense we have can be tricked. The food industry has worked wonders in devising how to trick our senses of smell and taste. When you feel something crawling on you and look to see nothing, that is your sense of touch going haywire.

Illusions can also be dangerous. Eyewitness testimony is the worst evidence we use in the legal system. Witnesses rarely capture and retain all the details. And how they are interviewed can allow them to fill in these gaps with other evidence and skew their results to confirm that same evidence. Say the police pick up a suspect and present that photo with others to a witness. The witness picks the photo of the suspect and later out of a line up. If the suspect actually only resembles the culprit, then these two steps confirm for the witness (and the police) the suspect’s guilt even though the witness saw someone else. We attend to similarities when searching and ignore the differences. And we will go with the closest option given choices.

Inattentional blindness also falls into my illusions category. Paying too much attention to something means we have no idea about what else is happening. The train operator on his cell phone not noticing the curve for which he needed to slow down and derailed. Multitasking while operating a vehicle is dangerous because of this.

Of course, everything we experience is really the interpretation of signals to the brain. One of my favorite experiments was people wore goggles that inverted the image so everything appeared upside down. The brain just adapts to the error and interprets the picture to the desired orientation. Do not like what you see? The brain can solve that problem. Another favorite experiment was ending phantom pain in missing limbs by using mirrors to make the limb appear to exist again.

My favorite metaphor for how the brain works is Object-Oriented Programming. Different parts of the brain perform different functions. The functions adapt (are reprogrammed or reconfigured) based on the needed interpretation of the data. Of course, the adaptations are not always 100% correct. Nor do they always adapt in time not to avoid errors.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Daddy’s Little Helper

dad with kid dishwashing at kitchen

Photo by Gustavo Fring on

The other day we went out to play. I grabbed a towel to dry off the slide, swings, and chairs. After watching me dry the slide and finding there was still some water, Fleur walked over to the towel, grabbed it, and dried the slide more. 

The blatant imitation had me tempted to roll around in the wet grass laughing. But, I was proud of the problem solving at play here. She totally assessed the problem, decided on the solution, and took care of it. It makes me excited and terrified for the future.

  1. She is developing the capability to do things we want her to all by herself.
  2. She is developing the capability to do things we don’t want her to all by herself.

Inside Perspective

Photo by chepté cormani on

Fleur asks for walks now. In another part of the neighborhood, there is a puppy who runs along the fence. Fleur runs back and forth along the fence because the puppy chases. This is great for tiring out the toddler right before either lunch/naptime or dinner/bedtime.

The neighbor one day let us inside the fence. He had setup horseshoes which surprisingly works well played with social distancing. While he and I played, Fleur got to get chased by her puppy friend. And found that the inside perspective is very, very different.

The puppy is a biter. And outweighs the toddler. My wife had a handful keeping the puppy from knocking Fleur down & getting scared from the attention. She is generally fearless (danger doesn’t phase her), so she still wants to go see the puppy every day.


Last summer we spent a week at the house of my aunt and uncle. They have three chiming clocks. A grandfather clock and two small ones.

We have something similar. Auditory reminders at 9, 10, 3, 4, 5, 6 that announce: Check diaper. This is essentially our chimes. I find I don’t really need a clock during this period.

We don’t need the automated system when we get up from sleeping and prepare for it at naptime and bedtime. It is the in between that we need brought to our attention. In the focused zone, it can be easy to assume the other parent is going to take care of it. The chime brings back to our attention that maybe we should. We have saved on diaper cream since setting these up as we are better at making sure to address the diaper before the acidic defecation causes a rash.

On the plus side, Fleur loves the announcements. She runs around repeating it. If I am in the middle of work, then her running around letting us know keeps it on the brain.

Reminders are my main way of remembering to do things. The strange thing to me is this working from home means I am on my phone less. So, I miss more of the ones through it.

Paternal oxytocin

The one good thing about the shelter-in-place is the opportunity to be more engaged with my daughter. Before, I got her fed, dressed, and transported to daycare. Now, I still generally get her fed then periodically engage her in conversations, reading, and play. I can say that I do feel more connected to her.

Thus, the below makes sense to me:

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on

Oxytocin increases in mothers, who provide a lot of affectionate contact and in fathers, who have a lot of stimulatory contact. Studies show that fathers highly involved in playing with their children have a higher level of oxytocin, compared with fathers, who show less stimulating activities. Moreover, brains of fathers involved in caregiving activities show an increase in grey matter volume.

Parenting is a choice” on SciComm for everyone


There is this in invisible boundary around the planets of the Solar System called the Roche Limit. Should a moon fall into it, gravity will break apart the moon. Where that limit resides depends on the gravitational strength of the planet and the make up of the moon. Saturn’s rings comes from doing this to maybe several moons.

I have a friend from college with this surname. Every time this person goes to shred people online for having said something offensive, I think of this. And it makes me smile.

Fake babies

Watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine and they show a newborn who clearly wasn’t. He was huge enough he would have broken any woman who pushed out that kid. He was sitting up.

Years ago, I would not have noticed. It would be a detail that did not register.

Now, it felt like the pathetic depictions of hacking. You know the director and producers have no idea what they are showing. Still, I guess a huge 6 month old is better than a doll.

WFH and bosses

Photo by Gustavo Fring on

I work in IT, so my work is a mixture of meetings to talk about processes and working tickets. The computer systems I manage are all virtual servers in our private cloud. So, the tools I use to do my job at my desk is the same laptop I use to do my job at home.

Maybe in part because so much of my work is asynchronous, there are expectations of a lag in responses. If I send a message to a person or group, then I expect them to respond when they can. That may be instantly or in a couple days. There are tools at my disposal to get the attention of people faster if so needed. But, if I also need to step away to entertain the bored toddler and it is not a live meeting, then it is not that big of a deal. It is no different than the interruptions I get in the office from people stopping by to ask a question or make an observation.

What I didn’t expect is to have people so supportive of having a toddler present. A number of times, I have forgotten to mute myself in a meeting or the toddler unexpectedly loudly ran into the room. In every case, my coworkers or our clients have been amused about it. It elicits an amused response. When Fleur joins me, I turn on the camera and let her see my coworkers. She loves getting to see them when someone reciprocates.

The coup de grâce was my boss was waving to her with his camera on during a meeting. When the meeting ended, she was upset. So, I “called” him via the system and they got a few more minutes of interaction. I wanted to talk to him about the meeting, so once she got bored and moved on, I talked to my boss. It made me feel appreciative.

Book: Cribsheet

Cribsheet was an excellent read. An economist thinking about parenting is an appreciable departure from the normal books. This quote captures the essence best:

Your choices can be right for you but also not necessarily the best choices for other people. Why? You are not other people. Your circumstances differ. Your preferences differ. In the language of economics, your constraints differ.

When in parenting social media groups or reading blog posts, one of the hardest things is disagreement. The best choice for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another depending on circumstances. This book is more about offering how to think about the problems in a way to assess what is best for you and your spouse and your child.

Oster makes good use of showing how her the circumstances for her and her husband changed between their first and second child. So, expectations set by the first one were not necessarily appropriate for the second. And… that is okay.